Headless Bust Depicting Hadrian

The fragment of an ancient bust, which has been in our collection for more than 110 years, has been identified with the help of new scientific examinations. These have focused on the characteristic outfit worn by the person depicted and on the material of the statue, and have shown that the headless bust represents the Roman emperor, Hadrian; moreover, it is one of only four known examples of this portrait type.

Visitors can see the statue at the present display of the new mini exhibition series of the Collection of Classical Antiquities, entitled Mouseion. Mouseion was launched after the re-opening of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2018 and is a continuation of its successful predecessor (Highlighted Works of Art, winter 2003 – winter 2014).

The fragmentary bust, which was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in 1908, reveals very little at first sight. The head is missing, the man only wears a cloak fastened with a fibula on the bare left shoulder, and a strap across his chest. How can this lead to the identification of the depicted person?

The cloak and the strap are easy to identify. The former is a paludamentum, typically worn by Roman military commanders and indicating their rank, while the latter is a sword strap. The bust thus represents a soldier and military commander. Hans Rupprecht Goette – an archaeologist in Berlin and one of the authors of the forthcoming sculpture catalogue of the Collection of Classical Antiquities – also recognized the significance of the double sword strap twisted on the chest. This seemingly insignificant, minute detail helped him to identify the depicted person, since, apart from the Budapest statue, this motif only occurs on three other Roman busts that show a youth with curly hair and a beard. The Budapest bust was once probably also complemented with a similar head.

The youth in question can be easily identified based on Roman coins: he is Hadrian, who was emperor of Rome between 117 and 138 AD (prior to that he acted as the governor of Pannonia). This portrait type differs from the usual representation of the emperor and was only used for a very short period: in 118 AD, when Hadrian ascended the throne, and at the very end of his rule. The style of the bust supports the later dating, so the statue must have been made around 137–138 AD.

Through the course of a research project, now nearing completion, Danielle Decrouez (Geneva) and her colleagues analysed samples from all the marble statues in the Collection of Classical Antiquities to determine where the stones were quarried. This statue was shown to have been carved of Göktepe marble. This type of marble has only recently been discovered in Turkey, next to the ancient city of Aphrodisias. Göktepe marble was regarded as the best quality marble in the 2nd century AD and was used to carve the highest quality sculptures made for members of the ruling class and the emperor. Finally, another detail: there is a mushroom-like support at the back of the bust; this shape is typical of Athenian sculpture workshops.

In summary, the bust carved by an Athenian sculptor in the best-quality (Göktepe) marble depicts Hadrian, emperor of Rome, at the end of his life (around 137–138 AD) as a youthful, heroized general.