Art Historical and Scientific Research
Art historians often date and authenticate works of art by looking at their style and iconography. In the case of Septimius Severus, there were disagreements among scholars as to whether the carving was consistent with Severan-era stonework and whether an emperor would have been portrayed in this style of clothing. While research indicated that both the head and torso could be ancient, it appeared they were not from the same statue. The unusual clothing led one scholar to speculate that the statue may depict Severus in eastern garb as a reference to his victories over the Parthians, who lived on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. A second possibility was that the head and torso had both been carved in the 17th century, when the conventions of Roman imperial portraiture were just beginning to be seriously studied by people such as Giustiniani. A further possibility was that even if the head and torso were not from the same statue, either or both could still have been carved in antiquity.
To help sort out these questions, VMFA researchers consulted with scholars of ancient and early modern art as well as with other institutions with sculptures from the Giustiniani collection, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chrysler Museum of Art, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. They also undertook scientific analysis to determine the origin of the marble and to identify the materials used in previous restoration efforts. This information could show how the pieces of the statue were put together, allowing conservators to remove them safely and replace unstable repairs.
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X-rays were taken to see what methods held the various parts of the sculpture together. Throughout its history, the sculpture had been repaired and reassembled using various marble pieces and supports. Researchers discovered that iron rods—typical of 17th-century practice—were inserted in some parts of the sculpture, and brass rods—generally used in the 20th century—were present in others. Additional materials had been used to fill in cracks between the sections. These materials were also analyzed to determine their composition. This information, along with the layered structure of the fills, provided a possible timeline that indicated when the parts may have been combined.
In order to determine the origin of the marble, stable isotope ratio analysis was carried out on six different samples from the major fragments. Results of the analysis showed that the marble of the neck, arms, and lower legs was a type of Cararra marble that was used extensively in Italy and only available during the Renaissance. The marble of the head and torso came, respectively, from Mt. Pentilikon, near Athens, and the Aegean island of Paros. The most likely period for Pentelic and Parian marbles to be used in Rome is antiquity, when the city was the center of a thriving marble trade throughout the Mediterranean.
With this information, researchers concluded that the head and torso were created in antiquity. But this didn’t tell them when the pieces were brought together—in antiquity or during the Renaissance? Ancient statues were often made from several pieces of marble or combined different types of stone. Sometimes a block of marble proved too small for a patron’s—or artist’s— conception of the finished work. Some marbles were more prestigious than others; for instance, the head might be carved from a more expensive marble than the body. It was also common to carve the head and body separately, so that a customized portrait could be inserted into a standardized body. Typically, an added head had a tenon below the neck that fit into a hole between the shoulders. The physical evidence on this sculpture does not support this theory. Instead, it seems that the head and torso belonged to separate works of art that were damaged and later combined. At some point, perhaps in Giustiniani’s time, these two fragments were joined into a single piece, and then the lower part of the legs, the arms, most of the neck and lower face, and elements of the drapery and hair were added to create a complete, monumental statue of Septimius Severus.
The remaining questions pertained to the original contexts of the torso and head. The torso shows a male body wearing clothes similar to those shown in statues and reliefs produced from the mid-2nd century and into the 3rd century (around the time of Septimius Severus). Without the original arms, legs, or head, it is impossible to determine who was originally portrayed.