Description & Technical information

The Roman province of Egypt was established under Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) in 30 B.C. after his defeat of his rival Mark Antony and Antony’s lover, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, who subsequently both commit suicide realising their fate. Octavian annexed the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt – its final dynasty, as a southern state of the expansive Roman Empire. The conquest of Egypt saw a new era of Roman fascination with its ancient culture – the cult of Isis, granite obelisks and Egyptian architecture began to be exported around the empire. Likewise, reciprocal changes appear in Egyptian culture as their portraiture style becomes classicized[1].

This finely carved torso of a Roman official exemplifies this period of early Roman rule in Egypt, where a unique hybridity of Egyptian and Roman arts began to emerge as cultures amalgamated. Depicted standing with his left leg confidently striding forward and arms defiantly crossed across his abdomen holding the folds of his garment, he cuts a powerful shape and radiates authority[2]. The pleats in his clothes zigzag from the left shoulder across the right hip and fall vertically between the legs, illustrating the adept skill of the artisan at making the fabric hang heavily in thick lines that are clearly delineated, illustrating both the weight of the cloth and the movement of the official as he strides forwards. This illusion of animation breathes life in to the statue; as his right knee pulls against the fabric of his outfit, he becomes an anthropomorphic being, enlivened with hubris in an artistic tradition the Romans adopted from Hellenistic Greeks and disseminated throughout Egypt.

Granite is igneous stone that was quarried along the banks of the Nile and was highly prized throughout antiquity for its varied colours, including black, green, white and purple, and was extracted in megaliths weighing up to two-hundred tons[3]. It is known for being a particularly hard stone that takes significant effort to carve and polish, displaying the knowledge and dedication of the crafter of this object with its finely incised lines and curves and its smooth, supple surface.

Running down the length of the back of the figure is a pillar, space for a carved inscription, as was often seen on Ancient Egyptian monumental statuary. This makes it a particularly interesting piece, displaying how craftsman were combining traditionally Egyptian ideas with a new Roman subject matter – a careful move by the new Roman powers not to alienate an Egyptian population with an entirely new visual vocabulary, whilst still asserting their leadership through official Roman statues such as this, which would have been placed on prominent public display. Interestingly, the blank rear column could suggest one of three things; that this was originally intended to be viewed in the round but before work finished it was decided that it would be placed against a wall; that it was a model produced speculatively to be inscribed as a client wished after purchase (which is greatly telling of models of artistic production and consumption during this period); or that is a rare survival of an unfinished work.

A similar Roman-period Egyptian granite torso is in the collections of Pelizaus Museum in Hildesheim in Germany, which contains one of the finest collections of Egyptian antiquities in Europe[4].  At 36.2 cm high, but missing the legs from the knee down, it is roughly the same size as this example. The carving doesn’t exhibit the same quality of anatomical understanding, and the shallower folds of the fabric lack the drama of this example, however, it does contain an un-carved column running the length of the rear, supporting the idea that these objects were made for a speculative market, in a typical height, material and style, which would have been used to fulfil a specific official function during the years of the first century AD.

[1] For a discussion on this, see: C. Riggs; The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt: Art Identity and Funerary Religion, OUP Oxford, 2006. P.96.

[2] For a description of this type of statue see: R.S. Bianchi; ‘The Striding, Draped Male Figure of Ptolemaic Egypt’ in H. Maeler and V. K. Stocka, eds., Das ptolemäische Ägypten: Akten des International Mainz, 1978. P.95ff.

[3] J. Thompson; A History of Egypt, American University in Cairo Press, 208. P.136.

[4] Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim, Germany, Roman period granite statue, 32.6 cm high. Inv2646.

Date:  1st century B.C to 1st century A.D.
Period:  Antiquity
Origin:  Egypt, Roman
Medium: Granite
Dimensions: 58 cm (22⁷/₈ inches)

Michel Guy (1927-1990) collection, Secrétaire d'Etat à la Culture (1974-1976), France, acquired Paris 1970s.

Private collection, France (accompanied by French Cultural Passport 144323).

Note on the Provenance

This statue was once in the personal collection of Michael Guy[1] (1927-1990), the French Minister for Culture between 1974 and 1976, who oversaw the protection and promotion of France’s national museums and monuments, as appointed by Jacques Chirac. Following his death in 1990, his collection of antiquities and modern art was sold in Paris in 1991, including this statue. As an innovative and creative thinker and leader, he helped establish the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée Picasso and Musée d’Orsay, and was well known in Parisian artistic social circles.

Literature: Succession de Monsieur Guy, SCP Perrin Royère Lajeunesse, 17 February 1991. Lot 52.
Categories: Classical & Egyptian antiquities, Sculpture