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Funerary Altar of Petronia Musa

Roman art


This four-sided sculpture has protruding moulding at the top and bottom. The front is decorated with a portrait bust of the deceased set into a seashell. On the sides, there is an eleven-string cithara, on the left, and a four-string lyre, on the right. The funerary inscription is inscribed in Greek above and below the shell, while the name of the deceased, Petronia Musa, is carved in Latin on the base. The description given in the funerary commemoration suggests that she was a poet or a musician, and in any case a person of high rank.

The sculpture was recorded in the Villa Borghese in 1650 by Manilli, who wrote that it was on one of the lanes next to the Palazzina. It was in its current location in 1832.


Object details

Inventory
VILa
Location
Date
c. 110-140 A.D.
Classification
Medium
Luni marble
Dimensions
height 94 cm; width 92 cm; depth 56 cm; letter height Greek 1.5-1.2 cm; letter height Latin 3.5 cm
Provenance

Borghese Collection, cited for the first time in the Villa in 1650 on one of the lanes next to the Palazzina (Manilli 1650, p. 127); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 43, no. 28. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Inscriptions

Iscrizione superiore:

ΤΗΝ ΚΥΑΝΩΠΙΝ ΜΟΥΣΑΝ ΑΗΔΟΝΑ ΤΗΝ ΜΕΛΙΓΗΡΥΝ

ΛΕΙΤΟΣ ΟΔ ΕΞΑΠΙΝΗΣ ΤΥΝΒΟΣ ΑΝΑΥΔΟΝ ΕΧΕΙ

ΚΑΙ ΚΕΙΤΑΙ ΛΙΘΟΣ ΩΣ Η ΠΑΝΣΟΦΟΣ Η ΠΕΡΙΒΩΤΟΣ

ΜΟΥΣΑ ΚΑΛΗ ΚΟΥΦΗ ΣΟΙ ΚΟΝΙΣ ΗΔΕ ΠΕΛΟΙ

Iscrizione inferiore:

ΤΙΣ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΝ ΣΕΙΡΗΝΑ ΚΑΚΟΣ ΚΑΚΟΣ ΗΡΠΑΣΕ ΔΑΙΜΩΝ

ΤΙΣ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΝ ΓΛΥΚΕΡΗΝ ΗΡΠΑΣΕ ΑΗΔΟΝΙΔΑ

ΝΥΚΤΙ ΜΙΗ ΨΥΧΡΑΙΣΙΝ ΑΦΑΡ ΣΤΑΓΟΝΕΣΣΙ ΛΥΘΕΙΣΑ

ΩΛΕΟ ΜΟΥΣΑ ΕΤΑΚΗ Δ ΟΜΜΑΤ ΕΚΕΙΝΑ ΣΕΟ

ΚΑΙ ΣΤΟΜΑ ΠΕΦΡΑΚΤΑΙΤΟ ΧΡΥΣΕΟΝ ΟΥΔΕΝ ΕΤ ΕΝ ΣΟΙ

ΛΕΙΨΑΝΟΝ ΟΥ ΚΑΛΟΥΣ ΟΥ ΣΟΦΙΗΣ ΠΕΛΕΤΑΙ

ΕΡΡΕΤΑΙ ΜΕΡΜΗΡΑΙ, ΘΥΜΑΛΓΕΕΣ ΑΜΜΟΡΟΙ ΕΣΘΛΗΣ

ΕΛΠΙΔΟΣ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΙ ΠΑΝΤΑ Δ ΑΔΗΛΑ ΤΥΧΗΣ

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1994-95 Paola Mastropasqua

Commentary

This sculpture was recorded in 1650 by Manilli on one of the lanes next to the Palazzina, serving as a base for a statue of Ceres that was ‘larger than life size, in white marble with clothing in black marble’ (p. 127). The statue was the running Isis now in Room VII (inv. CCIX). Montelatici confirmed the arrangement in 1700 (pp. 44–46). In 1832, Nibby recorded the funerary altar in its current location in the Salone, used as a base for a statue ‘wearing a stole and a veil’, which would have been the portrait of Salonina that still stands on the altar today (pp. 46–49, no. 9).

