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Funerary altar with a scene of a sacrifice to Minerva

Roman art

The altar is mentioned in the Entrance Hall of Villa Borghese by Nibby in 1832, supporting the statue of a man wearing a toga, quite likely identifiable with the current statue of a man with Menander’s head wearing a toga. 

The upper and lower portions of this quadrangular sculpture are decorated with an intricate moulding. The two longer faces, the right and the left, bear the typical ritual symbols: a patera, or a bowl for libations, and an urceus, a small pitcher. The anterior face contains an indented frame with a scene of a private sacrifice performed by a man standing before Minerva. The toga and the goddess’s connection to the sphere of war lead us to believe that the deceased was of high military ranking.  

The man’s hair style sets the altar in the Flavian era, towards the end of the first century CE.

Object details

c. late 1st century A.D.
Luni marble
height 84 cm; width 77 cm; depth 50 cm; figured frame 35 x 45 cm

Borghese Collection, cited for the first time in the Entrance all of the Villa in 1832 by Nibby (p. 49); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 42, no. 19. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1994-95 Paola Mastropasqua


This sculpture is mentioned for the first time by Nibby in 1832 in the Entrance Hall of Villa Borghese supporting the statue of a man ‘clad in a sinuous toga’, quite likely the same statue of a man wearing a toga with Menander’s features that is still standing on the altar (p. 49). 

The quadrangular sculpture presents an elaborate moulding composed, in the upper part, of three fillets alternated by three cyma reversa; the same pattern is repeated in the lower section, with three fillets and three cyma recta 

The side faces are decorated with reliefs depicting the typical ritual funerary elements: a patera, or libation bowl, on the right, and an urceus, a small pitcher, on the left. In the upper portion of the anterior face there is a small, inset aedicule, a naiskos, depicting two forward-facing figures carved in high relief and standing near an altar. The upper portion of the aedicule breaks the cyma reversa moulding bordering the face of the altar. The feet of the figures are placed on two different levels: the man, like the altar, stands on a projecting base detached from the background; the female figure is on a lower level. The female figure standing on the left as been identified as Minerva: she is wearing a high-waisted, sleeveless chiton and armillae on her arms; on her head is a Corinthian helmet. Her left arm is extended along her body and her hand is set on the silver shield lying on the ground; her right arm is raised and probably once held a spear. In the hand and in the base, you can still see the holes designed to house the shaft, which was quite likely made out of metal. The left leg is completely extended, while the right is bent and slightly raised. At the centre there is a quadrangular altar with a high base on the bottom and a projecting moulding at the top; a fire crackles lively on the summit.  

The young man on the right is wearing a toga. His right arm is bent and extended in an offering gesture, while the left, also bent, is holding a patera. The face is oval in shape and has an austere expression; its physiognomic characterisation is peculiar, with a prominent chin, a pronounced nose and heavily marked eyelids. The sides of the mouth are downturned. The hair is separated into well-defined locks that second the shape of the skull leaving only a small portion of the forehead uncovered.  

The relief depicts a sacrifice offered to the Goddess Minerva by the deceased. His clothes are indicative of high rank, while the goddess’s military vocation lets us suppose that he was in the army. The man’s hair is ascribable to the aesthetic models of the Domitian age, to which the Borghese sculpture has been dated.

Giulia Ciccarello

  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 49.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 9, n. 12.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 912, n. 12.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), I, p. 11, n. 12.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 14.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 17, n. 200.
  • W. Helbig, H. Speier, Führer durch die öffentlichen Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, (4°Edizione), a cura di H. Speier, II, Tübingen 1966, p. 706, n. 1945b (Simon).
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p. 10.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p. 102.
  • F. Cianciani, s.v. Athena/Minerva, in “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae”, II, 1984, pp. 1074-1109, in part. p. 1081, n. 95.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, in p. 54, n. 15c.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp. 124, 126, n. 88.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008350, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.