Solon of Athens

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Object Description

Rome, 17th century, After the Antique
Marble, on a circular marble socle
87 cm. / 34 ins overall

This rare, monumental marble bust is after an ancient portrait identified as the Greek statesman and poet, Solon of Athens, regarded as one of the “Seven Wise Men” of ancient Greece.

It has impressive provenance, having come from the collections of the Earls of Hopetoun at Hopetoun House, a magnificent Palladian mansion in West Lothian, Scotland. It is likely to have been acquired in Italy in the eighteenth century either for Charles Hope, 1st Earl of Hopetoun (1681-1742) or his son, John, 2nd Earl of Hopetoun (1704-1781), who employed the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to make purchases of paintings and marbles whilst on his Grand Tour in 1754-58.

The head of the present bust is clearly based on a portrait herm now in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, inv. no. 6143). That bust came from the Farnese collection in Rome, whose large collection of antiquities from their Roman palazzo and other residences were removed to Naples in the eighteenth century.

The identification of the sitter of the Farnese bust as Solon seems to have been made by the early seventeenth century, since a bronze bust by Hubert Le Sueur in the Royal Collection (c.1636-37, RCIN 1330), which appears to be loosely modelled after the Farnese head, is inscribed with Solon’s name. Another seventeenth-century Roman bust from Houghton Hall, sold in London (Christies, King St, 5 July 2012, lot 3), is, like the present bust, very closely based on the Farnese head, albeit with separately-carved marble shoulders. These two works suggest that the Farnese Solon was well known in the seventeenth century and used as a model for a number of important commissions of all’antica busts.

The manner of carving of this bust, with its voluminous drilled curls of the beard and fine chiselling of the relatively shallow curls of hair of the head, executed using a toothed claw chisel, is consistent with Roman sculpture during the Baroque period. For a bust with similarly carved, shallow curls of hair made using a claw chisel, see the head of Cicero in black marble previously in the Earl of Pembroke’s collection at Wilton House, England, dated to the seventeenth century.

The drapery of the present bust, which imitates the himation worn by Greek philosophers or statesmen depicted in ancient standing statues, exhibits the crumpled folds of drapery typical of Baroque sculpture, albeit in a more restrained manner due to its all’antica subject. The monumental size of the present bust is also typical of the grand scale of Roman Baroque sculpture, suggesting that it was commissioned for a large palazzo or villa complex, perhaps by a patron with a love of ancient Greek history.

Solon of Athens (c. 630-c. 570 BC) was born into a noble Athenian family of moderate wealth. Tradition suggests that he spent part of his early life working in commerce. In 594 Solon was appointed chief magistrate (archon) of Athens, encouraging the city to win back the island of Salamis in its war against Megara. Some twenty years after becoming archon, Solon was given further powers as reformer and legislator of Athens, hence why he is also known by the epithet ‘Solon the Lawgiver’.

Solon’s codes became the foundation of Athens’s statute laws until the early fifth century BC and his laws embodied the Greek virtue of moderation. He was also the first poet of ancient Athens, using his verse as an instrument of his statesmanship. In a list accepted by Plato, Solon was lauded as one of the “Seven Wise Men” of Greek politics and philosophy, a testimony to his esteemed reputation in ancient Greece.

Object History

The Earls of Hopetoun, Hopetoun House, Scotland, probably since the 18th or early 19th century; By descent to Adrian Hope, 4th Marquess of Linlithgow (b. 1946), Hopetoun House; Hopetoun House sale, Christie’s, 19th-20th July 1993; Private collection, USA

Object Literature

Andrea Bacchi, Scultura del ‘600 a Roma, Milan, 1996, pl. 634; Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique. New Haven, 1982, p. 76; Oswyn Murray, Early Greece, London, 1993, p. 20, 141-42; Gisela Richter, The Portraits of the Greeks. London, 1965, p. 86, fig. 326; Arnold Rueschi, Guida illustrata del Museo nazionale di Napoli, Naples, 1911, p. 263, no. 1112

Object Details

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Dealer Contact

+44 (0)7768 395500
+44 (0)7768 395500

Dealer Location

London W1 (Mayfair), by appointment.

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