This gilt and patinated bronze sculpture portrays Augustus Caesar, who reigned as the first emperor of Rome from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. Augustus stands barefoot in contrapposto, his right arm raised in the Classical adlocutio gesture. He wears military dress, and so gestures rhetorically towards his troops. The bronze is a copy after the famous marble original known as the ‘Augustus of Prima Porta’, which now resides in the Vatican Museums. The marble original, which itself is likely a copy after a now lost bronze, was created during the first years of the 1st Century AD.
The composition of the sculpture is laden with references to contemporary political events and other affairs of the Roman world. Augustus carries the consular baton, signifying his political position. The cuirass he wears over his torso features bas-relief mouldings of many individual figures, highlighted in parcel gilt, each of which alludes to a specific event or symbolism. For instance, Mars, the Roman god of war, is present, signifying Augustus’ military role. Recent military conquests are referenced, too, especially Augustus’ successful restitution in 20 BC of the Roman eagles (or standards) that were lost to the Parthians, to great shame, thirty or so years previously. At Augustus’ feet, Cupid, the son of Venus, rides a dolphin. Cupid’s presence alludes to the claim that Augustus’ family, the Julia, were descended from Venus and thus descended from gods.
This impressive bronze successfully recreates the greatness of one of the most important sculptures to survive from antiquity. The piece is by the unparalleled Barbedienne, celebrated since his own day for his superb skill. The front of the base is inscribed with the date period ‘1860-1890’, is signed ‘F. Barbedienne, Fondeur. Paris’, numbered ‘599’, and impressed with the Collas reduction stamp.