The masculine ideal of “The race that wears the toga”

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11 Scopus citations


Naturalistic and expressive portraiture is considered one of the great achievements of Roman art. Yet such Roman honorific portraits as the Naples Claudius (fig. 1), its athletic nude body of heroic type surmounted by the jowly visage of the aging gourmand, will get a laugh from most audiences today. The comedy proceeds from an aesthetic disjunction, perceived since Winckelmann, between portrait head, conceived as Roman, and ideal body, conceived as Greek. Only this modern aesthetic, supported by the continuing prestige of Greek male nude statuary, allows assertions like that of R. R. R. Smith, that Roman nude portraits are a covert revenge of enslaved Greek sculptors on their barbarian masters. 1 That Roman elite men could be commemorated to their own satisfaction in statues like the Claudius implies conceptions of ideal masculine bodies fundamentally different from our own. But later Body Beautiful ideologies are so naturalized in our aesthetic experience that most interpreters of the Roman heroic male nude take refuge in iconography. The nude body is merely an iconographic attribute of the individual really represented in the portrait head. It signifies a cultural position, such as espousal of Greek political or merely literary culture; or a role, such as Hellenistic ruler or divine autocrat; or it symbolizes a virtuous aspect of character. 2 Such coherent and serious messages would preclude or supersede perception of aesthetic incoherence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-30
Number of pages7
JournalArt Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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