The present imposing and extremely refined colossal marble bust of the Roman emperor Lucius Verus is a rarity that adds to the already impressive oeuvre of the Roman neoclassical sculptor Carlo Albacini. The work is an 18th century copy of the equally imposing ancient prototype dating from 180-183AD found near Rome together with a portrait of Marcus Aurelius with whom Lucius Verus served as co-emperor between A.D. 161 and his untimely death in 169. Until its removal to Paris by Napoleon in 1807, and the ancient busts eventual deposit in the Musée du Louvre, it was displayed at the Borghese Gallery where it was much admired.
Blundell commissioned a copy of this famous sculpture (now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) directly from Carlo Albacini as early as 1776, and he described it as follows “The hair of the head and the beard are reckoned a fine specimen of modern art” (Feijfer, op. cit., vol. I, p. 9). This and other major commissions quickly established Albacini’s international reputation; one of the most notable commissions that Albacini received was in 1786 when the King of Naples ordered the restoration of all the ancient marbles from the Farnese collection, prior to their removal from Rome to Naples.
The attribution of the present bust to Albacini is not only evident from the sculpture’s superlative quality but also because of its significant affinity to the aforementioned documented bust of the emperor by Albacini in Liverpool. Another bust, of the same dimensions and ascribed to Albacini but made of plaster, was purchased from the sculptor's son, Filippo, and is now in the Scottish National Gallery.
Each these examples closely follow the ancient prototype in the Louvre and the two marbles share the same distinctive treatment of the hair and beard, the youthful features and intense, fixed gaze. They do, however, vary from the ancient bust in that they are significantly larger (the Louvre bust is only 53 cm. high) and their shoulders and chests have been reduced slightly, thereby giving greater prominence to the head.
In the present bust, the lively and detailed drill-work in the hair, undercut to build volume and encourage the play of light and shade over the surface, forming a mass of tousled curly locks, contrasts with the subtle, engraved strands of hair visible at the edges of his brow and beard which gently dissolve into the emperor's skin. The eyes are slightly oversized and are composed of a deeply carved iris and u-shaped pupil that produce a penetrating stare.
It is known that some of the finest Graeco-Roman sculpture that was found in important English collections passed through Albacini’s hands. Superlatives abounded over Albacini’s great talent as a sculptor and restorer which gained him commissions from notable collectors including Catherine the Great, but it was perhaps as a result of his close professional relationship to Thomas Jenkins, the English painter, banker, papal confidant and art dealer in Rome, that Albacini gained the high repute he deserved. As a result of this collaboration, Albacini supplied works for James Hugh, Barry Smith, Charles Townley, Lord Shelburne, Lord Lansdowne and importantly Blundell. Albacini restored Bernini’s Neptune and Triton, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, sold by Jenkins to Joshua Reynolds and as documented in their personal correspondence, Jenkins and Townley, the latter whose collection helped found the British Museum, amply promoted Albacini’s work.
While it is not known where and when the Earl of Rosebery acquired the present bust, it was a part of the collection housed in his famous home atMentmore Towers. Mentmore is a 19th-century English country house in Buckinghamshire that was built between 1852 and 1854 for the Rothschild family. Baron Mayer de Rothschild, the banker and collector of fine art, hired Sir Joseph Paxton, who had previously designed the Crystal Palace, to design Mentmore. Described as one of the greatest houses of the Victorian era, Paxton fashioned the building as a showcase for the Baron's extensive art collection.
Mentmore remained with the family until 1977 at which time the contents of the home, including paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Boucher, Moroni and other well-known artists, and cabinet makers, including Jean Henri Riesener and Chippendale, were sold at auction by Sotheby’s London in a sale of grand proportions. The present bust was interestingly not offered at auction in 1977 but remained in the family until it was subsequently sold by the 6th Earl at Sotheby’s London with a small group of other marble sculptures.
Some scholars have said that the Rothschild/Mentmore collection was one of the finest ever to be assembled in private hands, other than the collections of the Russian and British royal families and the present bust of Lucius Verus was undoubtedly a work treasured by the family.
It is tempting to consider that this extraordinary bust may be the one that the young Canova referred to when he visited Albacini’s workshop in the summer of 1780. On that occasion, Canova’s admiration for the precision and inventiveness of his colleague’s work was certain and when he spoke with one of Albacini’s assistants, Canova was told that the workshop had already spent 14 months of pointing a copy of the large Borghese portrait of Lucius Verus and that Albacini and his assistants still had 5 more months of work to do.
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Foreign Catalogue, 1977, Text, p. 284;
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Foreign Catalogue, 1977, Plates, p.412, no. 6538;
Gerard Vaughan, 'Albacini and his English Patrons', in Journal of the History of Collections 3, 1991, pp. 183-197;
Jane Fejfer and Edmund Southworth, The Ince Blundell collection of classical sculpture, vol. I, London, 1991
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