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Ancient Roman Sculpture, Portrait Busts, and Realism

Rome, Italy

While Roman sculptors famously copied idealized Greek originals, and dramatic scenes of myths, they specialized in ultra-realistic, warts-and-all portrait busts.

Complete Video Script

[63] While centuries earlier, the Greeks idealized — with each goddess a classic beauty — the Romans added their own characteristic twist: realism…more down-to-earth, showing an intimate side of everyday Roman life. They decorated their homes with often-whimsical statues and fountains.

[64] This statue captures a peaceful moment, as a boy patiently pulls a thorn from his foot. And this tipsy faun is a playful reminder of a Roman trait that survives to this day — their fondness for good food and fine wine. Besides noble gods, they sculpted real people from all aspects of Roman life…no longer so idealized…but realistically.

[65, Farnese Bull, second-third century BC, National Archaeological Museum, Naples] Not only did the Romans copy the Greek style, they supersized it. These huge statues once decorated a bath house. The centerpiece — the largest intact statue from antiquity — tells a story that comes with a moral. Roman mythology was part of their religion, and it was often used to teach preferred societal values.

[66] This art tells a story with a message: once upon a time, an evil queen was tied to a raging bull. The action is masterfully captured. You can almost hear the bull snorting. While the myth is a long story, anyone visiting this bath house and passing this statue would be reminded quite graphically of its moral — that in Rome, justice prevails.

[67, marble busts mostly from Vatican Museums and Capitoline Museums, Rome] The Romans sculpted ultra-realistic, warts-and-all portrait busts of themselves — people like you'd meet on the streets, 2,000 years ago. The Romans revered their ancestors and family (much like Italians do today), so wealthy Romans commissioned statues of dad and grandpa for their homes. They also needed busts of their leaders to post (as we do even today) at official places all over town. As you look into their eyes, you really get a sense of these everyday people — the proud citizens who built and ran Rome.

[68] While ancient Rome's architecture was monumental, its portraits — whether sculpted or painted — humanize the Romans. They were just people like you and me…without electricity.