One of the more surprising objects in the Getty Villa’s newly reinstalled gallery of later Roman sculpture is a marble bust of a youth leaning out of a circular frame, mounted high on the gallery wall. J. Paul Getty originally acquired this particular sculpture in 1973, but it has been off view for many years. The recent reinstallation of the Getty Museum’s antiquities collection at the Villa provided the opportunity to resurrect many such objects from storage and put them on display.
Bringing this strange object back to the public eye enabled us to ask—and answer—several questions about it. Who—if anyone—does it represent? When was it carved? Where was it made, and how did it end up in Los Angeles? In preparation for its display, we researched and reinterpreted the object, exploring both its ancient function and modern history.
Revisiting and Revising Scholarship
In its new display, this object is fittingly surrounded by other examples of late Roman sculpture from the third and fourth centuries. Its inclusion in this gallery was not always a given, however, as the figure was long misidentified as a portrait of young Caracalla, who at ten years old became joint emperor with his father in A.D. 198.(1) But recent scholarship questioned the Caracalla identification and the object’s date, suggesting it was carved at least a hundred years later.(2) In light of this research, curator Jens Daehner pushed to reexamine the sculpture and consider including it in the reinstallation.
In early 2015, the Antiquities Department brought this tondo and many other potential objects for the new galleries out of storage for viewing, providing curators, conservators, mount makers, preps, and registrars a chance to approve and prepare artworks for possible display.
After the storage viewing and subsequent research, we updated the object record to conform with what scholars had suggested: this is not a second-century portrait of Caracalla but a fourth-century bust of a youth or divinity. To answer our next question of who the tondo represents, we then had to take a closer look at the curious origin and function of this sculpture type.
The Ancient Origins of Shield Portraits
Circular framed busts, today often called “tondos” or “medallion portraits,” were known in antiquity as imagines clipeatae (Latin for “shield images” or “shield portraits”). As the name implies, the circular frame is the rim of a rounded shield, a clipeus. Cast in bronze or carved out of marble, these life-size portraits were mounted high on the walls of temples, civic buildings, and private homes.(3)
Our go-to source for all things ancient, Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) tells us that Rome’s first shield portraits were set up in temples by victorious generals and depicted their ancestors.(4) Over time this portrait type made its way into the private sphere, both in the entry halls of wealthy homes and in the decoration of family tombs. In a funerary context, the heroic associations of shield portraits made them a popular way to honor the deceased on sarcophagi and tomb monuments.
Beyond representing specific family members, the portrait type was also used for deities, emperors, and famous intellectuals. The late second-century Roman Villa of Chiragan near Toulouse in southern France had a rich sculpture collection that included a series of tondos with busts of gods and mythological figures such as Juno, Minerva, Mithras, Vulcan, and Aesculapius.
On the other end of the empire in Aphrodisias in western Turkey, many imagines clipeatae have been found including a group that features Greek philosophers (Socrates, Aristotle, Pythagoras), poets (Pindar), politicians (Alcibiades), and military men (Alexander the Great). Similar groupings of thinker-writer portraits in circular frames appeared in floor mosaics across the Roman Empire; although these are not shield portraits, per se, they offer a valuable comparison.(5)
Looking beyond sculpture, imagines clipeatae occasionally appear in ancient Roman wall paintings. The Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis has several examples—a wall in the atrium is decorated with an elaborate false doorway framed by painted gold shields with lifelike busts. This wall painting gives a wonderful sense of how these objects may have been displayed. These examples speak to the popularity of shield portraits in various contexts and across media as a way for homeowners to advertise their learning and status.
Given the range of historical and mythological figures depicted on medallion busts, who might the Getty tondo represent? Based on his generic garment known as a chlamys, a short cloak fastened at one shoulder, lack of identifying attributes, and overall style, he is likely a young hero or genius (a guardian spirit). A close parallel is a tondo in Hamburg that also represents a youthful divinity.
From (Possibly) Rome to Paris to Malibu
How did this sculpture end up in Los Angeles? Although we don’t know exactly where the Getty tondo was found, we do know that it was in Paris by the late 1890s, as it was included in the 1899 sale of the Henri Hoffmann collection. It is illustrated in the sales catalogue, and the description includes the enticing note, “Found in Rome.”
This record brings up new questions about the late owner Henri Hoffmann and where he acquired his collection. Born in Hamburg in 1823, Hoffmann moved to Paris at a young age. He had a sharp eye and keen interest in coins and medals, and he became a well-respected numismatist and adviser for auction houses. He traveled widely to Italy, Greece, and the Middle East to build business connections and visit famous collections. After advising others for many years, in 1865 Hoffmann started buying antiquities for himself. Twenty years later he was called to Rome to assist in the sale of the famous Castellani collection and likely acquired a few objects during his stay.(6)
Hoffmann sold off a large portion of his collection in a two-part sale in 1886 and 1888, holding onto a few objects that “he could not part with.” (7) This sale gives an excellent sense of the geographical scope of his collection, with objects described as found in Egypt, Greece, Boetia, and specific sites in Italy and France. In the catalogue, which includes over 600 objects, about 12 are listed as “Found in Rome” and two have specific findspots.(8)
The 1899 sale is similar; of more than 600 lots, only 10, including the Getty tondo, were “Found in Rome.” The catalogue does specify if an object was “possibly” found in a certain location: for example, lot 509 includes the note, “probably found in the excavations at Olympia.” Hoffmann was a careful collector, and although it is not possible to verify, it seems likely that the Getty tondo was found in Rome sometime in the nineteenth century.
