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Dancing Satyr

Roman art

This satyr, which has an equine tail, is portrayed dancing, raised up on the balls of his feet. His animal nature is primarily expressed through his unruly hair, arranged in thick locks that escape his ivy crown, long, luxuriant beard and pointed ears.  The figure’s nudity highlights the torsion of the pose, heightening the muscular tension. The left foot is moved forward, while the right is in line with the crossing of the legs. He appears to be mid-movement, his torso and face static and turned towards the left. His arms are raised and he holds cymbals (from a restoration) in his hands. Studying the traces of the original points of attachment for the arms suggests that the figure originally held a wind instrument, probably an aulós. The satyr is supported by a tree trunk draped with a leopard skin called a pardalis, an attribute typical of komastic processions.

The work overall was clearly influenced by a Hellenistic model produced in connection with the school at Sicyon. Specifically, the meticulous rendering of details and figure’s vigorous tension point to the work of Lysippos.

The sculpture was unearthed during excavations of the Villa of the Bruttii Praesentes at Monte Calvo in Sabina, in 1824. It was restored in about 1830 by Bertel Thorvaldsen and acquired by the Borghese family in 1834.

Object details

II secolo d. C.
pentelic marble
h.without plinth cm. 205

Unearthed during excavations at Monte Calvo in Sabina in 1824. Acquired by the Borghese family in 1834. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • About 1830, Bertel Thorwaldsen: outer part of the plinth; lower part of the trunk; the muzzle and lower edge of the pardalis; front part of the left big toe; back half of the right foot; left leg reconstructed from four fragments; lower part of the right leg; the arms from the attachment of the biceps; the head is reconstructed from fragments; two locks of hair from the beard; the tip of the nose; a lock of hair on the right temple. 1996–1998, Liana Persichelli


This sculpture was unearthed during the excavation of a vast residential complex believed to have belonged to the family of the Bruttii Praesentes, at Monte Calvo in Sabina, in 1824. Restored in about 1830 by Bertel Thorvaldsen and acquired by the Borghese family in 1834, the statue was installed in the space that had hosted Silenus with the Infant Bacchus, now in the Louvre, prior to the forced sale to Napoleon in 1807. This location was well suited to the work, due to the Dionysian frescoes decorating the room, which had been commissioned by Marcantonio Borghese in view of the Silenus group.

The present work depicts a dancing nude satyr with an equine tail. His body rotates on the balls of his feet, wrapped around the vertical axis, bringing the left foot forward and leaving the right foot in alignment with the crossing of the legs. The torso and face, turned to the left, do not participate in the torsion. The tense, meticulously described musculature emphasises the tension of the movement. The outstretched arms do not follow the original spiral construction of the body, and the hands hold cymbals. The animal nature of the figure is clearly expressed by the luxuriant beard that frames the face, its twisted locks hanging down to the chest, and the pointed ears that stick out from the dishevelled curls. His hair is bound by a tainia, from which it escapes in a mass that falls onto his neck, while a few stray curls frame his low forehead. The tree trunk that serves as support for the figure is draped with a pardalis, the ferine skin worn by participants in Dionysian processions.

Before the nineteenth-century restoration, the figure would have held a wind instrument in its hands, probably an aulós, a double-reed pipe, and its arms would have been further up, as we can see from the original points of attachment, which are still visible. There are numerous surviving exemplars of this iconographic type, especially bronze statuettes, including a small bronze from Herculaneum (Comparetti, De Petra, 1883, p. 271, no. 52, pl. XVI, no.10), another in Naples (Döhl, Zanker, 1984, p. 202) and one in Vienna (Saken, 1883, p. 65, pl. X, 2). There are strong iconographic similarities between this statue and a head identified as Marsyas on view at the Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Florence (inv. 13731), which has puffed out cheeks and traces of the attachment of the aulós to the mouth (Minto, 1920, p. 46, fig. 67).

The dancing male figure was common in ancient art, primarily in representations of satyrs, as we also know from numerous literary sources. In The Dance, Lucian writes: ‘I forbear to say that not a single ancient mystery-cult can be found that is without dancing, since they were established, of course, by Orpheus and Musaeus, the best dancers of that time, who included in it their prescriptions as something exceptionally beautiful to be initiated with rhythm and dancing. To prove that this is so, although it behoves me to observe silence about the rites on account of the uninitiate, nevertheless there is one thing that everyone has heard: namely, that those who let out the mysteries in conversation are commonly said to “dance them out.”’ And further, ‘As to the Dionysiac and Bacchic rites, I expect you are not waiting for me to tell you that every bit of them was dancing. In fact, their most typical dances, which are three in number, the Cordax, the Sicinnis, and the Emmeleia, were invented by the attendants of Dionysus, the Satyrs, who named them all after themselves, and it was by the exercise of this art, they say, that Dionysus subdued the Tyrrhenians, the Indians, and the Lydians, dancing into subjection with his bands of revellers a multitude so warlike.’

The Borghese Satyr is iconographically similar to figures in Dionysian processions on sarcophagi (Matz, 1968, pp. 42–43, nos. 58–60). In particular, the Dionysian Bardini sarcophagus in Florence, only the front of which survives, depicts a Bacchic thiasus with a flute-playing maenad in a spiral-like pose similar to that of the Borghese statue (Cittadini, 1995, pp. 216–217).

The attention lavished on even the smallest details, including the hair, the anatomical precision and the accentuated vigour of the torsion all point to a Hellenistic archetype produced in the milieu of the school at Sicyon. More specifically, attention to symmetry, dynamic opposition of the two halves of the same figure and antithesis among the parts in relation to the median line are all features typical of Lysippos’s work. There is a notable similarity between the statue’s torsion and the ‘Jewish flautist’, identified as Praxilla of Sicyon (recognised in the Female Dancer of the Berlin type: Morpurgo 1931, pp. 190–194; Cittadini 1995, pp. 208–217), the renowned Greek poetess of whom the bronze sculptor had made a statue for the agora of Sicyon. The satyr’s facial features instead share similarities with the Socrates of the B  type (Poulsen 1931, p. 33, fig. 25; Calcani 1995, pp. 256–265), a sculpture attributed to the same artist.

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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008557, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020