Head of a Victorious Athlete

Marble Height 33 cm (13 in.) Roman - early Imperial period after Greek original

This finely executed head of a youth wearing a ribbon across his forehead, dating to the early Imperial period, is a Roman marble inspired by Greek fifth-century B.C. prototypes. The headband, known in ancient Greek as tainia, was awarded for athletic prowess and identifies the statue as the representation of an athlete. It appears that, alongside palm or other branches, tainia were given to winners immediately after their contests. Later, during a ceremony, they would receive the prize customary for the specific competition they had taken part in. The birthplace of the Olympic games, ancient Greece highly valued athletic contests, and winners were rewarded with conspicuous honours and privileges, which included in some cases the erection of sculptures to their everlasting memory.

The youthful, flawless features and serene expression of our athlete are characteristic of the idealised portrayal of the human figure that typified classical Greek sculpture in the fifth century B.C., and that would be admired and revisited in Imperial Rome. Specific features include the hair centrally parted and combed in soft waves that curl around the ears and emerge from under the tainia, the arching of the brows outlined in perfect symmetry, the regular, almond-like shape of the eyes and the slightly parted, rounding lips. These can be found in comparable Roman statuary after Greek classical models, such as the Metropolitan Museum’s Diadoumenos, a full-length representation of an athlete tying a ribbon to his head, the early-Imperial Head of the Doryphoros now in the Museo Giovanni Barracco in Rome, and the Head of an Amazon in the Musei Capitolini, Rome.

Rome’s conquest of Greece had begun, in the Republican period, with the Roman victory at the Battle of Corinth in 146 B.C. As Roman presence in Greece intensified, so did the invaders’ interest in the exquisitely fine paintings and statuary they encountered in their new province. As the Roman poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) wrote, “Once conquered, Greece in turn conquered its uncivilised captor, and brought the arts to rustic Latium” (“Graecia capta, ferum victorem cepit, et artes intulit agresti Latio”, Horace, Epistulae, book II, 1:156). To some extent an overstatement, this phrase certainly captures the undeniable influence Greek art had on its Roman counterpart. Indeed, owning works of art of Greek origin or inspired by Greek models became amongst Roman citizens a mark of both education and wealth, and such works gradually came to adorn not only private residences, but also places of worship, thermal baths, theatres and public monuments. In the case of our head, which would likely have originally been part of a full-length statue, its function would have been not so much to revere a specific athlete, but to evoke at once ideals of beauty and the learning of its patron. In other words, in their Roman context, images drawn from Greek iconography became expressions of Roman culture, interests, and values.

The Head of an Athlete was purchased in the 1960s by Nane and Christer Wahlgren, who treasured it for decades. Christer Wahlgren (1900-1987) was editor in chief and owner of Sweden’s renowned daily newspaper Sydsvenskan from 1946 to 1987. He and his wife Nane acquired the present head while travelling with the artist Henning Malmström (1890-1968), whose collection of ancient portrait heads is now part of the Malmö Museum in Sweden.

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Tomasso Brothers Fine Art

"Ancient Art; European Works of Art and Sculpture; Furniture and Decorative Arts; Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Paintings; Old Master Paintings; Sculpture from 1830"

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