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Pair of Amphorae with Serpentiform Handles

Algardi Alessandro

(Bologna 1595 - Rome 1654)

Calci Silvio

(active in Rome second half of the 17th century )

Commissioned to Silvio Calci by Marcantonio Borghese in 1638, the two amphorae were executed based on drawings by Alessandro Algardi, who had sculpted the Allegory of Sleep (inv. no. CLX) for the prince between 1635 and 1636.

Carved in Belgian marble of an intense black colour, the amphorae are characterised by the contrast between the smooth, uniform surface of the body and the two handles formed of coiled snakes covered with scales.

Already in our earliest sources a connection is made, both material and symbolic, between the two vases and the personification of Sleep: in addition to having in common the material in which they were executed, the three works allude to the motif of unconsciousness. While the poppy seed pods full of opium on the head and in the hands of the sleeping cupid sculpted by Algardi refer to the oblivion of sleep, the presence of snakes, whose poisonous bites can be lethal, in Calci’s two vases suggests the theme of death.

Object details

Belgian black marble
90 x 52 cm

Marcantonio II Borghese, 1638; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 52, no. 162; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 2003-2004 Roma, Galleria Borghese
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 2017 C.B.C. coop. a r.l


On 8 April 1638, Prince Marcantonio Borghese commissioned Silvio Calci to ‘make two vases in Lydian stone roughly five spans high according to the model and drawing given to him, with double serpent handles according to said model made by the sculptor Mr Alessandro Algardi, for the price of 300 scudi in cash’ (Faldi 1954, p. 11). The two artefacts were placed on carved and gilded walnut bases, which were reproduced in Montelatici’s text and mentioned again in the 1765 inventory but then replaced with blocks of grey lumachelle marble.

The amphorae themselves are made from Belgian black marble and not in Lydian stone as indicated in the documentation. They show moulded circular bases, convex leaf and pod designs in the lower portion, slightly truncated cone-shaped bodies, and convex pod motifs on the shoulders; the lids are embellished with leaf decorations and have knobs with floral motifs. The handles of each vase are in the form of a pair of coiled serpents.

Sinuous and threatening, the snakes are shown with open mouths and scaly skin, which contrasts with the linear elegance of the bodies of the amphorae. A perfect combination is thus created between the sobriety and aura of classical art and the bizarre devices of the Baroque (Barchiesi 2004, p. 154) – a typical characteristic of Algardi’s style.

Mentioned regularly in our sources, the amphorae were seen in the ‘Room of Sleep’ (today’s Room 10) by Manilli (1650, p. 106), Montelatici (1700, p. 294) and Rossini (1700, p. 205). Later, they were documented in the Gladiator Room by Lamberti and Visconti (1796, II, p. 56) and then in the Egyptian Room by Nibby (1832, p. 119; 1841, p. 923) and Platner (1842, p. 255): the two last-named critics defined them as modern works without indicating the artist.

Montfaucon (1722, plate CCXIV) considered them ancient pieces. In his comment on the engraving in Montelatici’s text – which shows one of the amphorae behind Algardi’s Allegory of Sleep – he interpreted the vases as attributes of the personification of Sleep, containing sleep-inducing substances. This reading accords with the presence of poppy seed pods in the sculpture, from which opium is extracted, which was used as a potent soporific since antiquity; it is further confirmed by the fact that for years the amphorae were displayed next to the Allegory. The three pieces, then, may have been intended as a set, as is also indicated by the use of the same material. If this is the case, the works seem to play on the idea that sleep is a metaphor for death, to which the coiled serpents on the handles appear to allude, as they bite the neck of the vases to inject their poison (Mampieri 2018, p. 29).

Sonja Felici