The Magic of Annotated Catalogues
What happened next? This is where the wonderful world of annotated catalogues comes to our aid. In addition to the large fully illustrated catalogue published for the 1899 sale, the auction house released a smaller, cheaper Catalogue Sommaire (summary catalogue) for quick reference. People would bring these small books to the sale, and sometimes they would write notes with final hammer prices and names of buyers.
Luckily, an annotated catalogue held by the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (Netherlands Institute for Art History) has been digitized, and it has a note next to lot 622, the Getty tondo: “Forrer 350.” Someone named Forrer bought it for 350 francs.(9) (In addition to occasionally noting prices and buyers, the mystery owner of this catalogue doodled several sketches of objects and even other people attending the sale, confirming that top hats and beards were popular at the time.)
Pinning down where the tondo went next is more complicated, as “Forrer” could refer to at least two collectors active at the turn of the century.(10) The tondo’s whereabouts are unknown for the next 70 years, despite appearing in publications in 1949 and 1969, its location as “Paris, formerly Hoffmann collection” and “once Paris art market.”
It finally reappeared in 1973 with the dealer Nicolas Koutoulakis, who was based in Paris and Geneva; he offered it to the Getty Museum. An undated dealer photograph in the Villa’s curatorial file shows the tondo much as it looks today, mostly cleaned of encrustations and with some new damage to the nose, which might have resulted from a failed restoration.(11)
The Villa’s earliest documentation for the tondo is the invoice Koutoulakis sent to Mr. Getty at Sutton Place, his residence in England, on June 2, 1973. Getty approved the purchase with his signature, “OK JPG.” The Koutoulakis invoice does not mention the Hoffmann collection provenance, which was discovered soon after it arrived at the museum.
A Return to View
By 1976, two years after the Getty Villa opened to the public, the medallion of “young Caracalla” was on view in what was then called the Mosaic Gallery (now Gallery 109). At some point before 1994, it was removed from display and moved to storage. The reinstallation therefore marks the first time the tondo has been on view in over 20 years.
On your next visit to the newly reinstalled Getty Villa, head up to the second floor and say hello to the youth in a circular frame (Gallery 207). His recent journey from the depths of storage to high on the gallery wall, where he quite fittingly frames a doorway, is now part of his much longer history connected to the Paris art market, nineteenth-century collecting, and the display of shield portraits in antiquity. He is a wonderful example of how one object can tell several stories, as well as a reminder that behind every gallery label there is always more to discover.
1. Early Getty Museum guidebooks from 1976 and 1978 identify the youth as Caracalla, as does the publication Roman Portraits in the Getty Museum (1981). But the guides concede, “The features do not correspond to the well-established sequence of his iconography.” See the object’s online catalogue record for a full bibliography.
2. Marianne Bergmann, Chiragan, Aphrodisias, Konstantinopel: Zur mythologischen Skulptur der Spätantike, Palilia 7 (Reichert: Wiesbaden, 1999), 45, 47, 51, 57, pls. 34–35.
3. For a great summary of imagines clipeatae, see Jane Fejfer, Roman Portraits in Context (Berlin: Walter de Gruyeter, 2008).
4. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 35, 3–14.
5. For a discussion of the Aphrodisias tondi and parallels, see R. R. R. Smith, “Late Roman Philosopher Portraits from Aphrodisias,” The Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990): 151.
6. At that time he almost certainly acquired a bronze statuette of Bacchus that, according to the Hoffmann auction catalogues (1886, lot 486; 1899, lot 565), was found in excavations in Rome on the Via del Babuino around 1880 during preliminary construction of the Anglican Church. It is now in the collection of the Petit Palais in Paris.
7. Wilhelm Froehner’s introductions to the 1888 and 1899 sale catalogues describe the origins and evolution of Hoffmann’s collection.
9. Accessed on Art Sales Catalogues Online, Lugt number 57247. According to the annotations, which are not complete, “Forrer” bought at least seven other objects at the sale (lots 418, 452, 453, 464, 467, 519, 616). The sale price is confirmed by another catalogue in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
10. “Forrer” may be the Swiss archaeologist and collector Robert Forrer (1866–1947, Strasbourg), who sold and donated objects—mostly from the medieval period—to museums. It could also be the coin dealer Leonard Forrer (1869–1953), who worked for Spink & Son in London and frequented auctions in Paris. Perhaps tracking down the later history of Forrer’s other purchases from the Hoffmann sale (such as lot 519, a bronze situla) would help clarify his identity.
11. The photograph is most likely from the dealer Nicolas Koutoulakis; the reverse has the dimensions noted in French, “Haut 0m, 68, (height, 68cm).”