The story of Pseudo-Seneca


If you are interested in Stoicism you have likely heard of the story of the so-called “Pseudo-Seneca,” but just in case, here it is. Stoicism had ceased to be an independent school of philosophy in the ancient world well before the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 (and of course some of the other schools lingered only a bit longer, until the Byzantine emperor Justinian I closed the last of them, the Academy in Athens, in 529). But the philosophy had influenced a number of figures, including prominent Christian theologians, throughout the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.

A pivotal event in our story occurred in 1584, when the Neo-Stoic Justus Lipsius published De Constantia, an introduction to Stoic philosophy based mostly on Seneca. Justus had been persecuted during the Spanish domination of the Netherlands, and thought that Stoicism would be of comfort when facing tyranny and injustice. He almost single-handedly revived the philosophy and attempted an interesting, if not long lasting, reconciliation of it with Christianity.

Seneca was well known already in the 15th century, and increasingly considered a highly moral figure, a sort of secular saint of the new humanists (his fortunes in that respect have seen repeated ups and downs, pretty much from the time he was alive). However, no portrait or bust of him existed, which means that nobody really knew what he looked like — and that is where our mystery tale begins.

At end of the 16th century, Fulvio Orsini, the librarian-antiquarian of the powerful Farnese family in Rome, identified an ancient bust (similar to the one in the figure above) as that of Seneca, and published an illustrated work based on it in 1598. The bust became immediately famous, as it represented a man who seemed to have the characteristics expected from a Sage like Seneca: he was somewhat emaciated, and yet projected an appearance of vigor rooted in internal strength, just the sort of thing that Renaissance enthusiasts of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization were eager to attribute to their favored Roman philosopher.

Interestingly, by the way, Lipsius himself was in Rome in 1570, and it is known to have met Orsini, probably influencing the latter in his thinking about Seneca. Moreover, none other than Peter Paul Rubens turned out to be a student of Lipsius, and he too visited Rome, in 1601, on which occasion (or perhaps a few years later) he saw the Farnese bust. He was duly impressed, so much so that later on, when he built his house in Antwerp in 1612-15, Rubens gave prominent place to a copy of “Seneca’s” bust, a copy that got lost after the sale of Rubens’ house to the Duke of Buckingham in 1625.

Rubens was so inspired by the Roman philosopher that he draw “Seneca” on a number of occasions, basing his renditions on a damaged statue that became the property of Cardinal Scipio Borghese. The best known result of Rubens’ interest was the 1611 painting representing the death of Seneca:

death of Seneca

Rubens also painted The Four Philosophers in 1611-12 (now at the Pitti Palace in Florence), a scene representing Rubens himself, his brother Philip, Justus, and Jan van de Wouwere (one of Justus’ student), and featuring “Seneca” as a bust in the background.

Several other artists of the period reproduced “Seneca,” including Jan Brueghel the Elder in his The Sense of Sight, 1618 (Prado, Madrid). See if you can spot it among other ancient Roman luminaries:

Jan Brueghel the Elder-The Sense of Sight

A bit later on, in mid-17th century, a number of painters began to produce so-called “Vanitas” still lives, paintings with a  moralizing message, and a few by Matthias Withoos included “Seneca.” The writing in one of these works expresses what very much sounds like a reference to the Stoics: “Human beings with all virtues armed against happiness and unhappiness.”

Back to the Pseudo-Seneca bust: the most famous one is actually a Roman bronze from the late I Century (currently at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples), but it is nowadays thought to most likely represent the playwright Aristophanes (or the poet Hesiod). It was discovered in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum in 1754 (i.e., after the above recalled events), but it is itself a copy of a lost original Greek bronze from 200BCE, which presumably also gave origin to the other Pseudo-Senecas, of which a dozen had been discovered by the 17th century.

Johann Joachim Winckelman, a German historian and archeologist who profoundly disliked Seneca (to the point of calling him a “low pedant”), was the first to doubt of the authenticity of Pseudo-Seneca, already in 1764.

We now know pretty much for sure that Winckelman was right in being skeptical (though not about the pedant part): the real likeness of Seneca was discovered in 1813 at the Villa Mattei on the Celio hill in Rome. It is one side of an unusual double bust featuring Socrates on the other side, and is now at the Altes Museum in Berlin:

Seneca and Socrates

How do we know this is really Seneca? If you look closely, it clearly says so on the bust itself, and there is no reason to think that the inscription is a forgery added later to the marble portrait.

Lots more can be found on the story of Pseudo-Seneca — including a number of illustrations of other busts and paintings — in a little known article by Wolfram Prinz, entitled “The Four Philosophers by Rubens and the Pseudo-Seneca in Seventeenth-Century Painting,” and published in The Art Bulletin 55(3):410-418, 1973. (The article can be downloaded here, if you register for an account.)

Interestingly, Prinz shrewdly observes that “it is hardly possible to believe that the real bust of Seneca would have enjoyed the same success as the impressive pseudo-Seneca.” It just wouldn’t have fit the part of the ascetic sage, I guess.

6 thoughts on “The story of Pseudo-Seneca

  1. This less athletic fellow makes more sense, given his asthma and other issues (as suntzuspeaks says). Also in one of his letters he writes (perhaps sarcastically) of the privations of having only a small litter and a few slaves on a journey!

    Typo note, you have “and that is were our mystery tale begins”, and I assume that “were” should be “where”.

    Liked by 1 person

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