The Sculpture Museum - Catalog - Page 66
roman, c. 1830
Head of a Young Woman, known as Head of Isis
After the Antique
54 cm (21¼ in.) high
23 cm (9 in.) wide
This beguiling head of a youth, with large eyes framed by a beautifully drawn
arch of the brows and lips gently parted, is modelled on an ancient female head
today in the Sala dei Busti of the Museo Pio Clementino (fig. 1; 53 cm high, inv. no.
613), which is thought to be after a Greek bronze original from the fifth or fourth
century BC, mainly on account of the treatment of its hair (Amelung 1908, no.
375). The Vatican head is considered to be a portrait, but an identification with Isis,
the goddess of Egyptian origin whose cult spread to the Graeco-Roman world
from the Hellenistic period onwards, has also been proposed. It was acquired by
Pope Pius VI (1717–1799, Pope 1775–99) from the prominent collection of Cardinal
Albani in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and published by the papal
Prefect of Antiquities Ennio Quirino Visconti (1751–1818) as a representation of Isis
on account of her headdress (Visconti 1792, vol. VI, p. 27, pl. XVII).
Isis was one of the principal deities of ancient Egypt. The sister and wife of
Osiris, god of the underworld, she was revered as part of the cult of the dead, as
a magical healer and as the patron of wives and mothers. In Egypt, effigies of her
traditionally featured a headdress surmounted by a solar disc framed by horns,
which, with the gradual spread of her cult to the Hellenistic and subsequently
Roman worlds, was transformed into a smaller solar disc, encircled by motifs
that allude to snakes. Notable examples include the coloured marble Isis in the
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Roman, second century ad) and the one now
in the Musei Capitolini, Rome (Roman, first century ad).
The knot of hair that crowns the present figure’s forehead could have been
informed by the Graeco-Roman iconography of Isis, and the existence of a female
head with hair similarly tied above her head, excavated in Pompeii’s temple of
Isis and identified as an image of the goddess (Naples, Museo Archeologico
Nazionale), suggests our prototype may indeed have been connected to the
The foundation of the Museo Pio Clementino in 1771, open to artists,
scholars and connoisseurs alike, and the publication of Visconti’s prized guide
to its collection in 1792 certainly drew attention to the present head’s prototype.
Beautifully finished, our marble is the type of sculpture that refined collectors
would have sought out during their Grand Tour to adorn the rooms, halls, libraries
or galleries of their residences. This was the case, for example, of a marble version
of the same ‘Isis’, which is now in the Ashmolean Museum (54 cm high; Penny
1992, no. 515). Carved and signed by the English sculptor Joseph Gott (1786–1860),