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Pair of Urns in Nero Antico Marble Resting on Dragons with Gilded Metal Plinth

Calci Silvio

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

These two urns in nero antico marble rest on mixtilinear plinths decorated with ovolo moulding and cartouches with shells and human heads. The urns are supported by four dragon-shaped corbels, a heraldic device of the Borghese family. Each of the long sides of the urns is adorned with two false round handles around which ribbons are tied, separated by a small rosette. The moulded lids are capped with leaf motifs and knobs in the shape of buds with berries.

The pair of urns is ascribed to Silvio Calci and dated to the first half of the 17th century, based on a reference to them in Iacomo Manilli’s Descrizione. This writer observed that the urns were executed to resemble the great granite tubs from the Baths of Caracalla, which a century earlier had been reused as fountains in Piazza Farnese in Rome, in front of the palazzo of the same name, where they can still be seen. Manilli unhesitatingly attributed the urns to Calci, who excelled in the production of similar works and received a number of commissions from the Borghese to create various decorative pieces.

Object details

First half of 17th century
nero antico marble and gilded metal
cm 52 x 60

Sculpted for the Borghese family before 1650 (Manilli, pp. 67, 84); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 50, no. 123; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


Manilla was the first writer to mention the urns. He described them as having been executed ‘to resemble the great granite basins that can be seen in Piazza Farnese, with four dragons supporting them; a modern work by Silvio Velletrano’ (Manilli, 1650, p. 67).

The granite tubs which Manilli referred to probably came from the Baths of Caracalla. Pope Paul III in fact had them moved to Piazza Farnese in the mid-16th century, where they would be used as fountains. The project was only realised later, a decade after the Pauline aqueduct of 1612 became operational.

If we compare the urns with the tubs, we find the same form and the same circular handles. Yet in place of the lion’s heads on the latter, here see as many rosettes: such decorative elements appear frequently on these types of objects, which generally come from Roman baths (Ambrogi 1995, pp. 19-21). By contrast, the lids on the urns derive from later uses of ancient tubs: in mediaeval and modern items, these were often transformed into reliquaries and placed beneath altar tables or used as baptismal fonts (Ambrogi 1995, pp. 41-8).

Each urn rests on a plinth capped by ovolo moulding and decorated with cartouches. The long sides are adorned with shell motifs along their upper edges, while their short sides have human heads at the centre. Sculpted in nero antico marble, the urns are supported by four corbels in the form of dragons: their heads are turned toward the back of the long sides, while their open mouths show their teeth; their extended wings, meanwhile, are attached to the smooth surface of the bodies of the urns. The long sides of the cone-shaped bodies are decorated with two false round handles around which ribbons are tied. Positioned directly below the beak-moulded rim, the handles are separated by a small rosette in the centre. The lids show listels with cyma reversa and reversed cavetto moulding. They are decorated with four large acanthus leaves whose tips fold back on themselves, creating protuberances which were perhaps meant to function as handles. Above these we see four smaller leaves, perhaps laurel, whose tips point upwards. The knobs are bud-shaped with berry motifs.

Manilli’s attribution to Silvio Calci of Velletri has been accepted by modern critics (Faldi 1954, p. 44, fig. 42; Della Pergola 1974, p. 15; Le collezioni 1981, p. 103; Coliva 1994, pp. 318-19; Galleria Borghese 2000, p. 137). We can be certain that the urns were executed for the Borghese family, as the dragon constituting the motif of the supporting corbels was one of their heraldic devices.

Based on her reinterpretation of a receipt for a payment made to Alessandro Algardi on 17 August 1637 for ‘several models of vases and fountains made by him for His Eminence’ (Vatican Secret Archive, Borghese Archive, vol. 5595, no. 593, in Montagu 1985, II, p. 461, cat. A.212), Jennifer Montagu proposed attributing the drawing of the two vases with aquiline protomes (inv. nos. CXXX-CXXXI) to the Bolognese artist, which Silvio Calci then used to execute the sculptures. In this context, the scholar wrote that it was not by coincidence that the two urns in question used the dragon motif, the other heraldic animal of the Borghese. Likewise, the material used for the urns – nero antico marble extracted from Tunisian quarries in Roman times – is the same that was chosen for the two amphorae with aquiline-shaped handles. Montagu further pointed out that the same basins in Piazza Farnese inspired Algardi in his design for the reliquary urn for the basilica of S.te-Marie-Madeleine in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, which was also sculpted by Calci, this time in porphyry (Montagu 1985, II, pp. 461-2, cat. A.213). The rosettes, finally, show similar characteristics to those in a drawing by Algardi for a decorative vase and in the project for the reliquary of Santa Francesca Romana (Montagu 1985, II, p. 462).

In Montagu’s view, these details provide evidence that the two artists collaborated frequently, with Calci executing the sculpting on the basis of designs by the Bolognese master, the only original artist in the service of the Borghese in those years; indeed projects for some of the vases executed in the late 1630s were likely the work of Algardi. Further confirmation of this hypothesis comes from the fact that the same pair of artists collaborated in the creation of the two amphorae with serpentiform handles commissioned by Marcantonio II Borghese and sculpted in Belgian black marble in 1638 (inv. no. CCXIX).

In 1650, one of the urns was displayed in Room 2 and the other in Room 7. In 1893 they were observed together in Room 4 (Venturi, p. 35). At present they are conserved in the storerooms of the Galleria.

Sonja Felici

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, pp. 67, 84.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 35.
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1948, p. 25.
  • P. Della Pergola, La galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1951, p. 15.
  • I. Faldi, Galleria Borghese. Le sculture dal sec. XVI al XIX, Roma 1954, p. 44, fig. 42.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1974, p. 15.
  • Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, a cura di S. Staccioli, P. Moreno, Milano 1981, p. 103.
  • J. Montagu, Alessandro Algardi, New Haven1985, II, pp. 461-462, cat. A.213.
  • Galleria Borghese, a cura di A. Coliva, Roma 1994, pp. 318-319, fig. 169.
  • A. Ambrogi, Vasche di età romana in marmi bianchi e colorati, Roma 1995, pp. 19-21, 141-147 cat. B.I. 59-60, 41-18, 236-237.
  • M.C. Marchei, Marmi antichi, a cura di G. Borghini, Roma 1997, pp. 254-255, cat. 101.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 137, fig. 14.
  • Schede di catalogo 1201008660 e 1201008661, Pellizzari 1983; aggiornamento Felici S. 2020.