Left: Torso of a Roman Emperor, c. late 1st - early 2nd century A.D. Roman. Marble. Height: 119.4 cm (47 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Anonymous loan, 3.2011. Right:Head of Mars, 2nd century A.D. Roman. Marble. 59.2 x 29.5 x 37.8 cm (23 1/3 x 11 5/8 x 14 7/8 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Katherine K. Adler Memorial Fund, 1984.1.
In the cities of the Roman Empire, sculpture was an indispensable element of the secular and religious spheres, and it permeated daily life in Roman society in a way that has no modern equivalent. Sculptures depicting a variety of subjects existed in both public and private settings and served decorative, commemorative, and religious functions. Figures of gods and goddesses were housed in temples; full-length portraits of statesmen crowded the streets; and relief sculptures adorned public monuments.
Portrait Bust of a Woman, A.D. 140/50. Roman. Marble; 64.8 x 47.6 x 27.3 cm (25 1/2 x 18 3/4 x 10 3/4 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Restricted gifts of The Antiquarian Society in honor of Ian Wardropper, the Classical Art Society, Mr. and Mrs. Isak V. Gerson, James and Bonnie Pritchard, and Mrs. Hugo Sonnenschein; Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Bro Fund; Katherine K. Adler, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Alexander in honor of Ian Wardropper, David Earle III, William A. and Renda H. Lederer Family, Chester D. Tripp, and Jane B. Tripp endowments, 2002.11.
Certain sculptural types were appropriate for specific settings. For example, statues of athletes were suitable for display in a gymnasium, while life-sized portraits of renowned statesmen were placed in the forum, the center of Roman political life. Portraits of family members could be displayed in the foyer of a home, perhaps alongside portraits of ancestors and living relatives. This striking portrait of a woman might have been displayed in such a location.
Statuette of Hercules, 2nd century A.D. Roman. Bronze; 22 x 11.4 x 8.6 cm (8 11/16 x 4 1/2 x 3 3/8 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Katherine K. Adler Memorial Fund, 1978.308.
At a time when the majority of people were illiterate, sculptures functioned as a visual language, which was encoded with messages that could be “read” by considering the sculpture’s imagery and its context of display. For example, this statuette depicts the hero Hercules wearing a wreath of grape leaves, a symbol of the wine god Dionysus. It was likely displayed in a Roman home and alluded to the drinking that occurred during private dinner parties.