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Festooned Sarcophagus with Nereids Bearing the Arms of Achilles; Front Section

Roman art


This relief was originally part of a sarcophagus of which there are other surviving portions (Room VIII, inv. CCXXXVII; Salon invv. IIL, XXXV, XXXVII). The scene depicts two putti with plump, childlike features holding a garland of flowers, leaves and fruit. Above the garland is a Tritoness, a minor marine divinity accompanying Poseidon’s retinue, holding a shield and heading to the right; the subject is the handing over of weapons to Achilles by his mother, Thetis, and her marine sisters, the Nereids as narrated by Homer in the Iliad. This typology belongs to a series of sarcophagi decorated with garlands produced between the first and fourth century CE; the marine retinue decorating this panel is among the most frequently used themes in Roman funerary sculpture and can be read not only as a simple decorative element but as an intentional reference to otherworldly bliss. It may be that this fragment is among those transferred in 1671 together with statues and bas-reliefs from Villa Pinciana to Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio to decorate the garden and later relocated to Villa Pinciana.


Object details

Inventory
CCXXVIIa
Location
Date
130-150 d.C.
Classification
Medium
blue-veined white marble
Dimensions
altezza cm 55, larghezza cm 82
Provenance

Borghese Collection (before 1671)?; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 54, no. 190. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1828 Antonio D’Este
  • 1996/97 Liana Persichelli

Commentary

The present fragment may be one of those transferred in 1671 together with statues and bas-reliefs from Villa Pinciana to Palazzo Borghese in Campo Marzio to decorate the garden; in fact, the engravings of the Garden Fountain in the city palazzo made by Venturini in the second half of the seventeenth century show as many as five reliefs with garlanded cherubs and characters from the marine ensemble, in particular Nereids and Tritons, similar to the one presently considered (Falda 1691, tables 11–12). At a later date, however, the reliefs returned to Villa Pinciana, and in 1828 Giuseppe Gozzani, Minister of the House of Borghese in charge of setting up the new family collection, gave a pair of slabs with Erotes and festoons – perhaps one of those considered here – to Antonio D’Este for them to be restored (Moreno, Sforzini 1987, p. 360), before displaying them in Room VIII.

The relief, set on a modern base, comprises a garland held by Erotes with plump childlike bodies and soft facial features framed by a set of wavy curls. The inner legs of the Erotes are almost in profile, while the other legs are moved to the side and slightly bent; their outer arms are raised to hold the voluminous encarpus, symmetrically structured and hanging at the ends from two cuffs, where a vine leaf covers an array of bunches of grapes, pomegranates, apples, pine cones, corymbs, berries and less characterised fruits. In the garland lunette appears a Tritoness, facing to the right, with two fish tails, draped in a mantle covering the left half of her body, fastened at the waist by a belt, while in her hands held forward she bears a shield. The scene depicted originally constituted the left portion of the front of a sarcophagus, complemented in the centre and on the right by fragments – also inserted into modern bases – exhibited in the Salone, inv. IIL, Room VIII, inv. CCXXXVII and recomposed in the overall drawing by Ernst Eichler (Rumpf 1939, p. 1, fig. 1), while the short sides are displayed in the Hall (invv. XXXV; XXXVII).

This typology belongs to a long series of garland-decorated sarcophagi, which are distinguished by the presence of the garland motif in relief, the first examples of which may date back to the Julio-Claudian period. However, it was only from the late-Trajan early-Hadrian age that an intense and steady production began, which was also influenced by garland altars (most recently Herdejürgen 1996).  Specifically, in the context of Roman artistic production, the iconographic theme in question recurs on a series of sarcophagi commissioned by an urban clientele, with Erote-garlanded altars with complementing marine motifs for the encarpi (see also the slabs in the Portico, invv. CCXXXIII, CCXXXXI, Salon, LI).

Examples of wreath-bearing Erotes are known in Rome on cinerary urns from the Claudian period onwards, but it is in the Hadrian and especially Antonine periods that this repertoire becomes most widespread (on the wreath-bearing putto, Stuveras 1969, pp. 71–74). The motifs used to decorate the lunettes frequently include small figurative scenes with Dionysian themes, mythological episodes, single objects or, as in this case, figures of the marine thiasus.

In this specific case, the theme depicted on the lunettes is the one narrated by Homer in the Iliad, the handing over of the weapons just forged by Hephaestus to Achilles by his mother Thetis and her sisters, the Nereids (Iliad, XVIII, vv.615–616; XIX, vv. 1–13). This offering will, indirectly, be the cause of the hero’s tragic fate and the Nereids themselves will sing with Thetis Achilles’ funeral lament beside his dead body (Odyssey, XXIV). The theme of the handing over of weapons was much appreciated and widespread, particularly on Attic and, later, Italiote ceramics (Barringer 1995, 17 ff., 141 ff.; Icard-Gianolio, Szabados 1992, pp. 812–814). The great popularity of the figurative subject, particularly between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, has been attributed by some scholars to the propagandistic use of the triumphal marine parade, which could well represent Athenian maritime power of the Periclean age on various figurative formats (Sena Chiesa 2020). Later, in Proto-Hellenistic vase production and, especially, in Apulian ceramics of the late fourth century BCE, the motif found its greatest diffusion, becoming one of the most popular iconographic subjects (see Roscino 2015, pp. 56–57; in particular on Apulian amphora and dinos from Ruvo di Puglia, Museo Jatta, inv. 36932; 36927). An important contribution to the dissemination of the motif in Hellenistic and Roman art was the group attributed to Skopas (perhaps Skopas Minor) that Pliny (Naturalis Historia 36, 4, 26) records in the area of the Temple of Neptune in Rome, ‘There is Neptune himself, and with him are Thetis and Achilles. There are Nereids riding on dolphins and mighty fish or on sea-horses, and also Tritons, “Phorcus” band, swordfish and a host of other sea creatures’.

A key testimony of the representation of the thiasos are the reused reliefs for a celebratory monument to a Roman personality in Campus Martius, the so-called Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus. The slabs with the nuptial court of Amphitrite and Poseidon, probably made for a votive gift in some Hellenic sanctuary (late fourth – third century BCE) and strongly influenced by the art of Skopas and his later circle, are among the best expressions of the fortune of the marine thiasos subject (about the monument see Lippolis 2004).

Then, from the late Hellenistic/Augustan period onwards, the narrative model underwent further development and elaboration, particularly in the production of high-end luxury goods, as evidenced by the large marble cup used as a fountain (Rome, MNR, inv. 113189; Bonanome 2018), probably of Pergamene production, or in the silver kantharos from Pompeii (Naples, MANN, Medagliere, inv. 144802).

It was, however, especially from the Hadrian age onwards that the marine thiasos regained favour, particularly in sarcophagus workshops, where the funerary significance of the journey to the islands of the blessed lent itself well to its sepulchral destination. In this respect, notable affinities are found in particular with the sarcophagus with a continuous frieze from Villa dei Quintili on the Appian Way, today in the Belvedere courtyard, datable between 140–150 CE (Vatican Museums, inv. 874; Spinola 1996, p. 78, PO 11). The iconography of the marine thiasos, therefore, is one of the most frequently used themes in Roman funerary sculpture, reproduced on more than four hundred sarcophagi, and is to be read not only as a simple decorative theme but as an intentional reference to the idyllic otherworldly condition (Parodo 2018). In particular, this composition entails further allegorical meaning by referring to the triumph over death, conveyed through the involvement of Achilles, the immortal hero.

Technical and stylistic considerations allow the Borghese sarcophagus to be dated to the Hadrian or early Antonine age.




Bibliography
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