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Eros in Chains

Roman art, copy after hellenistic original

This statuette portrays Eros as a young child, having been punished for misbehaving, a popular theme in both literature and art. The prototype for the Borghese sculpture would have been from the early Hellenistic period with characteristics influenced by the work of Praxiteles. There are numerous known copies, although they differ from the Borghese exemplar in a few details. Two are in Florence, one of which in Palazzo Pitti and the other in Palazzo Corsini al Prato. In Rome, there is one, unfortunately damaged, exemplar in the Museo Nazionale Romano and another in Palazzo Corsetti. Lastly, there are three busts: two in the Vatican Museum, in the Sala dei Candelabri, and one in the Museo Nazionale, Naples.

The little boy, who is portrayed standing and leaning against a tree trunk, is busy drying his tears with the fingers on his right hand. A long chain, attached to a cord around his waist, hangs down along his left leg, ending at a ring around his ankle. The figure is nude and his hair is bound by a piece of fabric.

Object details

II secolo d.C.
white Luni marble
Height without plinth 72 cm; head height 19 cm

Cardinal Scipione Borghese, first documented in 1619 (Kalveram 1995, p. 245). Inventario fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 50, no. 130. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • XVIII secolo - Restauri eseguiti in marmo e stucco: il plinto, il tronco di sostegno con il panneggio sovrapposto, la gamba destra fino a metà della coscia, la gamba sinistra fin sotto al ginocchio, l’avambraccio sinistro con il lembo del panneggio tenuto nella mano, la mano destra (tranne l’indice e il pollice che toccano il viso), la parte superiore della calotta della stoffa sul capo.
  • 1996-1998, Liana Persichelli


The young boy is portrayed standing, leaning against a tree trunk to his right. His right arm is raised to dry his tears with his chubby little hand, and his left arm is bent, his left hand holding the hem of a garment draped over the trunk.  His right leg is straight, while his left is bent, following the relaxed pose of his body. The figure, which has full, child-like features, is nude with the exception of a long chain that hangs down along his left leg, knotted at the top to a cord wrapped around his waist and at the bottom to a ring around his ankle. His hair is arranged in a female style, with the hair arranged in tidy locks and held by a length of knotted fabric, called a kekryphalos.

The iconography of the sculpture is well known and attested in numerous copies, the similarity of which suggests that they  were based on a single prototype, differing in only small ways. The closest comparison can be made with a sculpture in Palazzo Pitti, Florence, in which the little boy is leaning against a baluster covered with ears and decorated with a bucrania (Curtius, 1930, pp. 53–62, pl. 3, figs. 1, 3), identified by Ludwig Curtius in 1930 as Eros scolded by Nemesis or his mother, Aphrodite. There is another, heavily restored exemplar in Florence, in Palazzo Corsini al Prato. In Rome, there is an, unfortunately damaged, copy in the Museo Nazionale Romano (Candilio, 1981, pp. 340–341, no. 43), another in Palazzo Corsetti (Matz, Duhn, I, 1881, pp. 335–336, no. 1155) and two torsos in the Vatican Museum, Galleria dei Candelabri (Lippold III, 2, 1956, p. 125, no. 29, pl. 58; p. 146, no. 63, pl. 69). Lastly, there is a torso, found in Baiae and now in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, that, unlike the others, has wings (Curtius, 1930, p. 56, note 7).

The heavy influence of Praxiteles on the composition tells us that the prototype for the Borghese copy would have dated to the early Hellenistic period. It was a popular theme in ancient sources. In Apollonius of Rhodes, we read, in a passage in which Aphrodite confides in Hera and Athena: ‘little Eros sooner would heed your will than mine. Brash as he is, his eyes might show some glimmer of respect before such stately figures as yourselves. My discipline means nothing to him. Always willful and wild, he cackles when I chide him. Why, sick of his antics, I once threatened, in view of all the gods, to snap in half his dismal-whizzing darts and short bow, too. Only wound up more, the little monster menaced me thus: “If you don’t keep your mitts far from my darts and let me get my way, you might regret, Mommy, what you have done’ (Apollonius of Rhodes, Jason and the Argonauts 3.90–99).

The sculpture is mentioned for the first time in 1619 in an invoice for the pedestal that was made when the work was restored: ‘walnut pedestal for the little slave, decorated with carved leaves’ (Kalveram 1995, p. 245: ASV, Arch. Borghese 4173, anni 1607-1623).

In 1650, Iacomo Manilli described it as a ‘statuette of a little slave who is crying’ (Manilli, 1650, p. 108) and, in 1700, Domenico Montelatici wrote that it was a ‘little slave boy who is crying, with a chain at his feet’ (Montelatici, 1700, p. 300). Both report that it was in what was called the Room of the Graces at the time (now Room 9) and displayed near the statue of a ‘little boy who is laughing and holding a small bird in his hands’ (inv. XV), probably to emphasise the opposition between freedom and punishment (Kalveram 1995, p. 245, no. 154). This arrangement was reported for the last time in the inventory of 1792 (ASV, Arch. Borghese 1007, no. 270, p. 88, Inventario, 1792). In 1821, both statuettes were mentioned in Visconti’s catalogue, published posthumously by Gherardo de Rossi (Visconti, 1821, II, p. 67). Not included in the massive sale to Napoleon in 1807, the sculpture was first displayed in Room 5 (the author called it the ‘Room of the Hermaphrodite’: Nibby 1832, p. 105), then it was moved to Room 3 in 1888 (Venturi 1893, p. 30) and, finally, to its current location in Room 6. The statue was portrayed in a drawing made by Carlo Calderi between 1716 and 1730 and commissioned by the collector Richard Topham (Fabréga-Dubert 2020, Bm.3.40). Topham’s collection of drawings, preserved in Eton College Library, provides an invaluable record of the ancient sculptures that were present in the most important residences in Rome and other Italian cities in the 1720s.

Giulia Ciccarello