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Altar with Relief of Animals and a Lyre

Roman art

This four-sided altar has protruding moulding at the top and bottom. The front is decorated with a rampant deer; the back with a dog in the same position. On the sides, there are a crow, on the left, and an eight-string lyre, on the right.

These iconographic subjects evoke the cults of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Apollo, who played the lyre.

The sculpture was recorded in Room II of the Villa Borghese by Nibby in 1832, when it was used as a base for a small statue of Artemis and later, in 1841, for the Effeminate Hercules. That statue, which was sold in 1893 to Carl Jacobsen for the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, was then replaced by the statue of Alexander (inv. VIIC) that still stands on the altar today.

Object details

I secolo d.C.
Luni marble
altezza cm 96; larghezza cm 56; profondità cm 48

Borghese Collection, cited for the first time in 1828 in a letter from Evasio Gozzani to Prince Camillo; in the Villa, in Room II by Nibby (1832, p. 79); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 46, no. 72. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • '90s Monica Folcini


This four-sided altar has moulding composed, at the top, of a listel, a cyma recta and a second listel, and, at the bottom, a cyma reversa, a astragal and a high base. The sides are decorated with reliefs of a crow, on the left, and an eight-string lyre, on the right. The bird, which is looking right with its head raised, has a berry in its mouth and stands on the ground. The musical instrument has two curved, vertical arms made of branches with small curls, a horizontal bar and, at the bottom, below the bridge, loose, curly strings.

The front is carved with a rampant deer, looking to the right, its back feet resting on a rock that sticks out from the background. The back is decorated with a dog in the same position. This animal stands out for the realistic rendering of its anatomy, which emphasises the bone structure of the head and the chest, highlighting the ribs. There is a dotted collar around the dog’s neck.

These motifs are part of the Greco-Roman iconographic repertoire, and the dog and the deer more specifically reference the cult of the goddess Artemis as Potnia Theron, ‘Queen of Wild Animals’. The tension of the animals, both portrayed jumping forward, suggests a reference to the goddess’s sacred hunts. In his hymn to Artemis, Callimachus wrote: ‘Thence departing (and thy hounds sped with thee) thou didst find by the base of the Parrhasian hill deer gambolling – a mighty herd. They always herded by the banks of the black-pebbled Anaurus – larger than bulls, and from their horns shone gold. And thou wert suddenly amazed and saidst to thine own heart: “This would be a first capture worthy of Artemis”’ (98–112).

There are two altars in the Museo Nazionale Romano that also pair the two subjects. In the first, dating to the first century CE, the animals are at rest. In the second, unearthed on via Ardeatina, they are on the hunt, accompanied by Artemis herself (Manodori 1981, pp. 299–300; Lombardi 1981, pp. 342–343). The lyre, on the right side, evokes the god Apollo, as described by Callimachus: ‘Golden is the tunic of Apollo and golden his mantle, his lyre and his Lyctian bow and his quiver: golden too are his sandals’ (Hymn to Apollo 34–36). As for the crow, the bird motif was frequently used to decorate Roman urns, especially during the early imperial period (Sinn 1987).

The decoration of the sculpture does not, however, offer enough information to advance theories about the original use of the monument and we can only hypothesise that it was funerary or celebratory.

The sculpture was mentioned in a letter from the minister Evasio Gozzani to Prince Camillo Borghese in 1828 as one of the works entrusted to Antonio D’Este for restoration (Moreno, Sforzini 1987, p. 360). Nibby described it in 1832 in Room II of the Villa Borghese, used as a base for a ‘small statue of Artemis’ that is now in Room III, inv. CXXIII (Nibby 1832, p. 79, no. 6). In 1841, the small statue was replaced by the Effeminate Hercules from Villa Aldobrandini on the Quirinal Hill, which was then purchased at auction in 1893 by Carl Jacobsen for the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen (Moletesen 1987, pp. 198–199). Currently, the altar, still in Room II, is serving as a base for a statue of Alexander (inv. VIIC).

The relief decoration is quite flat, although the details, for example the crow’s feathers and the muscular tension of the animals, are described with meticulous accuracy. This workmanship suggests a date of the first century CE.

Giulia Ciccarello

  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 79, n. 6.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 13, n. 15.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 916, n. 15.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), I, p. 15, n. 15.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 17, n. 194.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 14.
  • A. Manodori, Altare con rappresentazioni del culto di Diana, in “Museo Nazionale Romano. Le sculture”, Roma 1981, pp. 299-300.
  • A. L. Lombardi, Altare con iscrizione dedicato a Diana Victrix, in “Museo Nazionale Romano. Le sculture”, Roma 1981, pp. 342-343.
  • P. Moreno, C. Sforzini, I ministri del principe Camillo: cronaca della collezione Borghese di antichità dal 1807 al 1832, in “Scienze dell’Antichità”, 1, 1987, pp. 339-371, in part. p. 360.
  • M. Moltesen, From the Princely Collection of the Borghese Family to the Glyptotek of Carl Jacobsen, in “Analecta Romana. Istituti Danici”, XVI, Roma 1987, pp. 187-203.
  • F. Sinn, Stadtrömischen Marmorurnen, Mainz am Rhein, 1987.
  • O. Dräger, Religionem significare, Studien zu reichverzierten römischen Altären und Basen aus Marmor, in “Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Roemische Abteilung, Ergänzungsheft”, 33, München 1994, p. 222, n. 52, tav. 81, 4.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp. 176-177, n. 152.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/00147831, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.