Caligula 3-D: Man, Myth, Emperor


Caligula Project rendering of VMFA portrait of Caligula

When Dr. Peter Schertz, VMFA Jack and Mary Ann Frable Curator of Ancient Art, arrived at the museum in 2006, he recognized the statue of Caligula as one of the highlights of VMFA’s antiquities collection.Formally known as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Caligula was born in AD 12 and became emperor of Rome at age 25. History records his four-year reign as that of a madman who alienated the mainstays of the imperial order and was assassinated in AD 41. His reputation has been sealed in modern times by his depiction in the series I Claudius, which aired on public television in the 1970s, as well as in a film from the same period.

While many monuments honoring Caligula were destroyed after he was murdered, a number of portraits survived, though mostly busts. Of the two known full-length statues, the copy in Richmond is by far the best preserved, Schertz says. As Schertz studied this remarkable portrait he began to wonder what it originally looked like as well as how and why it was able to survive. More significantly, Schertz wondered, why don’t more people know about it?

In 2009 Bernard Frishcher, Professor of Art History and Classics at the University of Virginia, contacted Schertz. Frischer is also Codirector of the Digital Sculpture Project and Director of the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory, also at UVA. The laboratory’s mission is to create 3-D digital models of the world’s most significant sculptures and make them available on the Internet. Frischer and Schertz agreed that VMFA’s portrait of Caligula was an ideal subject for this project. Using advanced scanning technologies, a team of scholars have been able to produce highly detailed 3-D digital renderings of the statue and virtually reconstruct its missing parts, examine previous restorations (the head was reattached to the torso around 1970), and hypothesize about the statue’s original polychromy or color.

The culmination of the project is the symposium at VMFA on Sunday, December 4, 10 am–5 pm in the Leslie Cheek Theater. Scholars will review these findings and present other scholarship related to Caligula and portraiture. In addition to Schertz and Frischer, speakers include John Pollini of the University of Southern California, Paolo Liverani of the Univeristy of Florence, David Koller of the University of Virginia, Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, Maria Grazia Picozzi of the University of Rome, and VMFA Conservator Kathy Gillis. Open and free to the public, the discussion promises to be lively and stimulating.

Advance tickets are required. Call 804.340.1405 or reserve online at
The Caligula Project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

– Dr. Peter Schertz