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Pair of Vases in Alabaster

roman school

Resting on round, moulded bases, the two vases are each characterised by a smooth cylindrical body decorated at the bottom with a type of saucer with conspicuous convex, pod-like motifs. The same decorative pattern is repeated in the lid, which protrudes noticeably over the rim and terminates in a floral knob.

The smooth surface of the body not only exalts the exquisite quality of the alabaster but also highlights the play of shadows created by the mouldings at the lower end and in the lid.

The style of the two amphorae suggest dating them to the first half of the 17th century, which is in fact confirmed by Manilli’s mention of the pair in 1650. Contemporary sources ascribed them to Silvio Calci of Velletri, yet no documentation in the Borghese Archives confirms this attribution.

Object details

First half of 17th century
cm 81 x 40

Documented in the Borghese Collection from 1650 (Manilli, Villa Borghese, Rome 1650, p. 61); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1832, C, p. 53, no. 167; purchased by Italian state, 1902.


Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996/ 1998 L. Persichelli


Each tall, cylindrical vase rises up from a circular foot composed of a fillet, echinus and cavetto and terminating in a slightly indented, reversed echinus. The body is supported by a type of saucer decorated with pod-like motifs, which culminates in double torus moulding and a fillet. The base of the lid shows a quite protruding echinus followed by cyma reversa moulding. The motif of pods in a ray arrangement is repeated at the top of the lid, which culminates in a floral knob.

The design of the vases is characterised by the conspicuous contrast between their smooth surfaces – whose decoration is left to the transparency and beautiful veining of the alabaster, ably highlighted by the sculptor – and the two moulded extremities, whose quite pronounced volumes create a lively play of shadows. This decorative style is typical of vase production in the first half of the 17th century, as is confirmed by Manilli’s description of the objects: ‘Two round vases in oriental alabaster, with feet and lids sculpted in ray patterns, four spans high’ (1650, p. 61). Several years later, Martinelli suggested ascribing them to Silvio Calci of Velletri (‘two white, transparent alabaster vases made by Silvio Calcia Velletrano’, 1664, p. 109), a name repeated by Venuti in 1766, (‘made by Silvio Velletrano’, p. 117); yet at present we possess no other documentation which either confirms or refutes this attribution.

Our sources agree that the two amphorae were first displayed in the David Room, on either side of Bernini’s sculpture. They appeared on ‘large white marble pedestals with frames of various stones and a Corinthian capital’: Manilli, 1650, p. 61). In 1786, they were reported as occupying the space above the two doors of the Egyptian Room, between Luigi Salimbeni’s plaster sphinxes (‘Descrizione’, in Giornale delle belle arti, no. 52, 30/12/1786, p. 309). Today they are displayed in the same room, though on granite blocks.

Critics disagree as to the dating of the works: while De Rinaldis believed they were executed in the early 19th century (1935, p. 316), Della Pergola placed them in the 17th (1951, p. 20). For his part, Faldi suggested the year 1780, proposing that they were specifically sculpted for the Egyptian Room; he further maintained that they were inspired by a drawing by Piranesi which appeared in the collection Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcofagi, Tripodi, Lucerne ed ornamenti antichi, published in 1778 (Faldi 1954, pp. 22-3).

Sonja Felici