Offered by Desmet Galerie
Bronze, silver inlaid eyes and lips, Roman, 1st – 2nd Century AD
Private London Collection formed 1965-1975
H 11 cm (4 inch)
This exquisite Roman bronze balsamarium, dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD, is shaped in the form of a bust depicting a young black African boy. His youthful face has been meticulously executed to the finest detail. Beneath his abundant elaborately crafted curly hair, his wide eyes, once adorned with precious inlaid materials, expressively gaze at the onlooker. The boy sports a bare chest beset at the bottom by a frame of acanthus leaves. At the top of the balsamarium is a circular orifice, allowing fragrant contents to be poured into it and which used to be covered by a lid attached to its rim. To the right of this opening is a large loop to which a chain could be attached.
Representations of black people were not uncommon in Roman art and their popularity is evidenced by the fact that such images have been found all over the Roman Empire, in places stretching as far north as Germania. The exotic images of blacks were used for balsamaria in the shape of busts, balances, terracotta vases, lamps and statuettes depicting fighters or jugglers. They have traditionally been considered as products of the so-called school of Alexandria or at least have taken inspiration from the popular art of Greco-Roman Egypt. However, it is now accepted that there also must have been numerous other locations outside of the Alexandrian realm that produced artefacts depicting black people, but since the subject has altogether been poorly studied the exact places of origin usually remain unknown.
Balsamaria were luxury products, that, as the name suggests, were mainly used for holding balsam, the resinous, sap-like product of many different plants, perfumes as well as the oil used by athletes to clean their skin. Balsamaria often depict women's, satyr's heads or animals, or wineskins.
Anthropomorphic balsamaria became widely popular during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD and it was especially during this period that the number of those depicting exotic sitters grew exponentially. Balsamaria of Ethiopians, Nubians, and Indians were extremely sought-after, especially in those regions of the Roman Empire where contacts with such ethnic groups was limited.
Cosmetics were as important to the ancient Romans as they are in the present time, used by men and women alike, and kept in exquisite vessels specifically made for holding them. As balsamaria were predominantly intended to hold cosmetic odorous substances, it comes as no surprise that a considerable number of them depicted black people. In fact, Africans were the slaves of choice at the thermae, where they usually served as unctores, servants who massaged and anointed the visitors of the thermae with fragrant oils before or after bathing.
Balsamarium in the shape of a bust of a Nubian, Roman bronze, 1-3rd century AD, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
Often balsamariums were deemed so important that they were buried together with their owners and some, like one of a woman's head at the British Museum (1868,0601.3) were made exclusively to be placed into tombs with offerings rather than to be used by the living.
The vessels were especially popular in Etruria and were discovered on sites dating to the Hellenistic era (cf. the Norbert Schimmel collection). Other vessels have been found on later sites up to the 4th century AD, thus they need to be studied separately to be dated.
Braun, C., Römische Bronzebalsamarien mit Reliefdekor, (BAR International Series, vol. 917), (Oxford – 2001).
Bugner, Ladislas, et al. L'image Du Noir Dans L'art Occidental. Fribourg: Office du Livre, 1976.
Marti, V. ‘De l'usage des balsamaires anthropomorphes en bronze’, in Mélanges de l'École française de Rome. Antiquité, tome 108, n°2. 1996. pp. 979-1000
Pressouyre, Léon. "A propos d'un «balsamaire» trouvé à Lamaurelle (L.-et-G.)" Revue archéologique 2 (1962): 165-181.
White Muscarella, O., Ancient Art, The Norbert Schimmel Collection, (Mainze – 1974), cat. 38.
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