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Porphyry basin

Roman art

This red porphyry basin has a smooth semi-cylindrical body decorated at the top with a series of mouldings. The basin is supported by two trapezophori, each with a smooth capital, griffin protome and leonine paw. The head of the animal has twisted horns, a luxuriant mane and pointed ears. The lower portion of the supports is decorated with a floral motif.

In 1650, Iacomo Manilli reported that the sculpture was in the garden of the Villa Borghese near the Casa degli Uffizi and later, in 1671, that it was in the city residence. At that time, it was turned into a fountain by the stonecutter Francesco Fanalli and a special hydraulic system was created for it in the room. It was modified again between 1778 and 1779 by Paolo Santi, based on a design by the architect Antonio Asprucci. In 1832, Antonio Nibby reported that it was in the Villa Pinciana, where it had been moved in about 1820. Nibby also hypothesised that it had been unearthed in the Mausoleum of Hadrian, whereas Schneider believed that it had come from the Mausoleum of Augustus. In the absence of information about the context of its discovery, its dating to the second century CE is based primarily on stylistic analysis and comparison with other works.

Object details

2nd century A.D.
height 120 cm; width 169 cm; depth 85 cm

Borghese Collection, cited for the first time by Manilli in 1650 (p. 123). Inventario fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 49, no. 113. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1778–1779 - Paolo Santi working from a plan by the architect Antonio Asprucci (Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Archivio Borghese 5843, Filza dei Mandati 1778, n. 75; 5844, Filza dei Mandati 1779). The basin and the supports were reconstructed from numerous fragments. To assemble the three elements, a shim was used on the left support. There is a hole in the basin, which was then closed up, that was made for its use as a fountain.


In 1650, Iacomo Manilli reported that there was ‘a large porphyry basin supported by two lions’ in the garden of the Villa Borghese, near the Casa degli Uffizi (Manilli 1650, p. 123). In 1671, the accounts of the businessman Giacomo Mola record a payment for the removal of the sculpture and its transfer to the family’s city residence: ‘for going to the Villa Pinciana and removing said porphyry basin that was in front of the facade facing the street behind the kitchens’ (De Lachenal 1982, p. 100: Archivio Borghese 1476, no. 781, 1671). At that time, the basin was turned into a fountain by the stonecutter Francesco Fancelli and put in the second room on the ground floor. A special wooden structure that could support the weight of the large sculpture had to be built to lift and move it (De Lachenal 1982, p. 70: Archivio Borghese, vol. 4376, busta 23, n. 36: Spese per la Fabrica fatta nel palazzo grande di Roma, 1763). In the early eighteenth century, Gregorio Roseicco confirmed that the ‘sublime porphyry basin’ was in the city residence (Roseicco 1705, p. 158), and in 1775, Pietro Rossini assessed its value at an astonishing 30,000 scudi in Il Mercurio errante (Rossini 1775-1776, p. 432). Between 1778 and 1779, the basin was modified again, this time by Paolo Santi based on a design by Antonio Asprucci (Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Archivio Borghese 5843, Filza dei Mandati 1778, no. 75; 5844, Filza dei Mandati 1779).

The 1812 inventory for the furnishings of the city residence and the Villa Pinciana provides an exhaustive description of the sculpture and the hydraulic system that had been built for it: ‘Ground Floor. Picture Gallery. Second Room. In the middle of the room, an urn entirely made of porphyry, with feet in the shape of sphinxes in the same stone covered with lead, resting upon which are two gilt metal spouts in the shape of a small eagle and a small dragon, the water for which comes from an underground lead pipe that can be turned on at will with a pump installed in the floor of the room’ (De Lachenal 1982, p. 102: Archivio Borghese 309, no. 115). In about 1820, the basin was moved to the Villa Borghese and put in the middle of Room 4, which Giuseppe Gozzani had earmarked for a Gallery of Semiprecious Stones, and where Antonio Nibby reported in 1832 that it was on a giallo antico marble plinth (Nibby 1832, p. 93). In 1911, when the sculpture group of Pluto and Persephone was moved to this room from the Villa Ludovisi, the basin was moved in front of the door to the Salon and then to its current location in Room 5 (Moreno, Viacava 2003, pp. 128–129).

The basin has a semi-cylindrical body, embellished at the top with a series of mouldings with rounded corners joining all four sides. The supports, which start from just beneath the lip of the basin, are composed of a smooth trapezoidal band and a protome in the shape of a griffin. The griffin head has twisted horns, a mane of rounded locks of fur and pointed ears, while the smooth chest ends in a powerful leonine paw. The surface of the portion of the supports beneath the basin is decorated with symmetrical floral motifs.

