Curator Rediscovers Ancient Caligula Bust in England

Dating back to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the five-inch emperor was uncovered by a curator after disappearing in the 19th century.

Jun 27, 2024By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies
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The ancient Roman bronze Caligula bust. Source: Strawberry Hill House & Garden.

 

An ancient bronze bust of the notorious Roman emperor Caligula was uncovered in England after disappearing over a century ago. Just five inches tall and dating back to the destruction of Herculaneum, the bust was once owned by Horace Walpole, an English writer, politician, and art collector. The newly-discovered Caligula bust will be on view at Strawberry Hill House, Walpole’s 18th-century London home, from June 29.

 

From Herculaneum to Strawberry Hill House

Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, London. Source: Strawberry Hill House & Garden.

 

In the 18th century, the Caligula bust was unearthed in Herculaneum, having been preserved under layers of volcanic ash since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. A British ambassador to Italy acquired the rare bust and gave it to his friend Horace Walpole, who lived in a new Gothic Revival villa of his own design in London. Known as Strawberry Hill House, Walpole’s residence housed an impressive collection of art and artifacts. Today, the house and its collection are open to the public as a museum.

 

According to a recent statement from Strawberry Hill House, Walpole was captivated by the Caligula bust: “I gaze on it from morning to night,” Walpole wrote. “It is more a portrait than any picture I ever saw…. The hair and ears seem neglected, to heighten the expression of the eyes, which are absolutely divine, and have a wild melancholy in them, that one forebodes might ripen to madness.” After Walpole died in 1797, the ancient Caligula bust passed through several owners and eventually disappeared.

 

“They Had No Idea It Was Caligula,” Says Curator

The rediscovered Caligula bust. Source: Strawberry Hill House, London.

 

Since Walpole’s death, several objects have disappeared from his expansive yet unusually well-documented collection. Silva Davoli, a curator and provenance researcher, has spent years tracking down the various “lost treasures” of Strawberry Hill House, including Walpole’s Caligula bust. Davoli began with a life-size drawing of the bust, which Walpole commissioned in the 1780s. Thanks to her extensive knowledge of the Walpole collection, Davoli eventually matched the drawing to a misidentified bronze bust in the prestigious private collection of the Schroder family, which dates back generations.

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It turned out that Baron John Henry Schroder acquired the Caligula bust in the late 1890s, by which time its connection to Strawberry Hill House was forgotten. The Schroder collection catalogs identified the bust as a possible Renaissance-era bronze of an unnamed youth. “They had no idea it was Caligula,” Davoli said. “I was so happy when I finally saw the bronze and made the link.” Experts determined the bust was indeed a 2,000-year-old depiction of Caligula.

Who Was Emperor Caligula?

A Roman Emperor: 41 AD (The Assassination of Emperor Caligula) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1871. Source: The Walters Art Museum.

 

Emperor Caligula is best remembered for his erratic and cruel behavior. He was assassinated just four years after being crowned emperor in 37 ADE. Despite his bad reputation—including rumors of incest and an attempt to make his horse a consul—several tiny bronze busts of Caligula were created for public use during his reign. According to Smithsonian Magazine, fewer than ten such busts of Caligula survive today. Horace Walpole’s lost-and-found Caligula bust is the focus of a new display at Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, London, which opens to the public on Saturday, June 29.

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.