Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), a wealthy Roman lawyer, bureaucrat, politician, and financial advisor, one day bought a certain bronze statue of a human figure after he had spent some time inspecting the piece. Although Pliny did, indeed, hand over his money for the sculpture, he may have had some lingering uncertainty about his purchase after becoming its owner. On the positive side, the Corinthian bronze metal of the artwork held great color and looked the part of an antique. Also, the anatomical details of the statue’s human features—such as musculature, veins and hair—were masterfully done by the sculptor. Yet, Pliny the Younger also had a list of several minor qualms with the piece. Fortunately for us, he decided to pen down these concerns in a letter to his business acquaintance, Annius Severus.
Regarding the artwork’s negative traits, Pliny the Younger first pointed out that it was not a very big statue. In the first line of his letter, Pliny wrote, “I have just bought a Corinthian bronze statue, only a small one…” (Pliny the Younger, Letter, 3.6). After this comment, he quickly pivoted back to describing the sculpture’s virtues, but then he eventually moved on to the next potential problem—the statue’s subject. Pliny wrote that the sculpture depicted a thin and balding old man, displayed fully nude. A vivid description of the artwork was provided by Pliny, who wrote, “being nude it does not hide any defects it may have nor fail to reveal its merits. It represents a standing figure of an old man; the bones, muscles, sinews, and veins and even the wrinkles are clear and lifelike, the hair is sparse and receding from a broad brow, its face is lined and neck thin, and it has drooping shoulders, a flat chest and hollow stomach.” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.6). Perhaps the first sentence of the description was literal, and the sculpture might have had a defect or two that had come to Pliny’s attention. Whatever the case, Pliny ultimately decided that he did not want to bring the small statue of the naked old man back home to his villa.
Instead of finding a spot for the Corinthian bronze statue on his own estate, Pliny the Younger decided that he would rather donate it to a local temple near his lands, the likeliest destination being his hometown of Comum. This decision was what prompted Pliny’s letter to Annius Severus, for Pliny wanted the man to oversee the creation of a pedestal for the statue. On this arrangement, Pliny stated, “Will you then carry out a commission for me as you always do, and give immediate orders for a pedestal to be made? Choose whatever marble you like, and have it inscribed with my name and official titles if you think they should appear too” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.6). Best case scenario, the bronze statue was wonderful and godly enough for Pliny to proudly donate it so that the artwork’s glory could be displayed on temple grounds. Worst case scenario, Pliny’s qualms about the small naked statue caused him to ultimately wash his hands of the piece, turning it over to the people of his home town, possibly without any inscription on the pedestal that could connect the old nude figure to Pliny. The reader can decide which scenario they prefer.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Bronze statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus, dated to 251–253 CE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.