Exhibition: Anonymous, roman era - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The guest work


2015-07-14 • 2015-11-02

Anonymous, roman era

Portrait of an Old Man

Mogrobejo Hall

Sponsored by the Banco Santander Foundation, the 50th edition of The Guest Work programme brings an archaeological piece to the Museum for the first time. It is a Roman portrait dating from the last quarter of the 1st century BC, at the beginning of the Augustan age. It comes from the Municipal Archaeological Museum, Jerez de la Frontera.

The latest piece to be presented as part of the Guest Work programme is a life-size portrait of a man from the Mesas de Asta archaeological site, the old Hasta Regia colony mentioned by Hispano-Roman sources. The site is some 11 km northwest of the city of Jerez de la Frontera, one of the most important areas of the lower Guadalquivir from Tartessian times.

Done in white medium-grained marble, the sculpture is 36 cm in height and is generally well-conserved, although some small fractures are appreciable in the nose; there are also several imperfections on the right side of the chin and the forehead. One unusual feature is the hollowed space in the left ear and smoothing in the right ear and the occipital zone, which strongly suggests retouching work in a subsequent phase. On the base of the neck the typical preparation for fitting the piece onto a body can be seen.

It was found in the 19th century at what may well have been a necropolis of this ancient city, during construction work on the Jerez-Trebujena road, meaniing it might have been part of a funerary statue. The work remained in private hands until the 1940s, when it became part of the Jerez Municipal Archaeological Museum collection, where it is usually on display.

Manuel Esteve Guerrero originally published this finely observed, beautifully executed portrait. Antonio García y Bellido included it in his essay on Roman art and it has subsequently been analyzed and discussed by a number of researchers.

In her recent study entitled Roman Portraits in La Bética region, professor Pilar León suggests this is in all probability an imported work from the beginning of Augustus's reign. It would have been kept in regional workshops as a paradigm of the style that was just then coming into its own.

The subject is an older man who seems to look into the distance: the faintest of smiles plays on his thin lips. Time has etched deep marks on his face: he sports crow's feet, wrinkles and folds just before the ears and on the neck. Flab and veins are marked out at the sunken temples. What's left of his hair is cut short, almost shaved, and the hairline is in full retreat above the forehead.

Very much in the line of traditional Republican realism in the Caesarian mode, the work makes no concession to idealism. The portrait would appear to be of a member of the city elite and is one of the most outstanding examples illustrating the early stages of Roman portraiture in Hispania.


Text: Rosalía González Rodríguez
Director. Municipal Archaeological Museum, Jerez de la Frontera


Anonymous, roman era
Portrait of an Old Man
Beginning of the Augustan era (last quarter of 1st century BC)
Marble. 36 x 16 x 21 cm
Municipal Archaeological Museum, Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz