Cornelius Vermeule 1953 [updated as to locations and with object references, 2011]
Included among the following are the heads which form busts rather than statue fragments, herms or terminal figures and antique busts on which modern heads have been restored. Aside from the first two herm-type busts of the bearded and infant Dionysos (Vermeule 406 and 407), the balance of the group, like so many collections formed in the later neoclassical period, comprises Roman Portrait Busts, either the antique object or a remade ensemble of late eighteenth century date.
To Renaissance and Neo Classic minds perhaps nothing conjured up the nostalgia of Roman grandeur more quickly than the vast collection of portrait sculpture surviving from later Republican and Imperial times and now mainly distributed throughout the museums of Europe and America. Roman portrait sculpture, in the round, in triumphal relief, or on coinage, sets its stamp so firmly on Renaissance taste that until the late Nineteenth Century few great personages thought of having themselves commemorated in these media without the trappings of Hellenistic and Roman majesty; the suirass, the toga, the himation, the laurel crown, etc. An example close at hand is the veritable centrepiece of the Museum - the bust of Sir John Soane by Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841), set amid the busts and cinerary vases of the Dome.
With the discovery that the fresh supplies of Graeco-Roman sculptured portrait, gem, and numismatic material coming to light daily preserved accurately the features of great and minor personages of antiquity, the antiquarians of the Renaissance and succeeding centuries began the great game of trying to match up the marble portraits with those of inscribed coins and literary references. In the cases of the long ruling and well commemorated Emperors of the great days, Augustus, Trajan, the Antonines, Septimus Severus, this was not difficult. Men with pronounced features such as Socrates, Vespasian or Caracalla were soon assigned their marble memorials (although a Dionysos and Satyr type, discussed under sarcophagus fragment Vermeule 304 (M744), was long known as "Alcibiades and Socrates"). But when it came to matching the great mass of anonymous portrait statues with the unrecognized but desired greats of antiquity - such as Pompey, Cicero, Mark Anthony, Horace, and Seneca, the Baroque and Neoclassical era antiquaries gave way to the wildest of fancy. Any portrait or even idealisation which might pass as a 'name' whether or not the resemblance was slight or another face had already received the name was duly inscribed and passed off as "Agrippina", "Sappho", or "Alexander the Great". The wishful thinking was intensified by carving the subject's name on the (often restored) base or pedestal in an attempt to heighten the authenticity. Lead by scholars such as Professor J. J. Bernoulli, who published no. 409 (M779) in his great study Romische Ikonographie, and the late Dr. F. Poulsen, who "rediscovered" the unrestored busts in the Catacombs of the Museum1, modern scientific archaeology has corrected this tendency and rejected all but the most plausible attributions. A great number of portrait busts, however, particularly in the older galleries, still bear the fanciful names inscribed or painted on them in a bygone age; among private collections, the beautifully displayed marbles at Wilton House, Wiltshire, are an excellent nearby example. These busts with "restored" inscriptions are not to be confused with the genuine ancient name inscriptions such as the much restored but iconographically valuable Apsley House bust of Cicero, (this can be compared with Soane Gems, V831 (DS 256) and V834 (DS46), for this and related identifications; the names assigned the ancient and later portrait stones in this and other collections illustrate the practice in the medium); the copies of Hellenistic philosopher busts, usually in herm form, with genuine Greek inscriptions have been the basis for identifying often much superior, uninscribed copies of the same original portraits. So strong has been the bias towards Roman portraiture for iconographic purposes that only at this writing are antique portraits beginning to be judged in modern terms - for their artistic merit rather than merely for the identification of their subject.
When Soane was forming his collection, the tradition of arbitrary name portrait-identification was dying hard. For example, the Roman copy of the Westmacott Athlete type head was acquired at Lord Berwick's Sale in 1827 as "A bust of Augustus Caesar when a boy". The head of a beardless, lean man with bony cheeks and protruding mouth, Vermeule 415 (M775) which bears a distant resemblance to Julius Caesar is inscribed "Lucius Antonius" on the chest. The ensemble which Soane purchased at Lord Mendip's Sale in 1802, was rightly seen by Dr. F. Poulsen to comprise a Neoclassical forgery, set on a Roman second century bust. The "name" was of course added at this time. The bust of an old woman with bony face (Vermeule 417; M973) bears the name "Julia Livia Augusta" on the modern pedestal. Our amazement increases when we discover that the bust is inscribed in Greek with a dedication to Felicitas and that the head is a forgery from a third century Imperial portrait of the time of the Empresses Otacilia Severa and Herennia Etruscilla (245-255 AD). The fact that the group was purchased in 1823 at the sale of Nollekens the sculptor-restorer's effects is perhaps a suspicion as to the authorship of the head. Whether or not Soane believed all these identifications, he certainly had every reason to, since similar designations appeared in the sales catalogues and were accepted by many more archaeologically versed than Soane; the dubiousness of the heads themselves certainly escaped notice until comparatively recent times. Finally, we must note that the six unrestored and iconographically valuable Roman Imperial busts - the five in the Catacombs [now, as at 2011, around the sarcophagus and the Augustan bust (Vermeule 408) in the Study Cupboard, were not even listed separately by Michaelis and as mentioned, remained unpublished until Dr. Poulsen's work after the First World War. Of the five in the Catacombs [now around the sarcophagus], (Polydeukes Vermeule 410; Young man of Antonine Period Vermeule 411; Young man of Antonine Period Vermeule 412; Man of Antonine Period Vermeule 413; Private Citizen Vermeule 414) their first notice appears in A.T. Bolton's first Description (published in 1920, shortly after Poulsen's visit) as "probably of Romano-British origin"; this is repeated in the 1930 Description (p.73) and was stressed by Dr. Poulsen in his Portraits, which appeared in the interval (in 1923)2. Since at least three (Polydeukes V410; Young man of Antonine Period V411; Young man of Antonine Period V412) appear to represent Greeks and are of Greek island marble (also Polydeukes V410), the authority for terming these persons Romano-British is slender indeed. Our ideas of portraiture in Roman Britain have, however, been recently stimulated by the discovery of the later Antonine busts at Lullingstone in Kent3.
1 These busts have now been returned to their original positions on short fluted columns around the sarcophagus.
2 R. Poulsen, Portraits, p. 26, 95.
3 See Journal of Roman Studies, XL. 1950, p. 112, pl. X, XII.