Looking an Empress in the Eye

RISD Museum
Nov 19, 2014 9:08PM

From her high pedestal in the gallery, she looks down at us. We gaze up, noting her broad forehead, large eyes set below thin eyebrows, bow-shaped lips, square jaw, dimpled chin. Coiled ringlets frame her face and her wavy hair is gathered at the back to form several braids. In ancient Rome, this portrait would have been installed just as high, if not higher. The woman depicted is an empress, after all. This is a portrait of Agrippina the Younger, who lived 15–59 CE, one of the most powerful women in ancient Rome. She was related to all of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the first five emperors of Rome, and was great-granddaughter of Augustus, great-niece and adoptive granddaughter of Tiberius, sister of Caligula, niece and fourth wife of Claudius, and mother of Nero. Ancient Roman writers criticized Agrippina as ambitious and ruthless, likely because she ventured far beyond the boundaries of the prescribed role of women in Roman society. She is said to have written a memoir, now lost, but her portraits give us an idea of how she wished to be represented during her lifetime.

Portraits of Agrippina the Younger invariably depict her facial features—most notably the slightly protruding upper lip and small chin—as resembling those of her brother, Caligula. This is not unusual. Members of the imperial family underscored their elevated position in Roman society by evoking the appearance of the ruling emperor in their own likenesses. Ubiquitous in Rome and throughout the empire, portraits of the emperor and his family adorned public squares, baths, markets, theaters, libraries, and temples. These portraits made the imperial family present to Roman citizens. In the first few centuries of the Common Era, Rome dominated a vast territory, without the benefit of modern mass media. In that world, visual art provided an important mode of communication. It is in that context that we must imagine this portrait of Agrippina, which was likely originally attached to a draped body.

Agrippina’s portraits spoke of power and her important role in Julio-Claudian dynastic succession. During the reign of her brother, Caligula, Agrippina appeared in statuary groups with her younger sisters, Livilla and Drusilla. Together the sisters formed an important element of Caligula’s imperial imagery, even appearing on coins. After Agrippina married Claudius, she was portrayed as an empress. She was also honored as Nero’s co-ruler in the early years of her son’s reign.

Only the marble head of this portrait is ancient. The creamy white marble was imported from the Greek island of Paros. Prized for its luminous translucency, Parian marble was imported for imperial portraits, and the workmanship here is worthy of both the material and the subject. The surfaces are sensitively rendered, from the polished smoothness of the skin, to the fleshiness of the cheeks and their underlying bone structure, to the shadowed depth of the spaces between the eyes and brows, to the dramatic and varied treatment of the hair. The use of a tiny drill is evident in the thin, undulating line separating her lips; a larger drill was employed in the curls that frame her face. Agrippina’s pupils were once painted, as were her hair and lips, and a touch of pink may have colored her cheeks. Ancient statues of white marble were typically painted, often in vivid colors.

The magnificent bust into which the ancient head is inserted is not itself ancient, but it does give us an idea of the coloristic effect of ancient statuary. A taupe-colored tunic, a draped green mantle, and a socle (or simple pedestal) comprise the bust. Both the tunic and mantle are composed of pieces of stone joined together with mortar. The banded cream and taupe stone of the tunic is calcite or, more accurately, travertine (often erroneously called Egyptian alabaster). The green mantle is made up of many pieces of verde antico, a serpentinite-marble breccia from Thessaly in northern Greece. The socle is of Sangarian marble. In style and form, the closest parallels to the composite bust date to the 18th century, and it is likely that the ancient head was acquired in Rome and subsequently inserted into a bust for display. (Wealthy aristocrats often returned home from the Grand Tour with souvenirs to decorate their homes.) Before the portrait was acquired by the RISD Museum in 1956, it was owned by the Marchioness of Linlithgow, and probably displayed in Hopetoun House in Scotland, home of the Earl of Hopetoun (later the Marquess of Linlithgow). Its function then did not stray too far from its original role in antiquity, to designate power and to highlight status, this time for a British earl.

Here at the RISD Museum, the portrait of Agrippina provides us with insight into one of ancient Rome’s most colorful and powerful women. The portrait gives us hints about how Roman sculptors made portraits, and how 18th-century sculptors incorporated ancient elements into “new” compositions. It teaches us that individual objects can have long and often complex histories. But above all, the portrait demonstrates the lasting power of images.

—Gina Borromeo, Curator of Ancient Art  

Read more on the RISD Museum's website.


Behen, Michael J., in Diana Kleiner and Susan Matheson, eds. I Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome (New Haven, 1996), 62.

Clark, A. M., “An Agrippina,” Bulletin of the Rhode Island School of Design, Museum Notes 44 (May 1958) 3–5, 10.

Ridgway, Brunilde S., Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Classical Sculpture (Providence, 1972) 86–87, 201–204.

Wood, Susan E., “Diva Drusilla Panthea and the Sisters of Caligula,”American Journal of Archaeology 99 (1995): 457–82.

Wood, Susan E., Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 BC–AD 68 (Boston, 1999), with earlier references.

For their generous help in testing and identifying the different marbles, the author extends her many thanks to the following geologists: Peter Gromet (Brown University), James Harrell (University of Toledo), Norman Herz (University of Georgia), Lorenzo Lazzarini (University of Venice).

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