Lombard Vignettes – A Bronze Bust Of Caligula At Turin.

The Albertina bronze is one of the most precious portraits of antiquity, not merely because it confirms the testimony of the green basalt bust in the Capitol, but also because it supplies an even more emphatic and impressive illustration to the narrative of Suetonius.

Caligula is here represented as young and singularly beautiful. It is indeed an ideal Roman head, with the powerful square modelling, the crisp short hair, low forehead, and regular firm features proper to the noblest Roman type. The head is thrown back-ward from the throat; and there is a something of menace or de-fiance or suffering in the suggestion of brusque movement given to the sinews of the neck. This attitude, together with the tension of the forehead and the fixed expression of pain and strain communicated by the lines of the mouth—strong muscles of the upper lip and abruptly chiselled under lip—in relation to the small eyes, deep set beneath their cavernous and level brows, renders the whole face a monument of spiritual anguish. I remember that the green basalt bust of the Capitol has the same anxious forehead, the same troubled and overburdened eyes; but the agony of this fretful mouth, comparable to nothing but the mouth of Pandolfo Sigismondo Malatesta, and, like that, on the verge of breaking into the spasms of delirium, is quite peculiar to the Albertina bronze. It is just this which the portrait of the Capitol lacks for the completion of Caligula. The man who could be so represented in art had nothing wholly vulgar in him. The brutality of Caracalla, the overblown sensuality of Nero, the effeminacy of Commodus or Heliogabalus are all absent here. This face idealizes the torture of a morbid soul. It is withal so truly beautiful that it might easily be made the poem of high suffering or noble passion. If the bronze were plastic I see how a great sculptor by but few strokes could convert it into an agonizing Stephen or Sebastian. As it is, the unimaginable touch of disease, the unrest of madness, made Caligula the genius of insatiable appetite; and his martyrdom was the torment of lust and ennui and everlasting agitation. The accident of empire tantalized him with vain hopes of satisfying the Charybdis of his soul’s sick cravings. From point to point he passed of empty pleasure and unsatisfying cruelty, forever hungry ; until the malady of his spirit, unrestrained by any limitations, and with the right medium for its development, became unique—the tragic type of pathological desire. What more than all things must have plagued a man with that face was probably the unavoidable meanness of his career. When we study the chapters of Suetonius we are forced to feel that, though the situation and the madness of Caligula were dramatically impressive, his crimes were trivial and small. In spite of the vast scale on which he worked his devilish will, his life presents a total picture of sordid vice, differing only from pothouse dissipation and school-boy cruelty in point of size. And this of a truth is the Nemesis of evil. After a time, mere tyrannous caprice must become commonplace and cloying, tedious to the tyrant and uninteresting to the student of humanity ; nor can I believe that Caligula failed to perceive this to his own infinite disgust.

Suetonius asserts that he was hideously ugly. How are we to square this testimony with the witness of the bronze before us? What changed the face, so beautiful and terrible in youth, to ugliness that shrank from sight in manhood ? Did the murderers find it blurred in its fine lineaments, furrowed with lines of care, hollowed with the soul’s hunger? Unless a life of vice and madness had succeeded in making Caligula’s face what the faces of some maniacs are—the bloated ruin of what was once a living witness to the soul within—I could fancy that death may have sanctified it with even more beauty than this bust of the self-tormented young man shows. Have we not all seen the anguish of thought-fretted faces smoothed out by the hands of the Deliverer?