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Clay Antefix of Dionysus and a Panther

Roman art


Discovered in 1831, during the Borghese excavations at Mentana, the terracotta antefix – a decorative element used on the roofs of Greek, Roman and Etruscan temples – is decorated with the figure of a young Dionysus of the ‘at rest’ type, with a panther. This iconographic subject was inspired by models from the circle of Praxiteles, which is referenced by the sinuous pose of the body. The nude figure is portrayed standing, with his left elbow resting elegantly on a pillar. His head is turned to the right and his long wavy hair extends down to his chest. The god is turned towards the animal, which is portrayed raised up on its hind legs, resting the front ones on the figure’s right thigh.

The elegance of the features and the careful rendering of details suggests a date for the antefix in the first century BCE.


Object details

Inventory
CCLIV
Location
Date
1st century B.C.
Classification
Medium
terracotta
Dimensions
height 49 cm, width 30 cm
Provenance

Borghese Collection, found in 1831 during the excavations at Nomentum, a feud owned by the Borghese (Moreno, Sforzini 1987, p. 370); it was in the Palazzina in 1832 (Nibby, pl. 43) and, in 1841, in Room VI (Nibby 1841, p. 922, no. 3). Inventario fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 51, no. 39. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 2004 - Liana Persichelli

Commentary

In 1831, ‘un antifisso di terra cotta rarissimo nel suo genere’ (‘an extremely rare terracotta antefix’) was found in the area of Mentana, on the ‘Golden Mountain’ near the hamlet of Romitorio. The Borghese family, which had owned the feud since 1632 (Pala 1976, p. 7), had hired Giuseppe Spagna to carry out the excavations in 1830. The discovery was made, however, in an area owned by the town of Mentana, and the finds were purchased by the Borghese family, on the advice of Minister Evasio Gozzani (Moreno, Sforzini 1987, p. 370). Nibby illustrated it in the PalazzinaBorghese in 1832 in a plate that shows it complete with its curved background, but he did not indicate its location at that time, noting it later. In the publication of 1838, the antefix is mentioned in Room VI on a red granite table, and described as ‘figurina di fanciullo con una pantera’ (‘figurine of a boy with a panther’; 1832, pl. 43; 1841, p. 922, no. 3). This arrangement had already been reported in 1833 in the Inventario fidecommissario Borghese (p. 51, no. 39). In 1893, it was reported in the second room on the upper floor by Venturi, who identified its Praxitelean influence (p. 71). The 1927 edition of Giusti’s guide provides a terminus post quem for the display of the antefix in the galleries. After which it does not appear in the guides to the Galleria Borghese until 2003, when Moreno placed it in storage (Giusti 1927, p. 40; Moreno, Viacava 2003, p. 284). It seems likely, therefore, that the sculpture was moved in the mid twentieth century to a room that was not open to the public.

This clay antefix – a decorative element used for Greek, Etruscan and Roman temples – is fragmentary: it is missing its original curved background (shown in Nibby’s illustration), except for the lower part. What survives is the figure of a young Dionysus, nude and standing, and a panther. The figure is in a frontal pose and turned to the right, his weight supported by his straight right leg, while his left leg is to the side and slightly moved forward. The body is in a sinuous pose, with the torso turned to the left. The left elbow, moved away from the body, is resting on a pillar that is partially covered by drapery. The right arm is extended to caress the head of the animal, which is raised up on its hind legs, jumping up on the god. The figure’s head is turned to the right and his long wavy hair comes down to his shoulders and chest. The expression on his youthful face is calm and smiling.  The group is set on an irregular base in the shape of a smooth, protruding listel.

The figure portrays the iconographic type of ‘Dionysus at rest’, which was especially popular in Roman art during the Imperial period: long-limbed with slender thighs and thin legs, lean, elastic muscles that seem to tremble beneath the skin, and a relaxed pose. The ‘S’-shaped pose of the body seems to evoke Praxitelean models, in particular the Lycean Apollo. The sculpture in the round shares especially relevant iconographic similarities with the Dionysus with nebris and mantle in the Capitoline Museum (inv. scu 628, Gasparri 1986, p. 436 no. 102) and the one in Holkham Hall (Gasparri 1986, p. 436 no. 123b; Angelicoussis 2001, pp. 99–100, no. 12, pl. 24, 28–29). There are also numerous sculptures with the same subject in the Borghese Collection, one of which still preserves the component attaching the paws of the panther next to the god (inv. CXXXXIII). The inclusion of felines in Dionysian processions is attested in Attic pottery from at least the sixth century BCE, the presence of these animals becoming even more frequent in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. The association of the god with ferocious animals is closely tied to his role as lord of wild nature, for which he was given the epithet Bromius, which evokes the crash of thunder and the lion’s roar. In a recent study, Moździoch advanced the theory that the tie between Dionysus and his followers, especially the Maenads, and felines with spotted fur is rooted in the concept of mania, shared by the god and the beasts in virtue of their variegated coats. The term used, ποικίλος, described both multi-hued fabrics and people with an unpredictable nature (2016 pp. 367–368).

The antefix, for which there are no known close comparisons, shares some similarities with three works in the Museo Nazionale Romano of Maenads with panthers. In contrast to those works, however, the relief seems to protrude further out from the background. Bacchic iconographic subjects, in particular the figure of Dionysus at rest, were popular in neo-Attic art, suggesting a date during the late Republican period or early Augustan period.

Giulia Ciccarello




Bibliography
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, tav. 43.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 21, n. 3.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 922, n. 3.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 71.
  • G. Giusti, La Galleria Borghese e la Villa di Umberto I a Roma, Roma 1927, p. 40.
  • C. Pala, Regio 1. Latium et Campania. Nomentum, in “Forma Italiae”, Roma 1976, p. 7.
  • P. Pensabene, M. R. Sanzi Di Mino, Museo Nazionale Romano. Le terrecotte. Antefisse, III, 1, Roma 1983, tav. CLI.
  • C. Gasparri, s.v. Dionysos/Bacchus, in “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae”, III, 1, Zürich München 1986, p. 436, n. 102, 123, 123b.
  • 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, p. 370, fig. 11.
  • E. Angelicoussis, The Woburn Abbey Collection of Classical Antiquities, Mainz 2001, pp. 99-100.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, p. 284.
  • M. Miziur Moździoch, Fierce Felines in the Cult and Imagery of Dionysus: Bacchic Mania and What Else?, in P. A. Johnston, A. Mastrocinque, S. Papaioannou (a cura di), Animals in Greek and Roman Religion and Myth. Proceedings of the Symposium, Cambridge 2013, pp. 361-392.
  • P. Meilán Jácome, Bacchus and Felines in Roman Iconography: Issues of Gender and Species, in A. Bernabé et alii (a cura di), Redefining Dionysos, Berlin-Boston 2013, pp. 526-540.