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Porphyry cup

Santi Paolo

(active in Rome, second half of the 18th century)

The large porphyry cup, with a somewhat everted rim, resting on an important moulded base, was executed by the stonemason Paolo Santi to serve as a pendant to another piece, in the same material but dating to the age of Hadrian, already present at the time in the Villa Pinciana. Payment orders allow us to date its execution to between 1782 and 1783 and to reconstruct its workmanship, which was complicated by the presence of a crack in the block of porphyry used. Paolo Santi, appreciated for his skill in carving precious materials, worked for the Borghese family on several occasions in the last quarter of the 18th century, alongside the architect Antonio Asprucci.

Object details

40 x 90 cm

Made for Marcantonio IV Borghese (ASV, AB, 5847, Filza dei Mandati 1782, no. 140; 8089, Registro dei Mandati 1781-1782, p. 308, no. 707, 6 November 1782; 5848, Filza dei Mandati 1783, no. 45, in Faldi 1954, pp. 60-61, docc. I-III). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 49, no. 114. Purchased by the State, 1902.


The wide cup rests on a circular moulded base, with a very everted rim terminating in a fillet. The simple line and the use of few mouldings with a rather compact volume accentuate the smoothness of the surface of the piece, which allows light to flow softly over its various parts.

The porphyry cup was executed between November 1782 and March 1783 by the stonemason Paolo Santi to function as a pendant for another, older cup made of the same material, as confirmed by the payments found by Faldi in the Borghese accounts (Faldi 1954, pp. 60-61, docs. I-III). Santi received 355 scudi for a piece of work that, in the meticulous description accompanying the order for payment of the balance, dated 27 March 1783, turns out to have been complicated by flaws found in the block of porphyry used to make it. In fact, the architect Antonio Asprucci writes that it was necessary to embed the cup in the peperino because of a hairline crack, which had also required very careful workmanship to avoid the risk of breakage (Faldi 1954, p. 61, doc. III). The architect seems to have wanted to emphasise the technical skills of someone portrayed as one of his trusted craftsmen, whom he had also relied on for the modernisation of the large antique porphyry urn still preserved in Room 4 of the Gallery (inv. CLXV) and for the execution, in 1781, of two amphorae in pavonazzetto marble (inv. CIX a-b). The note also hints at a justification for workmanship that may have taken longer than expected, “for which reason it took a long time” (Faldi 1954, p. 61, doc. III).

Red porphyry was a material that was considered very valuable even in antiquity. The Romans quarried it in Egypt and, by decision of the emperor Domitian, had reserved it for imperial use only, due to its particular colouring, which was recognised as having a sacred value (Marchei 1997, p. 274, cat. 116).

Sonja Felici