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 listel, an astragal and a cyma reversa. The sides are decorated with reliefs of an eleven-string cithara, on the left, and a four-string lyre, on the right. On the front, which Nibby described as ‘decorated with two colonettes’ that are no longer present, there is a portrait bust of the deceased set into a seashell. The funerary epitaph is written in Greek couplets and carved above and below the shell. The name of the deceased, Petronia Musa, is carved in Latin on the base.

 

The six-line upper inscription, carved on the moulding, reads:

ΤΗΝ ΚΥΑΝΩΠΙΝ ΜΟΥΣΑΝ ΑΗΔΟΝΑ ΤΗΝ ΜΕΛΙΓΗΡΥΝ

  ΛΕΙΤΟΣ ΟΔ ΕΞΑΠΙΝΗΣ ΤΥΝΒΟΣ ΑΝΑΥΔΟΝ ΕΧΕΙ

ΚΑΙ ΚΕΙΤΑΙ ΛΙΘΟΣ ΩΣ Η ΠΑΝΣΟΦΟΣ Η ΠΕΡΙΒΩΤΟΣ

ΜΟΥΣΑ ΚΑΛΗ ΚΟΥΦΗ ΣΟΙ ΚΟΝΙΣ ΗΔΕ ΠΕΛΟΙ

 

The lower one has eight lines:

ΤΙΣ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΝ ΣΕΙΡΗΝΑ ΚΑΚΟΣ ΚΑΚΟΣ ΗΡΠΑΣΕ ΔΑΙΜΩΝ

ΤΙΣ ΜΟΥ ΤΗΝ ΓΛΥΚΕΡΗΝ ΗΡΠΑΣΕ ΑΗΔΟΝΙΔΑ

ΝΥΚΤΙ ΜΙΗ ΨΥΧΡΑΙΣΙΝ ΑΦΑΡ ΣΤΑΓΟΝΕΣΣΙ ΛΥΘΕΙΣΑ

ΩΛΕΟ ΜΟΥΣΑ ΕΤΑΚΗ Δ ΟΜΜΑΤ ΕΚΕΙΝΑ ΣΕΟ

ΚΑΙ ΣΤΟΜΑ ΠΕΦΡΑΚΤΑΙΤΟ ΧΡΥΣΕΟΝ ΟΥΔΕΝ ΕΤ ΕΝ ΣΟΙ

ΛΕΙΨΑΝΟΝ ΟΥ ΚΑΛΟΥΣ ΟΥ ΣΟΦΙΗΣ ΠΕΛΕΤΑΙ

ΕΡΡΕΤΑΙ ΜΕΡΜΗΡΑΙ, ΘΥΜΑΛΓΕΕΣ ΑΜΜΟΡΟΙ ΕΣΘΛΗΣ

ΕΛΠΙΔΟΣ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΙ ΠΑΝΤΑ Δ ΑΔΗΛΑ ΤΥΧΗΣ

 

‘This simple monument suddenly silences

The Muse with the dark eyes, the nightingale with the honeyed voice

And the learned, famous, beautiful Muse

lies like stone; may the earth be light for you.’

 

‘What evil demon carried away my good siren?

Who carried away my sweet nightingale?

Wasted away in a flash in a night of icy tears

You are lost, O Muse, your eyes have wasted away

Your golden mouth is closed and all the

beauty and wisdom in you is gone.

Be damned dark sorrows, men are devoid of real hope

All the events of destiny are concealed.’

This sculpture is the funerary monument of a woman, Petronia Musa, who has been portrayed as a mature adult, wearing a tunic and a mantle called a palla over her left shoulder. Her lean, oval-shaped face has elongated eyes framed by heavy eyelids. She has a prominent nose and chin. Her hair has been arranged in a complex style called the ‘turban’ or ‘tower’ hairstyle. A flat, wavy fringe frames her face, and four braids are gathered in the back into an elaborate spiral that builds upward to form a tower on top of her head. The portrait seems to evoke the iconography of Faustina the Elder, wife of Antoninus Pius, and in particular the ‘Dresden’ type, distinguished for a more refined hairstyle and more severe and contained forms.

