Born Again in Rome

The ancient Romans themselves were never quite sure whether their city’s true population consisted of statues or people. In the city’s imperial heyday, there must have been more than a million of both, each group as colorfully motley as the other. Upon a Senatus populusque Romanus that hailed from Britain, Africa, India, and everywhere in between, old Etruscan terra cottas smiled with enigmatic cheer; Olympic victors, gods, and rulers looted from Greece stared through their mother-of-pearl eyes from brazen faces. Egyptian pharaohs and reclining lions of gloss black basalt bore their exile with calm bemusement, although a portrait of Julius Caesar in the same material (now in Rome’s Museo Barracco) instead immortalizes the man’s high-strung charisma.

Stern Roman patricians, hewn from luminous marble, wore their wrinkles, flaws, and fashionable coiffures as naturally as their rank. Fat, vain Nero ordered that his hedonist’s face and several chins be cast in bronze to top a gilded nude colossus that later gave its name to Rome’s most famous amphitheater. Tiberius, and Caracalla after him, commissioned gigantic marble reenactments of ancient myths whose looming presence transformed torchlit dining rooms and baths into phantasmagoric theme parks. In a city fed by vast networks of aqueducts, every snippet of garden, every crowded corner that could afford one, flaunted a sculpted fountain: a grinning, half-feral satyr emptying a wineskin in an obscene inebriated dance, or a spitting lion whose protruding tongue cleverly channeled the spurting waters.

Tombs crowded alongside every road that led to Rome, competing for the attention of passers-by, with their decoration as elaborate as the bereaved could afford; for a successful baker named Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces this meant outfitting a marble mausoleum shaped to imitate his oven, adorned with bas-reliefs of workers making bread. More conventional Romans settled, if they could, for funerary portraits, and their faces still speak, through epitaphs or simply through their haunting presence. Others chose burial in marble sarcophagi outfitted with myths, historical scenes, chubby cupids, or earnest philosophers—there were designs for every taste and every bursa (the leather moneybag that has lent its name to the French stock exchange and the modern American purse).

Greek and Etruscan statues were brightly colored, their sculpted clothing picked out in brilliant patterns, their hair sometimes gilded, their painted eyes intently fixed on some distant vision. Sculptors of the Roman period applied color more sparingly, but they polished marble to a high-gloss patina, and applied their skill as well to the demanding medium of colored stone, including tough Egyptian granites that blunted a chisel virtually on impact and finally had to be ground down by powdered emery. Eventually Roman custom would reserve the close-grained, deep crimson granite known as porphyry for exclusive use of the imperial family, with its hue that matched the most sumptuous dye of the ancient world, Tyrian purple, and a hardness that defied all but the most patient hands.

Beckoning from rooftops, posed along highways, standing guard at intersections, huddled at the …

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