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Labrum, porphyry basin

Roman art

This small labrum is made of red porphyry, a fine marble that was used primarily for important public projects and private imperial commissions. The basin, which is circular in shape with smooth walls and a protruding rim, is of the ‘II bacile’ type. It is resting on a modern foot that was probably made in 1700 by the stonecutter Paolo Santi, who carved the replica displayed as a pendant to this one (inv. CLXIV). Lacking a hole for water, it was probably made as a prestigious decorative element. It is datable to the middle of the Imperial period.

The sculpture was moved multiple times within the Palazzina Borghese: in 1796, it was displayed in Room VIII with the modern one; in 1812, it was in Room I and, in 1831, it was moved to Room IV, where Minister Evasio Gozzani had set up the ‘Galleria delle Pietre dure’ (Gallery of Semiprecious Stones). Finally, in 2019, it was set up in the Salone di Mariano Rossi, its current location.

Object details

II-III secolo d.C. ca.
Red porphyry
height cm 20; diameter cm 88; circumference cm 277

Borghese Collection, mentioned in 1796 in Room VIII (Lamberti, Visconti, p. 89); moved to Room I in 1812 and then, in 1831, to Room IV, when the space was set up as the ‘Galleria delle Pietre dure’ (Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, B. 309, no. 115; B. 7458, no. 121 of 22 October 1831: Moreno, Sforzini 1987, pp. 344, 371). In 2019, it was moved to its current location in the Salone di Mariano Rossi. Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, C., p. 49, no. 114. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1700 - Paolo Santi
  • 1996 - ditta CBC with Eugenie Knight and Paola Mastropasqua.


In 1796, the basin was displayed in the ‘facciata a rincontro della camera Egizia’ in Room VIII, called the ‘Room of Silenus’ for the group Silenus and Bacchus as a Child, now in the Louvre. The sculpture was displayed as a pendant to a similar, modern one (inv. CLXIV): ‘dinanzi alle due finestre […] si alzano due rocchj di granito bianco orientale, i quali sostengono due tazze rotonde di porfido rosso del diametro di tre palmi, e più’ (‘in front of the two windows … there are two rocks in white eastern granite, which support two round bowls in red porphyry measuring more than three palmi in diameter’; Lamberti, Visconti, p. 89). In the inventory of 1812, following the sale to Napoleon, it was in Room I, which was called the ‘Camera del David’ (Room of David) at the time, among the few works that had remained in the Palazzina. In 1831, Minister Evasio Gozzani reorganised the collection, turning Room IV into the ‘Galleria delle Pietre dure’ (Gallery of Semiprecious Stones). The two porphyry basins and another in the same material (inv. CLXV. Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, B. 309, n. 115; B. 7458, n. 121 del 22/10/1831: Moreno, Sforzini 1987, pp. 344, 371) were placed in the middle of the room. For the exhibition Valadier. Splendore nella Roma del Settecento, held in 2019 in the Galleria Borghese, the two sculptures were moved to the Salone di Mariano Rossi, contiguous with the doors to Room I and Room VIII.

The upper part and front of the small basin, which is circular in shape with a protruding rim, are flat. The walls curve gently down to the flat bottom, which has no hole for the flow of water. There are some cracks in the body and on the rim, and a round chip on the curve of the wall, which has been restored with burgundy plaster.

According to the classification published by Ambrogi in 2005, the basin is of the ‘II bacile’ type. According to the scholar, the foot is modern and probably contemporary to the modern basin, which was carved by the stonecutter Paolo Santi in 1700 (inv. CLXIV). Ambrogi compared the Borghese sculpture to a similar one in the church of San Marco in Venice, which is made of the same material and lacking a hole in the middle, and might have come from Constantinople (2005, pp. 200–201, nos. L. 10, L. 16). As for the shape, the piece can be compared to a labrum in ophite in the Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, which was probably from an Imperial bath complex (inv. 8655: de Lachenal 1983, pp. 83–84).

During the Imperial period, basins for use in homes, public baths and private fountains were often made of fine marbles, like granite, giallo antico and porphyry. In the ancient sources, the term labrum, a contracted form of lavabrum, generally indicates a basin for water linked to the bathing ritual. It is cited with this meaning, between the third and second centuries BCE, in Cato’s De re rustica (labra aquaria; 10, 4) and, in the first century BCE, in Virgil’s Aeneid (labris aenis; 8, 22). For Vitruvius, the term was instead used to refer to the basin set up in the schola and used for ablutions (De architectura 5.10.4). Red porphyry, extracted from the Mons Porphyrites quarry in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, reached the height of its popularity in Roman sculpture between the second century and the early fourth century CE. Used primarily for imperial commissions, due to its high cost (information about which is found in the edict issued by Diocletian in 301 CE), these objects were symbols of power, in virtue of their purple hue (Ambrogi 1995, p. 30).

As for the Borghese basin, since, without a hole for water, it could not have been used as a basin for a fountain, it is only a labrum in generic terms, and would have been made as decoration. The use of such a valuable material, red porphyry, suggests that it was commissioned for an important public or private building for an imperial patron, datable to the middle of the Imperial period. This dating would disprove the theory advanced by Nibby and Pistolesi that both porphyry basins are modern (1832, p. 94; 1852, p. 385).

Giulia Ciccarello

  • L. Lamberti, E.Q. Visconti, Sculture del palazzo della Villa Borghese detta Pinciana, II, Roma 1796, p. 86.
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 94.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 19, n. 42.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 920, n. 42.
  • E. Pistolesi, Descrizione di Roma e sui contorni, Roma 1852, p. 385.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854, p. 21, n. 42.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 35.
  • G. Giusti, La Galleria Borghese e la Villa di Umberto Primo a Roma, Roma 1903, p. 30.
  • R. Delbrück, Antike Porphyrwerke, Berlin-Leipzig 1932, p. 85, fig. 90.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione) Roma 1954, p. 16.
  • I. Faldi, Galleria Borghese, Le sculture dal secolo XVI al XIX, Roma 1954, p. 60.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p.16, fig. 28.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p. 102.
  • L. de Lachenal, Grande labrum apodo, in Museo Nazionale. Le Sculture, I.5, Roma 1983, pp. 83-84.
  • P. Moreno, C. Sforzini, I ministri del principe Camillo: cronaca della collezione Borghese di antichità dal 1807 al 1832, in “Scienze dell’Antichità”, 1, 1987, pp. 344, 371.
  • A. Ambrogi, Vasche di età romana in marmi bianchi e colorati, Roma 1995, pp. 30, n. A.I.5.
  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp. 207-208, n. 190.
  • A. Ambrogi, Labra di età romana in marmi bianchi e colorati, Roma 2005, pp. 200-201.