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Capitoline Brutus

4th-3rd century B.C.E. bronze, 69 cm (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

Speakers; Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) Voiceover: We're in the Capitoline Museum in Rome and we're looking at a portrait bust, or maybe I should say just a portrait head that is known as Brutus. Voiceover: It's complicated because the way that we see him is part of a bust and that was a very typical Roman form of portrait to put a head on shoulders and the top of the torso. But in fact, the only part of this that's original is the head. And it got the name that it's currently known by, Brutus, in the 16th century when they imagined that this was Brutus, who was first leader of the ancient Roman Republic. Voiceover: Brutus is a legendary figure. He was the nephew of the last king, and according to tradition, he led the revolt against his uncle. Voiceover: So he's the founder of the Roman Republic, the man who hosts the last king, the last autocratic ruler, and establishes the rule of the Senate, the rule of the people. Voiceover: And throughout history, he is periodically important whenever there is a push toward a democratic government. For example, in the 18th century, Jacques-Louis David will heroise him. So let's look at the sculpture. Voiceover: Well, it's really clear when you look closely, that the head doesn't belong to the bust. Voiceover: Well, the head is very finely wrought, whereas the bust is quite coarse. Look at the detail of the mustache, of the beard, of the eyebrows and then there are those eyes. Voiceover: And the eyes are made of painted ivory and they make him look incredibly lifelike. Art historians have noticed how his head inclines downward slightly and have theorized that perhaps this was part of an equestrian sculpture. That is a sculpture of a figure on a horse where he might be like Marcus Aurelius, looking out, but down, and addressing his troops. Voiceover: We're lucky that a bronze has survived. Bronze is expensive and can be easily melted down and reused, which is generally what happens. Voiceover: There is this interestry in the period of the ancient Roman Republic in capturing the specific likenesses of individuals. This is so different than what we're going to see when Augustus becomes the first emperor of Rome where we get very idealized images. This was likely meant to commemorate an individual. In the 16th century, they thought it was Brutus, but we really don't know who this was. But it makes sense because we know that the ancient Romans commemorated great political figures, great military leaders... Voiceover: And the statues of ancient Romans made of those great leaders often lined important ceremonial sites like the Forum, which is just down the hill. Voiceover: Our own tradition of commemorating the Presidents of the United States, for example, comes from this ancient Roman tradition. Voiceover: There are very particular features and yet, he is also ennobled. Voiceover: He's meant to look intelligent, wise, thoughtful. Voiceover: And look how the eyebrows have been stylized just a little bit to almost look like a crown of laurels that wrap around his brow. Voiceover: And it reminds us too, that in the ancient Roman Republic, wisdom was something that was seen to come with age and wisdom was important for political leadership. Voiceover: Well, in fact, the Republic was ruled by the Senate, a counsel of elders. Voiceover: We can see that he's pushing his brow together, so there's a concern and worry. Voiceover: But his jaw is tightly set, his lips are together, so there's a sense of resoluteness. Voiceover: And resoluteness perhaps in the face of some turmoil, and I think it's those qualities that perhaps that people in the 16th century tend to associate this with Brutus, someone who was strong and determined and principled. Voiceover: So we've been reading into this sculpture since at least the 16th century, and here we are continuing to do it today. And though we don't know who this man is, we understand how distinguished he was and how people must have looked up to him. (soft piano music)