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Getty Villa adds first-century Roman bust

by Joseph D. Thompson

We are fascinated by ancient cultures.

In the Western world, Rome, Greece, and Egpyt fill our minds with wonder. We can’t get enough.

“In the Western world, Greek and Roman art, architecture, and aesthetics have been foundational to the way Westerners see and understand the world. This is true for the visual arts as much as it is for literature, performance, philosophy, and the sciences,” explained Jens Daehner, Associate Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Today, many people are fascinated for many different reasons apart from cultural affinity: The power of myth. The history of empires.”

The Getty Museum recently acquired an early first-century marble bust of the Roman general Germanicus, adopted son of Tiberius and father of Caligula.

Germanicus bust
Germanicus (15 BC-AD 19) was a successful general and immensely popular with both the military and Roman citizenry. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“This stunning portrait bust adds an extraordinary sculpture to the Villa’s collection of Roman portraits,” said Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “It is among the finest and best-preserved portraits of the young Germanicus at the time of his adoption in AD 4 by his uncle, the soon-to-be Roman emperor Tiberius and complements nicely other Roman busts in the antiquities collection at the Villa.”

Roman general died young

The bust depicts the young Germanicus before the depositio barbae, the Roman ritual first shaving of the beard. While the image, or portrait type, was created at the time of his adoption, this bust is a posthumous portrait of the popular general, who was being groomed to be emperor but died young.

Only ten copies are known today of Germanicus’ “Adoption type” portrait—identified by the facial features and careful arrangement of the locks of hair over the forehead.

Quite a few likenesses of Germanicus still exist today in sculpture, gems (including some large cameos), and also coins.

“Of course, we only have a tiny fraction of the number of images once produced. Many of those, like our new bust, were in fact made after Germanicus’ death as he remained immensely popular. During the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, he was given renewed attention,” said Daehner.

Germanicus (15 BC-AD 19) was a successful general and immensely popular with both the military and Roman citizenry, yet he never ascended the throne because of his death at the age of 33, five years into Tiberius’ reign. The circumstances of his death have been deemed suspicious and linked to his recall of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria. Germanicus received extensive posthumous honors decreed by the senate and was venerated as Rome’s version of Alexander the Great.

Famous family on display

In joining the Getty Villa Museum’s collection of Roman portrait sculpture, this bust complements the museum’s strong holdings of Julio-Claudian imperial portraits on display, including the portrait of Germanicus’ grandmother, Octavia Minor; the chalcedony bust of his mother, Antonia Minor; the marble portraits of his son, Caligula, and daughter, Agrippina the Younger; as well as marble heads of his paternal uncle and adoptive father, Tiberius, and his great uncle, Augustus.

The bust was long part of the collection of the Earls of Elgin and Kincardine and may have been acquired in Rome as early as 1798 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin (1766–1841). It stayed with Elgin’s heirs at Broomhall House in Scotland until 2012 when it was sold at auction in New York to a private collector.

The bust will first be displayed in December 2021 as part of an exhibition highlighting new acquisitions called “Recent Acquisitions 2021: Collecting for the Museum,” located at the Getty Center, and then go on permanent view at the Getty Villa Museum in the Early Roman Imperial Sculpture gallery in 2022.

“We will install Germanicus right next to our portraits of two of his children, namely Caligula and Agrippina the Younger,” said Daehner.

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