The epigraph was published in the early seventeenth century by Gruter, who did not indicate its location; at the end of the same century, Fabretti was the first to translate it into Latin (Gruter 1602, p. MCXVI; Fabretti 1699, pp. 287–288). As for the name, Gori noted, in 1726, the existence of a famous physician to Augustus, Antonius Musa, with the same name, as well as women with the same name in other inscriptions. He also provided an accurate translation in couplets by Antonius Maria Salvinius (1726, pp. 270–271). According to Bonada, the name was widely found among male and female servants (1751, p. 442–443). The two epigrams are quite different in tone, leading some scholars to imagine two different writers (Cozza-Luzi 1902, pp. 264–280). The first is a traditional funerary farewell that describes the deceased and ends with the typical Roman expression ‘may the earth be light for you’. It opens evocatively, with the direct object in the at the front, which is to say the Muse, κυανῶπιν, ‘with the dark eyes’, an adjective that would have referred to the woman’s real appearance but that certainly also conjured the poetic tradition, epic poetry in particular. We find it in the Odyssey, associated with the Nereid Amphitrite, ‘κῦμα μέγα ῥοχθεῖ κυανώπιδος Ἀμφιτρίτης’ (12:60). Besides a Muse, the deceased is also metaphorically described as a nightingale, μελίγηρυν, ‘with a honeyed voice’. This nightingale is however now ἄναυδος, ‘silent’, because dead.

The second epigram is more intimate and sorrowful. It is the desperate cry of a lover who has lost his beloved and ends with a moralistic reflection on the life of men. It begins with the typical motif of the abduction of the deceased by an evil entity, a δαίμων, with the use of the verb ἁρπάζω, in this case in two successive verses with the same mood, aspect and person. The woman is described as a siren, evoking a melodious voice, and is again called a ‘sweet’ nightingale, γλυκερός.

The idea of her death is expressed in two very powerful images: her eyes, which have ‘wasted away’, τήκω, and her golden mouth, which is by closed, φράσσω, its natural speech and song no longer permitted.

The epigram ends with the bitter observation that these are the sufferings of the life of man, who is devoid of hope because Tyche reigns supreme over his life, preventing him from being happy and ‘concealing’, ἄδηλος, everything, first and foremost life and death themselves.

In 1905, Altmann argued that the deceased was a poet, a common occupation among cultured women in the imperial period. The scholar furthered observed that her hairstyle, a tower-like structure made up of braids, suggests a date for the work in the Hadrianic period (1905, p. 212). In a study of Greek epigrams in Rome, Kajanto concluded that they were used as an element of distinction in the tombs of high-ranking individuals, who chose the Greek language due to it ancient epigrammatic tradition (1963, p. 6).

Nicoletti examined the inscription as part of her research on monuments with traces of Greco-Latin bilingualism, identifying, in some cases, the use of ‘tag-switching’, the insertion of words in texts in a different language.  She found it especially interesting to note how it attests to a change in the figure of the woman in Roman society. In inscriptions from the republican period, the woman’s role was basically in the home, whereas in the early imperial period there was a partial shift in the paradigm of female virtues. During that period, women started to be educated as well, although this was a phenomenon limited to elite circles, and women seemed to wield greater influence and acquire more independence, to the point that Petronia Musa could be praised for her talent as as musician and a poet (2019, pp. 94–99).

As for the dating of the altar, most scholars agree that it dates to the Trajanic or Hadrianic period, especially based on the physical features of the deceased, first and foremost her hairstyle. Nicoletti instead suggested an older date, in the Flavian or Trajanic period. The sculpture is roughly datable to between 110 and 140 CE.

Giulia Ciccarello




Bibliography
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