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The Modesty of the Ancients

An Unedited Face from 2,300 Years Ago

An Unedited Face from 2,300 Years Ago

Going to a great art museum always makes me think. Although my two most recent posts regarding my visit to the Getty Center on Saturday are (partly) repeats, there is one thing that hit me between the eyes: In the exhibit entitled “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World ,” I saw that in the ancient world, verisimilitude took precedence over vanity. In the bust of Seuthes III (above), a Thracian monarch, for example, we have a face that does not attempt to prettify its subject. If the face on the statue was not considered to be recognizable to viewers, it was a failure. Unlike today, there was no equivalent to “Photoshopping.”

The same goes for Roman coins. Consider the following examples:

The Emperor Nero

The Emperor Nero

With that massive bull neck, the Emperor Nero was no beauty, yet all representations of him from his day do not hesitate to show his bad features, of which there were many.

The same goes for the Emperor Nerva:

The Emperor Nerva with Massive Schnozz

The Emperor Nerva with Massive Schnozz

Now here is a case of a look that a good plastic surgeon could do something about with a rhinoplasty. Nerva reminds me of that exchange in W.C. Fields’s The Bank Dick (1940):

Boy in Bank: Mommy, doesn’t that man have a funny nose?
Mother in Bank: You mustn’t make fun of the gentleman, Clifford. You’d like to have a nose like that full of nickels, wouldn’t you?