The balsamarium in the shape of the bust of
features, a deep brow, eyes inset, a stern
nose and mouth. His hair somewhat long
and gathered in thick waves falling across
his forehead and down his neck. Around the
neck, a simple but elegant torque. The bust
covered with a tunic which falls on his left
shoulder across his chest, secured with a
long knotted strap.
This balsamarium, a richly detailed vessel for
transporting oils and cosmetics to the baths,
is a fully realised example of the Roman
period. The artist of this work has included
minute details and also has injected an
emotional component into his rendition of
the subject. It is as much a portrait as it is
an everyday vessel, and today, a rich green
patina adds depth to the work and enhances
the smallest of details.
Balsamaria are a fascinating type of vessel,
originating in Classical Greece and remaining
a fertile vessel for innovation through the
Hellenistic and Roman times. Some
balsamaria were simple footed vessels, a
modest receptacle in which to transport bath
oils. Some were small but intricate, portraits
of curious people or odd animals. In
Alexandria in particular, the Hellenistic and
Graeco-Roman bronzesmiths crafted vessels
of striking realism as they sought to portray
dwarves, Nubians, and other 'exotic' people.
In the later years of the Roman Empire, the
Gallic craftsmen created astonishingly
detailed balsamaria using bronze, paste glass
and fine millefiori enamel.
This balsamarium belongs to the finest
sculptural tradition. It pursues an aesthetic
path of naturalism, while not eschewing
the idealism befitting an image as princely as
Similar examples are indeed rare. One
comes from the Museum of Fine Arts in
Boston, which shows a similar treatment of
the eyes and nose, although it is less legible
For further references see: Comstock, M.
and C. Vermeule, Greek Etruscan & Roman
Bronzes in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,
1971; Los Bronces Romanos en Espana,
Palacio de Velazques, Madrid, 1990; Jones,
F. "A Bronze Head-Vase" Record of the
Princeton University Art Museum, Vol 46.2,
1987: pp.17-23; Marti, V. "De l'usage des
"balsamaires" anthropomorphes en bronze"
MEFRA tome 108, 1996.2: pp.979-1000;
Menzel H. Die Romischen Bronzen aus
Detschland, III, Bonn, Mayence, 1968.