Peter Paul Rubens painted this bold, bust-length image of the eccentric and tyrannical Roman emperor Commodus (161–92 A.D.) within an illusionistic marble oval relief. In stark contrast to his learned father Marcus Aurelius (121–80 A.D.), known as “the perfect Emperor,” Commodus, who reigned from 180 until he was murdered on New Year’s Eve of 192 at the age of 31, proudly distinguished himself by his great physical strength.1 Toward the end of his life, Commodus went further than any of his megalomaniac predecessors, including Nero, and identified himself with Hercules, the superhumanly strong demigod of Greek mythology famous for slaughtering wild animals and monsters with his bare hands. According to the contemporary historian Herodian of Antioch (ca. 170–240 A.D.), Commodus responded only to the name “Hercules, son of Zeus” and, mirroring his Greek counterpart, wore a lion’s skin and carried around a club.2 Following in the footsteps of his adopted namesake, Commodus even became a fervent gladiator, killing many wild animals in the arena, although with the rather un-Herculean aid of spears.3
This striking painted bust shows Commodus in the guise of a gladiator. In his proper right hand, the emperor proudly clenches one of his spears, while a fragment of a shiny bronze and silver shield dominates the bottom right corner of the composition. Resting on top of the emperor’s head like a helmet is the head of the lion’s hide, the paws of which are wrapped around the emperor’s shoulders. With a forceful expression, and with his head turned slightly to the right, Commodus stares directly at the viewer. Light coming in from the left illuminates that side of his face as well as the inner right edge of the illusionistic oval surround.
When this painting appeared on the art market in 2011, Peter Sutton correctly identified it as an early work by Peter Paul Rubens, executed by the young master before he left for Rome in May 1600.4 Relatively few of Rubens’s paintings are known from between 1597, the year of his earliest known dated work, Portrait of a Man, Possibly an Architect or Geographer (fig 1), and his departure for Italy three years later.5 Reflective of the influence of his teacher Otto van Veen (ca. 1556–1629), Commodus’s intense gaze, the conspicuous pink highlights in the flesh tones, and the relatively well-defined contours of his figure are comparable to that early portrait.6 Similarities are also seen in the way Rubens modeled Commodus’s head and that of Adam in Fall of Man, which the young master painted just prior to his departure for Italy (fig 2).7 In each instance Rubens left the red-brown undermodeling partially exposed in the hair and beard, thereby adding a rich sense of depth to the otherwise dense, dark hair. A similar use of the underpaint in the final modeling of flesh tones is also seen in the figure of Saint Paul in Rubens’s Conversion of St. Paul, which he also executed around 1599–1600.8
Rubens may have created this work as an independent commission, but it is more likely that it was part of a series of Roman emperors. One such series, which Rubens painted shortly before his departure for Rome, is known today primarily through copies in Stuttgart and Brussels. This series contained portraits of Julius Caesar and the first eighteen Roman emperors.9 These emperors ruled during the Julio-Claudian dynasty (from Julius Caesar to Nero), the Flavian dynasty (from Galba to Domitian), and the Nervan-Antonian dynasty (from Nerva to Commodus).10 The Leiden Collection painting is separate from that series, however, for Commodus is shown there facing the opposite direction and holding a club instead of a spear.11 Unlike the paintings associated with that series, moreover, Commodus does not bear an identifying inscription.12 Nevertheless, the absence of a bevel at the bottom, as well as the chipped, irregular paint layer along this edge, suggests that Commodus was cut at the bottom.13 This reduction must have occurred relatively soon after the painting’s execution, since a copy by an unknown member of Rubens’s circle reproduces it in its current state (fig 3).14
Commodus is closely related stylistically to a bust-length portrait of the emperor Galba (fig 4), also by the young Rubens.15 Judging from a photograph, Galba, which is about the same size as Commodus, appears to have been cut along the bottom edge of the panel. These similarities further suggest that the two paintings once belonged to a series and that they once had inscriptions that were removed, presumably at the same time. It is unclear for whom Rubens would have painted such a series of emperors. Nevertheless, the presence of trompe l’oeil oval framing devices suggests that these paintings were set into a wall, probably of a scholar’s study. The fact that the light source in Commodus comes from the left suggests that it originally hung to the right of a window. Otto van Veen, who was a learned humanist, perhaps facilitated the commission.16
The convention of depicting a series of famous men from classical antiquity, so-called Uomini famosi, had its origins in Italy. One renowned series of famous men was the Twelve Caesars that Titian executed in 1537–38 for Federico II Gonzaga (1500–40) as part of the decorative program at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. Even before his trip to Italy, Rubens could have known images of Titian’s forceful half-figures through Aegidius Sadeler’s print series of 1593 (fig 5).17 Titian, in painting this series, had been inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s painted roundels of Roman emperor busts set in trompe l’oeil frames in the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace (fig 6).18 Rubens likely also knew about these painted busts in oval frames from Van Veen, who had spent five years in Italy.
Rubens’s own training with Van Veen included making copies of casts and sculptures after the antique.19 Nevertheless, no known bust or other visual source exists for Commodus, not even the famous Hercules Commodus in the Courtyard Belvedere, which Rubens might have known through Van Veen. Indeed, it is probable that Rubens’s rendering of the emperor is the young master’s own invention. Much later, after his return to Antwerp from the south, Rubens painted other busts of Roman emperors, including Julius Caesar (PR-100), in which his firsthand knowledge of and exposure to antique statues, coins, and reliefs are evident.20