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Portrait of an Older Woman

This Greek sculpture was found near Rome. The flowing folds of cloth in the skirt are typical of late Greek sculpture, like that which must have inspired the Portrait of an Older Woman (above).



key idea
Greek art provided inspiration for artists of the Roman Empire.

The face belongs to a particular individual. The hairstyle belongs to a particular decade. But the body, covered head to toe with drapes of clothing, is less specific.

True, an upper-class woman of ancient Rome would have dressed in the style seen here. She would have worn an ankle-length dress called a stola with a length of fabric called a palla wrapped around her shoulders. She would have modestly pulled this palla to cover her head when she was out in public, much like a veil.

But that style was not unique to the time this woman lived. Women dressed this way throughout the history of the Roman Empire. And Greek women had dressed similarly for centuries before. In fact, the garments seen here may have been copied from a Greek sculpture.

Romans greatly admired Greek culture. Many Greek statues stood in the gardens of great Roman estates. Romans hired Greek artists to create copies of still other sculptures. Greek sculptures tended to show the human body in its ideal form, free of imperfections. Sometimes portraits of Romans, shown with their individual flaws, were added to bodies copied from Greek examples.

Why would a Roman woman want to be shown with her head on a Greek body? Just as the lines on her face revealed her character, and her hairstyle displayed loyalty to a ruler, a body from the Greek past carried meaning as well. It connected her with the timeless perfection of the gods and goddesses themselves.

March 2004