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Ancient Portraits in Florence

Loredana A.

by Loredana A.

(1 reviews)
Last updated : May 14, 20245 min read

Culture

A face from the past at the National Archeological Museum in Florence provides a glimpse of painting in the Classical World.
 
An in-depth study of Renaissance art requires a study of the art of the ancient world. The term “Renaissance” itself, coined by 19th-century art historians, literally means the “rebirth” of Ancient Greek and Roman culture. This rebirth in art happened when 15th-century artists began taking inspiration from the surviving Classical works they had available to them. For architects, one of the greatest monuments was the Pantheon in Rome, a pagan temple that was spared from destruction due to its conversion into a Christian place of worship. Inspiration for sculptors came from the works that were excavated, especially in Rome.
 
The ancient Roman sculptors, great admirers of their Greek forerunners, made numerous marble copies of the original bronze Greek statues that were melted down. It is thanks to them that we have a record of the great achievement made by the ancient Greeks in sculpture. The Roman sculptors also made innovations of their own by giving us the refined art of portraiture, taking sculpture to the next level by surpassing the idealized, stylized Greek models.
 
In painting, however, original sources were more difficult to come by. Nearly all of the surviving examples were in the more durable form of mural painting. The accidental rediscovery of the Domus Aura, the “golden palace” of Emperor Nero, for example in the 16th century, provided stunning frescoes that became models for artists like Raphael. When the ancient originals were not available, Renaissance painters relied on descriptive accounts for the recreation of legendary compositions.
 
A popular source was Natural History by Pliny the Elder of the 1st century AD. Today, as a result of modern archaeology and the excavation of sites like Pompeii, we have a better idea of painting in the ancient world. But besides the mural paintings, we also have rare examples of panel paintings that have been found in the Fayum Basin of Egypt. These portraits, dating to the late 1st century BC to the 4th century AD, were created in Egypt during the time of Roman rule.
 
Deriving from the Greco-roman style of portraiture, these works fulfilled a function connected with local funerary practices. They were placed over the faces of the deceased as mummy portraits. They were painted on wooden panels with either tempera or wax-based encaustic technique originating in ancient Greece. With expressive, deep eyes and distinctive facial features, they give us incredibly realistic depictions of the deceased, with a naturalistic style inherited from the Greeks and Romans.
 
Some experts believe that the portraits were made following a standard stock figure which was then customized with details of the individual’s features to transform the faces into personalized portraits. They were made perhaps when the individual was alive and used to decorate the home, then later used on the mummy.
 
The Italian explorer Pietro della Valle brought the first of these mummy portraits to Europe in 1615. Today, numerous examples can be found in collections all over the world. The National Archaeological Museum of Florence houses a portrait of a woman brought to Florence by Ippolito Rosellini, a member of Jean-François Champollion’s Egypt expedition of the late 1820s. This portrait shows a Roman matron with hairstyle, jewelry, and clothing typical of Roman fashion of the time. Many residents of Al Fayum were not typical Egyptians, but descendants of Greek settlers who had come to the oasis after the time of Alexander the Great.
 
Egypt was absorbed into an empire that spread Greek culture over a huge, vast multiethnic territory. These Greek settlers of the Ptolemaic era kept their Greek identities while at the same time adopting some local traditions and religious rituals, including mummification. Later, during the time of Roman rule, these inhabitants became a testament to the multicultural nature of Al Fayum and its artistic production. These stunning portraits give us a glimpse of a place and time where Egyptian, Greek, and Roman influences mingled to create remarkable examples of artistic production.
 
This and other extraordinary works and artifacts from antiquity are on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence which was opened to the public in 1871. Many works, including Etruscan bronzes like the famous Chimera, were part of the collection of the Medici and the Lorraine families. Besides the Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities, the collection also comprises a large collection of Egyptian artifacts acquired during the expeditions in the late 1820s. The museum is housed in Palazzo della Crocetta, a palace built in 1620 for a member of the Medici Dynasty.
 
 

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