Egyptologist uncovers ancient puzzle

Technology reunites Roman portrait and bust separated by centuries and continents

On a trip to Rome more than a decade ago, Egyptologist W. Raymond Johnson spotted a face he had seen before: It was a marble portrait of a second-century youth known as Antinous, displayed in a gallery at the Palazzo Altemps Museum.

Familiar with a strikingly similar portrait housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Oriental Institute scholar immediately detected something amiss. “The face I saw in Rome just didn’t seem right,” says Johnson, who realized it was a restoration. “The only original part was the back of the head and shoulders.”

Then he noticed something even more intriguing: Both pieces shared the same unusual, vertical crack visible along the left side of the face—an eerie similarity that led Johnson to believe that the Antinous fragment, thousands of miles away in Chicago, belonged on the bust in Rome. “I have the worst memory in the entire world for most things, but give me a piece of sculpture—part of a head or a relief of Tutankhamun—and for some reason a part of my brain really hangs on to that,” says Johnson.

Johnson contacted colleagues at the Art Institute, and thus began a decade-long investigation to test Johnson’s hypothesis, inspiring a first-of-its kind collaborative effort between UChicago, the Art Institute, and the Palazzo Altemps that ultimately reunited the sculptural pieces after centuries apart. The work is featured in an Art Institute exhibition A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts, at the Art Institute through Sept. 5.

‘I guess you’d say I have an eye’

As director of the Oriental Institute’s Epigraphic Survey based at Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt, Johnson has spent decades piecing ancient sculpture and reliefs back together. Early in his career, working as an artist, he documented wall fragments from the majestic Luxor Temple (constructed in roughly 1360 B.C.) by drawing them. Very quickly, he made connections that others never had. “I could see that many fragments fit together,” Johnson says. “I guess you’d say I have an eye.”

Since then, Johnson has identified, documented, and pieced together thousands of inscribed wall fragments, in the process preserving them and, in some cases, restoring them to temple walls.

Johnson is also an aficionado of the art that flourished during the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), a period replete with representations of Antinous. Known to be an exceptionally handsome, young Greek man, the youth mysteriously drowned in the Nile River in 130 A.D. at age 20, while accompanying Hadrian on a tour of Egypt. Grief-stricken, the emperor declared Antinous, whom scholars believe may have been his lover, a god and founded the city Antinoupolis at the site where he was identified with the Egyptian god of death and resurrection, Osiris. Images of Antinous, with his signature curly hairstyle, began to appear on coins and medallions, and the youth became the subject of numerous sculptures.

After his sudden insight in Rome, Johnson contacted the Art Institute’s Karen Manchester, now chair and curator of ancient art in the Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art, with his proposal that the museum’s Antinous fragment was actually part of the bust in the collection in Rome. (The piece had been purchased by the Art Institute’s first president Charles Hutchinson in 1898 and bequeathed to the museum by his widow in 1924.)

“The theory that our portrait once belonged to a three-dimensional sculpture had previously been put forth,” Manchester says. “But from the moment I read Ray’s email, I was intrigued. Had he really found the rest of it? A trip to Rome convinced me that he had done so, but then came the challenge of proving he was right.”

Technology spurs breakthrough

Scholars utilized sampling and scientific analysis to establish that the two pieces were once one and delved into archives of published and unpublished documents in Chicago and Rome to unearth new details about the two works.

The project also demonstrated just how crucial cutting-edge technology can be in such an investigation. Because Italian law forbids the dismantling of any restoration from the 18thcentury or earlier, the restored face could not be removed from the bust to check the joint. Thus, to determine whether the Art Institute’s fragment aligned with the bust, three-dimensional scans of the heads of both pieces were created, allowing scholars and artists to noninvasively establish orientation and fit. A subsequent full-scale, three-dimensional plaster cast was then generated, reproducing the sculpture as it originally appeared.

“This shows what’s possible with the fantastic new digital technology we have available,” says Johnson, who notes that Oriental Institute scholars all employ digital technology in their research. “These tools have directly benefited archaeology—they facilitate documentation, but also the analysis and ultimately the reconstruction of ancient fragmentary monuments.”

The Art Institute exhibition features both the Roman bust and its original portrait, as well as related portraits of Hadrian and Antinous. A short video outlines the steps scholars took to follow Johnson’s lead and ultimately reunite the two pieces.

“It is beyond my wildest dreams to see something like this done so elegantly and beautifully, and so accessibly,” Johnson says of the exhibition. “This is what can happen when different institutions communicate and collaborate.”