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Alessandro Nelli (founder) (1842–c. 1903),

Master founder Alessandro Nelli crafted this sculpture of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. He contributed sculptures to international expositions and worked on many high-level commissions; he died in Russia working for Tsar Nicholas II. A millennia-old craft, cire-perdue (lost-wax) sculptures are created by pouring molten metals into molds surrounding cores of clay encased by wax. Nelli pioneered advancements alongside the ancient methods, leading to his foundry’s preeminence in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Many copies could be created from single molds and sold internationally by catalogue or commission; the trade card here highlights the Nelli factory’s specialities.

Nelli's card

Augustus of Prima Porta, 1880–1900
Prima Porta in marble

This sculpture of Augustus (63 BCE–14 CE) is a copy of a Parian marble original (pictured here) that measures nearly seven feet tall. Discovered in 1863 at Prima Porta, a villa north of Rome that belonged to Augustus’s last wife, Livia Drusilla, it now resides in the Musei Vaticani. The marble original is believed to be a copy of a bronze, likely created by a Greek artist soon after Augustus conquered the Parthians in 20 BCE, as the breastplate features imagery of his victorious campaign in what is now Iran. Because the marble Prima Porta may include Tiberius, his wife Livia’s son and his successor, it is thought that Livia ordered the marble statue after Augustus’s death.

The McMullen Prima Porta has come full circle: a bronze lost-wax sculpture of a marble sculpture of a bronze lost-wax sculpture. Works that, in their own times, were copied and displayed widely throughout the empire as symbols of prestige and propaganda. In a largely illiterate and multilingual empire, the image of the emperor held great power. Up to 50,000 portraits of Augustus may have been created. Factories, not unlike Nelli’s, with standardized production and skilled artisans, created copies for display and veneration. Bronze sculptures almost never survive; the metal was too valuable not to melt down and reuse. Though more durable, marble statuary, especially full-length portraits, are likewise rare survivals.

Bronze, 50.5 x 33 in., McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 1988.165


The winged Cupid astride a dolphin affixed to Augustus’s right leg offers both structural and symbolic support to the statue. Throughout Roman history, political leaders sought ties to divine beings in order to legitimize their rule. The Julian family, highly venerated in the Roman Republic, chose Venus, the goddess of love who emerged full-grown from the sea, as one of its symbolic antecedents. Venus was also the mother of Aeneas, mythological founder of Rome.

Julius Caesar, whose dictatorial rule led to the demise of the republic, adopted his grandnephew Gaius Octavius in his will. Upon his murder in 44 BCE, Gaius Octavius became Caesar’s legal heir, adding both Caesar’s name and history to his own. Now he was one step closer to becoming Augustus, named so by the Roman Senate in 27 BCE. Bolstered by dolphin-riding Cupid, Augustus’s tenuous claim to Julian blood, let alone divine, was given symbolic reinforcement.


This 46 BCE denarius minted in Spain shows on its obverse a head of Venus with a small Cupid at her shoulder; the reverse features Caesar’s name, a trophy, and two captives. The coin implies divine sanction of Caesar’s victory in the Gallic Wars (58–50 BCE). Employing this imagery on coinage that would be disseminated widely was a savvy reinforcement of the divine links between the Julians and the gods; a trope that Augustus himself would soon emulate.


The Prima Porta’s stature and proportions were influenced heavily by classical Greek sculpture, the pinnacle of artistry to Roman sculptors. Polykleitos created his Doryphoros (“spear-bearer”) in bronze circa 440 BCE. The Doryphoros pictured here was found in the ruins of Herculaneum (destroyed along with Pompeii in 79 CE), and like the Prima Porta, is one of numerous marble copies of a bronze original. The Doryphoros’s contrapposto stance achieves a lifelike dynamism of the human form; facial features, locks of hair, head shape, raised and lowered arms—all of these distinctive characteristics are in the Prima Porta. While the McMullen Augustus holds a staff in his right hand with the left in forward in an adlocutio (addressing) pose, it is thought that like the Doryphoros, the Prima Porta may have held a spear in the left hand and possibly a laurel branch, symbolic of victory, in the right.


Augustus’s breastplate is the Prima Porta’s centerpiece and is open to interpretation, making the sculpture a subject of continual study and reevaluation. Divine and mortal, past and present are combined to depict Augustus’s reclamation of legionary standards that were captured by Parthians from Crassus in 53 BCE and in the 40s BCE from Mark Antony. The center shows a “barbarian” Parthian (identifiable by his baggy pants) who is returning a standard to a Roman soldier. This figure is sometimes interpreted as Tiberius, Augustus’s heir who had a role in retrieving the standards in 20 BCE.

It is a scene of peace; sky god Caelus above, earth goddess Tellus with cornucopia and two infants below. Apollo with his lyre on the bottom left and Diana with her stag on the bottom right are mirrored by sun god Sol with his chariot (top left) and moon and dawn goddesses Luna and Aurora (top right). Sphinxes, symbolic of Augustus’s victory over Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, adorn the shoulders. Down the sides of the breastplate are female personifications of nations conquered by Augustus: Gaul and Hispania. To each side of the central scene, male figures with sheathed and drawn swords may represent Eastern peoples required to pay tribute to Rome and those conquered by Rome in the West.

Credited with bringing about the Pax Romana (a period of relative peace in the empire that lasted roughly 200 years), Augustus’s reign was doubtlessly turbulent, but overall his and his successors’ propagandistic portrayals of a period of calm and great wealth was successfully conveyed in sculpture.

In contrast to their appearance today, most ancient Greek and Roman marble sculpture is believed to have been painted. The late unearthing of the Prima Porta in 1863 retained many pigmented areas, including on the paludamentum (cloak) Augustus is wearing, his eyes, and details on the armor. Although various reconstructions (here are examples, from left to right, dating to 1886, 2004, and 2014) vary in their saturation, their appearance is startling to a viewer accustomed to uncolored marble. The natural red pigment on the paludamentum was coated with a transparent lacquer that penetrated the crystalline surface of the marble, enlivening the carefully carved grooves of the cloak. Similarly apt color choices throughout the Prima Porta contributed to an imposing appearance; Augustus was luminous and rare, valuable pigments coated his form. Layers of pigment suggest that the sculpture was painted more than once; it was a “living” sculpture engaging with those who encountered it.

Although bronze sculptures were not painted, they could be decorated with inlaid copper (lips/nipples), silver (teeth/nails), and stones or gems (eyes). They also were burnished and polished; interplays of light and shadow lent a sense of movement and engagement similar to the painted marbles.

polychrome statues


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