With its flat, softly rendered planes and ancient marble’s polished surface, this unrestored statue’s modelling and stylistic development probably place it within the mid to late-Hadrianic period, an age widely considered to be the zenith of most forms of Roman sculpture. Carved in the round; the marble statue’s reverse is as perfectly proportioned as its anterior. Such attention to detail suggests it was commissioned as a decorative, versus votive, work of art, to be displayed where it would be viewed from all sides.
That the torso’s eventual setting — versus merely its form — was a consideration from conception, would have been partly the legacy of the Roman author, architect and engineer, Vitruvius. In his extensive 1st century BC work, ‘De Architectura’, Vitruvius wrote of how a statue’s purpose was to enhance and contextualise its architectural surroundings. Citing how the incongruous placement of statues in Asia Minor’s Alabanda had acquired the city a reputation for poor judgement, he illustrated how the disregard of basic Roman decorum adversely affected the opinions of others. The Vitruvian aesthetic — the importance of a sculpture’s relationship to its surrounding — holds as true now as it did then.
From the late Republican period onward, the finest sculptures in the Roman world were of Greek origin. While, undoubtedly, Empire-builders par excellence, the Romans themselves lacked artistic flair and were as hugely aware of their own limitations as they were appreciative of their neighbours’ superior creative talent. With scarce Roman artists of note, actual Roman statues were few and far between. Consequently, by the middle of the 1st century BC, workshops founded and led by Greek sculptors were numerous throughout Rome itself, and its Empire.
With its defined musculature and sculptural reference to classical Greece, a natural assumption is that the torso is that of an athlete. However, it is plausible, albeit speculative, that it is Antinous: Emperor Hadrian’s young Bithynian Greek servant. The most highly educated and intellectual of all the Roman Emperors, Hadrian was both an amateur architect and a confirmed Grecophile, to the extent that it earned him the nickname ‘Graeculus’ (the Greekling). The third of the so-called ‘Five Good Emperors’, Hadrian’s love for Antinous has been well documented. The boy spent his youth as Hadrian’s favoured companion, but his death, in mysterious circumstances in 130 AD, brought their relationship to an abrupt end.
Seeking to preserve the memory of his beloved, an inconsolable Hadrian commissioned Greek sculptors to produce statues of Antinous, up until his own death in 138 AD. A move that British historian, Caroline Vout, described as “The last independent creation of Greco-Roman art” (Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome, 2007).
Such was Hadrian’s grief that the Greek world — no doubt eager to show due reverence to the most important man on earth — honoured both the desolate Emperor and his dead lover by following suit. As such, commemorative statues of Antinous became commonplace. Ranging from life-sized works to portrait busts, they were based, it’s believed, on official models sent out to the regions’ workshops to be replicated. Great care was taken to immortalise the youth’s proportions in meticulous detail. So, while local variations in portraiture-style were acceptable, Antinous’ distinguishing features, from his ruffled curls to his well-honed chest, remained instantly recognisable. As noted by Vote (in her 2005 work: Antinous, Archaeology, History), more images have been identified of Antinous than of any other figure in classical antiquity, with the exceptions of Augustus and Hadrian. One of the most significant surviving examples remains the full-length nude statue discovered in Greece in 1894, during excavations of Delphi’s Temple of Apollo.
In 2000, the remains of a temple complex devoted to Antinous were discovered at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. The grandest villa in the Roman Empire, the Imperial residence’s 120-hectares provided a bespoke backdrop for Hadrian’s magnificent statuary collection. For example, the long pool known as the Canopus was completed at one end with a series of open archways, each enclosing a decorative classical sculpture. At its height, the villa was filled with the Emperor’s own creations and commissioned works, including replicas of Greek masterpieces of sculpture. However, during the 17th and 18th centuries — a time when Northern European patrons sought Roman sculptures for sale — most of the ancient statues were removed. They now reside in major European and North American collections.
Just as the Renaissance and Baroque Royal Courts of Europe dictated the art and architectural fashions of the 1500s to the early-1700s; so the court of Imperial Rome, under Emperor Hadrian, extended extraordinary influence over the creative Roman arts of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.
So revered was Greek craftsmanship that the demand for ‘retrospective’ artworks based on the Hellenistic classical period sustained into the 2nd century, by the middle of which reverential statues of Roman magistrates filled the Roman forum. In the same way that contemporary works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Antony Gormley are highly-prized today, so the cultured classes of Rome looked to marble sculpture to demonstrate their wealth, good taste and high standing.
With no renowned Roman sculpture school of the time, the statuary workshops of Greece and Asia Minor found themselves increasingly catering to a Roman and Italian clientele, intent on following the fashion of the day. As life in the Roman world became increasingly sophisticated, so ownership of ornamental, Hellenistic ‘statement’ works (of a style akin to the Janus Arts’ Roman marble torso sculpture), became de rigueur. Indeed, where works were signed, the language used was more often Greek than Latin.
Excavated in the culturally Greek-dominated world in Asia Minor, the Janus sculpture’s refinement of form places it firmly within this Greco-Roman tradition of decorative statuary. Sculpture of this period and quality is highly sought. Comparable examples can be found in both national museums and private institutions. Indeed, a similar work is in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Object 79.AA.146); Getty having been the 20th-century’s foremost collector and connoisseur of ancient sculpture.
Remarkably, this Roman marble torso sculpture has survived unscathed in its unrestored condition; the majority of ancient statuary available today having been cleaned and ‘restored’ during the 18th and 19th centuries, in keeping with the visual ideal of the Grand Tour aesthetic. Works of such original quality are an extreme rarity on the open market.