Golden bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius from Avenches, western Switzerland. will be exhibited at the Getty. This is the largest known bust of the emperor, made of precious metal, and one of the few golden busts that have escaped meltdown. This bust of Marcus Aurelius is so rare and so valuable that it is usually kept in a bank vault. Instead, a copy is on display in the Roman Museum of Avenshey. He has only exhibited a dozen times, and never before in the United States.
The bust was discovered in 1939 during excavations of a temple in Avenche’s ancient predecessor, Aventicum. Aventicum was the capital of the Helvetii and was incorporated into the Roman Empire under Augustus in 15 BC. Vespasian granted it the status of a colony in 71/2 AD, which spurred a major urban redevelopment of the city. Large temple complex inspired by Vespasian. Temple of Peace in Rome and dedicated to the local gods of the Helvetians, and at that time the cult of the emperor was built.
Found in a sewer passage under the main courtyard of the temple complex, the golden bust is 13 inches tall and weighs 3.5 pounds, equivalent to 220 gold coins from the time of Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180 AD). It is made from a single sheet of gold, processed by cold stamping. The jeweler beat off the back side of the sheet to recreate the features of the emperor in three dimensions – thick hair, neat beard, intense eyes. Small details were carved into the outer surface after the repoussé was completed. He wears feathered loricacuirass, decorated with rows of feathers, around the central gorgonion.
Only about 15 imperial portraits made of precious metals and only six of them made of gold passed through the gauntlet of melting down by weight in antiquity. Hollow, portable and requiring support, this type of portrait was created as an imago, an image of the emperor, intended to embody his sacred power in processions and in temples dedicated to imperial cult. Marcus Aurelius wrote in a letter in 162/3 AD the curator of the temple at Ephesus that the portraits of past emperors should never be altered to look like other emperors (a common practice with marble portraits), or melted down.
“There should be no reworking of the material into our likeness. For, just as in other respects we do not care about honors for ourselves, much more should we not allow other people’s honors to be transferred to us. Many of the statues that are in good condition should be preserved under their original names, but as for those that are too worn to be identified, perhaps their names can be restored from the inscriptions on their bases or from records that may have existed in antiquity. possession of the Council, so that our forefathers would rather have a renewal of their honor than its disappearance due to the melting of their images.
The bust will be on display at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles from May 31 this year to January 29, 2024.