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Portraiture and memory in Ancient Rome

The Roman concept of the family sees the male as the centre paterfamilias the sole subject by right, and the representation of the family takes on a particular social value, often linked to claims of status, whether real or desired. The great impetus given by the Romans to the art of the portrait is important: funerary portraiture was revived, with wax masks that fixed the features of the deceased and from which they could draw portraits in terracotta. These masks could be carried in procession during the funerals of other members of the family, in a large commemoration of ancestors and family history. From the masks they moved on to marble and bronze busts, works created with an extraordinary realism. These images of the dead were central in the homes of the patricians. They were originally stored together with the Lares and Penates, protective deities of the family, and were a hallmark of the family’s nobility.

A famous example of a Roman family portrait is that of Severan Tondo, one of the few examples of panel painting of antiquity to have survived to this day. It represents the family of Emperor Septimius Severus and, as you will notice, the face of one of the sons, Geta, was deleted in an example of damnatio memoriae (“Condemns in the memory”) – a penalty in Roman law that erased the memory of the enemies of Rome and the Senate. In this case, it was desired by Geta’s brother, Caracalla, who was also the instigator of his murder. The ancient city of Pompeii provides further evidence: the wall paintings of the houses were often devoted to scenes of family, mythological, or everyday life.