A highly detailed sculptured torso of an unknown Roman Emperor.

Torso of a Roman Emperor.

One of the most striking objects on display in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art at the Art Institute of Chicago is, for me anyway, this sculpted marble torso of an unknown Roman Emperor. It is all the more intriguing given that the decoration on the sculpture is so detailed and yet we do not know which Emperor it represents. But, from the elaborate dress Classical archaeologists are certain that it is the torso of an Emperor in full victory regalia.

Other than that, very little else is known about the sculpture and where it came from. Portrait sculptures of Emperors and statesmen such as this one would have been quite common in cities and towns throughout the Roman Empire, placed in the streets and on public monuments for all to see.

Close up of the upper half of the torso, showing the decorative breast plate.

The Emperor’s torso is covered by a highly decorated bronze corselet. The corselet is shaped to look like a bare, muscled chest, alluding to the physical power and strength of the Emperor. Hanging of the lower edge of the corselet are two rows of leather flaps (see below), each decorated with a different face. These low relief decorative elements are thought to magically protect the Emperor from harm. The detail of the decoration is quite stunning.

Close up of the lower half of the torso, showing the bronze corselet and leather flaps.

Over a woollen tunic the Emperor wears a leather garment, which is made up of tasselled, flexible straps designed to allow him to move freely, but also to provide some protection from injury to his groin.

This enigmatic torso is just one of over 5,000 pieces in the Institute’s Ancient collection. The highlights of which are on display in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, under the current theme of “Gods and Glamour”. An excellent permanent exhibition, in which an interesting selection of ancient artefacts are very well displayed; I was struck by how well lit the objects were. Another highlight for me was the collection of Byzantine mosaics from Syria.

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