Red porphyry, extracted from the quarries of Gebel Dokhan in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, came into heavy use in Rome in the early second century CE. Due to its high cost (mentioned in the Edict of Diocletian in 301 CE), it was used for official statuary and reserved for the imperial family, due to its purple hue (Ambrogi 1995, p. 30). According to Suetonius, Nero was buried in a solium por phyretici marmoris (Nero, 50), and Cassius Dio reports that Septimius Severus’s funerary urn was made from the same material (Roman History, 76.15.4).

The origin of the Borghese sculpture is uncertain: Nibby thought that it might have come from the Mausoleum of Hadrian, while Schneider believed it was from the Mausoleum of Augustus (Schneider 1887, p. 127). Nibby’s theory is more consistent with the dating of the work to the second century CE, as argued by Delbrueck in 1932 and then by Ambrogi in 1995 (Delbrueck 1932, pp. 155–157, fig. 73; Ambrogi 1995, pp. 82–83, no. A.I.5).

The Borghese sculpture, which is of the A.I type according to the classification formulated by Ambrogi in 1995, due to its oblong shape, semi-cylindrical body and smooth lower portion, is comparable to several other basins in Rome in this same category: one in the church of the SS. Apostoli, in the chapel of S. Eugenia, one in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, beneath the altar of Sant’Elena, and one in the Cappella Corsini in the church of S. Giovanni in Laterano. Another similar basin is in the Louvre (Ambrogi 1995, pp. 61–68, 84–87, A.I.1-2, 6).

The Borghese basin was depicted in a drawing by Bernardino Ciferri titled ‘Urne de Scipion l’Africain’, dated 1716-1730, that was made for the collector Richard Topham (Fabréga-Dubert 2020, Bm.3.20). In the 1720s, Topham had commissioned a number of young artists to document the ancient sculptures in the palazzos of Rome and other Italian cities, creating an invaluable collection of drawings now at the Eton College Library.

Giulia Ciccarello

  • I. Manilli, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana, Roma 1650, p.123.
  • G. Roisecco, Roma ampliata e rinovata o sia nuova descrizione della moderna città di Roma e di tutti gli edifizi notabili che sono in essa, Roma 1705.
  • P. Rossini, Il Mercurio errante, Roma 1775-1776.
  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 93.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 19, n. 41.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 920.
  • E. Platner, Beschreibung de Stadt Rom, Tübingen 1842, p. 249, n. 41.
  • F. Corsi, Delle pietre antiche, Roma 1845, p. 326.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854 (1873), p. 21, n. 41.
  • O. Schneider, Ueber den roten Porphyr der Alten, Dresda 1887, p. 127.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p.35.
  • G. Giusti, La Galerie Borghèse et la Ville Humbert Premier à Rome, Roma 1904, p. 28.
  • R. Delbrueck, Die antiken Porphyr werke, Leipzig 1932, pp. 155-157, fig. 73.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, 1935, p. 13.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, (3° Edizione), Roma 1954, p.14.
  • I. Faldi, Galleria Borghese, Le sculture dal secolo XVI al XIX, Roma 1955, p. 60.
  • R. Calza, Catalogo del Gabinetto fotografico Nazionale, Galleria Borghese, Collezione degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 11, n. 101.
  • J. Deér, The Dynastic Porphyry Tombs of the Norman Period in Sicily, Cambridge 1959, pp. 99-100, fig. 15.
  • M. L. Lucci, Il porfido nell’antichità, in “Archeologia Classica”, XVI, 1964, pp. 226-273.
  • P. Moreno, Formazione della raccolta di antichità del Museo e Galleria Borghese, in “Colloqui del sodalizio”, 5,1975-1976, p. 126, tav. XXVI, fig. 17.
  • P. Moreno, Museo e Galleria Borghese, La collezione archeologica, Roma 1980, p.16, fig. 24.
  • P. Moreno, S. Staccioli, Le collezioni della Galleria Borghese, Milano 1981, p. 102, fig.78.
  • L. De Lachenal, La collezione di sculture antiche della famiglia Borghese e il palazzo in Campo Marzio, in “Xenia”, 4, 1982, pp. 49-117, in particolare pp. 70-71, 73, 76, 100 (Appendice VIII), 102 (Appendice IX).
  • 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. 341, 371.
  • M. C. Marchei, Porfido rosso, in Marmi antichi, a cura di G. Borghini, Roma 1989, p. 274.
  • A. Ambrogi, Vasche di età romana in marmi bianchi e colorati, Roma 1995, pp. 32, 82-84, n. A.I.5.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 36, n. 9a.
  • P. Moreno, A.Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, p. 150, n. 15.
  • M. L. Fabréga-Dubert, Une histoire en images de la collection Borghèse. Les antiques de Scipion dans les albums Topham, Parigi 2020.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/00147903, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020