Roman imperial women heads and French manuscript join Getty Museum collection

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Roman imperial women heads and French manuscript join Getty Museum collection
Head of a Young Woman (Small Herculaneum Woman type),25 BC–AD 25, Marble, 23 cm (9 1/16 in.), Getty Museum, VL.2021.6.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The J. Paul Getty Museum adds two exceptional marble heads of young Roman women and a mid-15th century French illuminated manuscript highlighting Western European medieval views about civilizations around the world to the collection.

“The two heads of young women are outstanding examples of Roman portraits from the Imperial period. Both heads are well-preserved and will meaningfully enhance the Getty Villa’s displays of Roman sculpture,” says Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle director of J. Paul Getty Museum. “The French manuscript brings to our collection a rare example of how people in medieval Europe viewed the world.”

The earliest of the two marble portraits, made between 25 BC and AD 25, depicts a young woman with symmetrical features and a melon coiffure hairstyle. It is among the finest preserved examples of a type of idealized head known as the Small Herculaneum Woman that originated in the early Hellenistic period (around 300 BC). She likely was intended to represent a Greek poet, priestess, or benefactor.

The statue type is named after two draped statues that were discovered at Herculaneum about 1711 (now in the Dresden State Art Museums). The sculptures were among the first discoveries from the ancient city. The Small Herculaneum Woman was one of the most popular statue types for the bodies of female portraits in the Roman Imperial period; close to 200 examples have been identified, ranging from the second century BC to the third century AD. The vast majority of these Roman statues were fitted with individualized women portraits. In an early Imperial Roman context, it would have been a public portrait of a woman honored for her role in society or as the family member of a prominent figure. The Getty head, however, is one of only seven versions that replicate the idealized head of the original Greek sculpture.

Several sculptures in the Villa’s collection are closely related to the Small Herculaneum Woman head, including one of J. Paul Getty’s favorites, the head of a young woman from a late fourth-century BC Attic grave relief. Both are of similar age and share the same melon hairstyle. Another example includes the Portrait Statue of a Woman of the Hadrianic period, which has a portrait head inserted in a body of the Small Herculaneum Woman type.

The Small Herculaneum Woman head was first recorded with the dealer Marcel Heim in Paris in 1952, when it sold to the noted collector Georges Renand (1879–1968); it remained with his heirs until it was sold at a Paris auction in 2018.

The other ancient marble, Portrait Head of a Young Woman, dates from AD 170 – 190. The portrait is exquisitely carved and a striking rendition of a young woman on the cusp of maturity. Holding her head high on a long and slender neck, the head was intended to be inserted into a separate body of a full-length statue.

Based on the extraordinary quality of the head, its unknown artist appears to be one of the best portrait sculptors of their generation, and indeed of the Roman Imperial period. Whereas other female portraits dazzle with their elaborate hairstyles, here the skill and sophistication of the artist are focused on the face itself, and its subtle features come together to form a sensitive, even tender depiction of a young woman. The unresolved expression, which seems to oscillate between alertness, reservation, pride, and anticipation, makes the sculpture particularly arresting. This ambiguity is one of the subtle characteristics that make this portrait such an observant and compelling study of a young woman.

The addition of this exceptionally fine portrait of a young woman not only adds a new highlight to our antiquities galleries, but also elevates the quality and importance of the Roman collection as a whole.

The head was first documented in 1937 in the collection of Tommaso Bertelé (1892–1971) in Rome; he owned it until the 1950s, after which it appeared on the open market in 1993, when it was purchased by the New York collector Lewis M. Dubroff.

The exceptionally rare Book of the Marvels of the World was produced in France in the mid-15th century. The richly illustrated manuscript weaves tales of foreign places based on ancient sources, medieval folklore, and the supposed travels of eyewitnesses. Organized alphabetically, the book serves as a compendium of Western European medieval views of civilizations around the known world. The extensive images in the manuscript imagine “exotic” peoples and customs in a way that captures medieval European notions about difference and the perception of outsiders.

For the armchair traveler in medieval France, the manuscript text reflects a belief that other places, while captivatingly bizarre, were also dangerously different, even if they were comfortingly far away. However, by the time this manuscript was produced, people in medieval Europe were traveling more frequently, witnessing firsthand the customs and realities of some of these places. The texts and illuminations in the manuscript are tangible evidence of both ingrained xenophobia and the seeds of the ethnographic tradition that went hand-in-hand with exploration.

The artist of the manuscript, known as the Master of the Geneva Boccaccio, was active in France from about 1445 to 1470. He is best known for his work for high-ranking members of the nobility in the circle of Duke René d’Anjou in Angers from around 1460. His style is characterized by attention to narrative details, subtle shading of drapery, individualized facial features, meticulously delineated landscapes, and lithe, elegant figures–all heightened by flashes of brilliant color.

The manuscript is missing about half its original illuminations and text in the section devoted to individual geographic locations accompanied by large miniatures. However, the miniatures that remain contain the most interesting and original iconography in the entire series, including images and subjects that are completely new to the manuscripts collection.

The manuscript has an extensive documented history dating as far back as the 16th century, although its original owner remains unknown.

The Roman heads of women will be on view at Getty Villa Museum starting in Spring 2022 and the manuscript will be displayed in an exhibition at the end of 2022.

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