The medieval Italian city of Barletta in Apulia, has between its narrow streets, a “little” hidden secret, which dates back to before the Middle Ages. In fact, near the Basilica del Santo Sepolcro, there is a mysterious and colossal bronze statue of an unidentified Roman emperor. This statue however is not like the great portraits of Hadrian and Trajan. Instead, it represents a forgotten time in which classical antiquity was mixed with new ideas that would shape medieval art. The statue is about five meters tall, with an emperor displayed wearing a Lorica Musculata (a garment widely used by Roman emperors and senior commanders). The emperor is depicted wearing an imperial diadem, which screams of Costantinian portraiture, and has a haircut typical of the Late Roman period.
How this magnificent bronze statue came to Barletta is widely debated, but it has been in Barletta since at least the year 1309 AD.
Some believe that the statue was taken from the city of Constantinople by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade. The statue would have been stored on a boat but, when this boat went down at sea, the bronze emperor would have arrived on the southern coasts of Italy, eventually making its way to Barletta.
A second origin story about the statue involves the former imperial capital of Ravenna. During excavations in the 13th century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen would have found the statue in Ravenna and could have brought it to Barletta.
The first origin story has been discredited by experts, as no signs of salt water were found on the statue. So, it seems we are left with the second option, though this too does not seem entirely likely. What we know for certain however is that this fascinating piece of bronze represents a Late Roman emperor, characterized by strong facial features and a hard gaze: a warrior emperor in his fifties. The identity of the Augustus himself is the true mystery here though.
The problem is, how do you identify a Roman Emperor? The answer lies in using coinage and literary sources to match him with an emperor of a similar time period and description. The first hypothesis is that he could be emperor Theodosius I, but we can see from his coinage that his facial features do not resemble the bronze statue.
The colossus’s face does however resemble the facial features of Emperor Jovian. But therein lies another problem, as Jovian never reached either Constantinople or Ravenna, as he died in his tent in Anatolia.
Could the bronze emperor therefore be Theodosius II? The two do share some similarities, such as the short cut beard, but the shape of Theodosius’s face does not match the statue, and his bookish personality certainly is not identifiable in the harsh gaze and features of the colossus.
Could the statue therefore represent the mighty and strict warrior emperor Valentinian I? As we can see in his coinage, Valentinian is depicted with strong facial features and a square jaw.
By being a soldier emperor, Valentinian embodies the perfect candidate for the bronze statue as his martial and wrathful temper is present in the hard stare of the colossus. From Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman officer and author, we know that emperor Valentinian was “considerably tall and muscular, with grey eyes that were capable of an oblique hard stare, being overall a wonderful emperor figure”. Could Valentinian then be our man? Could he be our mysterious emperor?
Recently, Professor Emanuela Sibilia of the University of Milano-Biccocca, was able to date the statue. According to the thermoluminescence dating technique employed, the bronze statue was cast between 300 and 500 AD, making Valentinian I and Theodosius II the most likely of candidates.