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Satyr Riding a Dolphin

Roman art

This sculpture portrays a young nude satyr (its animal-like nature revealed solely by the pointed ears), riding a dolphin. The body of the youth, in a kneeling position, is twisted to the right. The chest, pelvis and left shoulder are all turned to the right, and the spine follows the curve of the body forward and to the left. There is slight tension in the neck muscles, which follow the head in its turn to the left. A little hole near the sacrum suggests that there was once a tail attached with a pin, but it could also have been made when modifying the sculpture group for use as a fountain. The dolphin is smaller than its rider and its open mouth reveals sharp teeth. Its spiral-shaped tail ends with two fins, one turned downward, the other upward and held by the satyr. Already subject to modification in the sixteenth century, the group was restored in 1828 by Antonio D’Este.

It was already well known in the sixteenth century, when it seems to have been the inspiration for numerous works of art, including Lorenzo Lotti’s representation of Jonah, after a design by Raphael, in the Chigi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome and the youths in Taddeo Landini’s Fountain of the Turtles in Piazza Mattei, Rome. The satyr’s face is also found in a drawing attributed to Michelangelo.

Object details

I secolo d.C.
white marble
cm 103 (original part)

Della Valle Collection, then Medici Collection, sixteenth century; Ceoli Collection until 1607; Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1607. Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 52, no. 155. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 15th century, fills and modifications
  • 1828, Antonio D’Este
  • 1996-1998, Liana Persichelli


In the sixteenth century, this sculpture, already repaired with fills and modified, was in Palazzo Della Valle in Rome. The work then passed to the Medici Collection and, finally, the Ceoli family, remaining in their hands until the sale of 1607, when it was purchased by the Borghese family. Iacomo Manilli and Domenico Montelatici reported, in 1650 and 1700 respectively, that it was located in the first enclosure of the garden, decorating a fountain. In the middle of the eighteenth century, it was moved to the underground rooms and described as a ‘nude marble Narcissus sitting on a dolphin’.

The sculpture was restored for a second time, by Antonio D’Este, between 1819 and 1832, a period when the collection was reconstituted or ‘regenerated’ inside the residence after it was cleared out by the sale of works in the collection to Napoleon by his brother-in-law Camillo Borghese. The project was devised by Cavalier Evasio Gozzani, minister of Prince Camillo, with especially careful attention paid to the arrangement of the works in the rooms:  ‘N.B. Project for the Faun conceived by the clear mind of the defunct Cavalier Gozzini. The said Faun numbered no. 4 was discussed many times with the said deceased Cavalier Gozzani and it was agreed with a few men of letters to installed it – after this fine work was completed – in the Sala del Gladiatore Combattente [Hall of the Fighting Gladiator], which still has the duct for water, which would come in from the baths, making it flow from the dolphin’s mouth, like it did before, and thus ennoble the middle of a Hall with this new object, which pushes away insofar as possible all memory, filling the hole that was once occupied by a masterpiece among masterpieces of ancient art’ (ASV, Arch. Borghese, b. 1007, fasc. 301). Antonio D’Este’s restoration involved the animal’s tail and the base with the waves. The idea behind this restoration was to add easily recognisable attributes to the sculpture, bringing it as close as possible back to the original model. An effort was also made to work out an arrangement in the rooms that would meet the criteria of rigid symmetry and restore the original harmony between the decorative programme and the works on display. The plan was to install the sculpture in the middle of Room 6, to make up for the terrible loss of the statue of the Gladiator, described by Antonio D’Este as a ‘masterpiece among masterpieces’. However, Antonio Nibby reported in 1832 that it was instead in Room 7 (which the author described as Room 5), on a pedestal decorated with chimeras and griffins, evoking the myth of Dionysus turning the pirates into dolphins, an episode found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Met. 3.582–630), which might have been the reference for the dolphin in the Borghese sculpture. In 1838, Nibby mentioned the sculpture again, reporting it in the same room but now describing it as a ‘youth riding a dolphin, possibly Palaemon, son of Athamas and Ino. According to the myth, Hera, enraged by the birth of Dionysus, the fruit of Zeus’s affair with Semele, decides to punish her sister Ino, who was guilty, along with her husband Athamas, of raising the young god. The powerful goddess drove the couple to madness, leading them to kill their children. Ino, coming out of her crazed state, tried to save her son Melicertes, jumping into the sea with him. Poseidon transformed the two into sea divinities, with the names Leucothea and Palaemon (Met. 3.313–315; 4.416–542). In 1893, Adolfo Venturi identified the young satyr as Arion, a Greek citharist thrown into the sea by pirates and saved by a dolphin, according to the story reported in Herodotus (Histories 1.23–24).

The sculpture portrays a young nude satyr in a kneeling position, riding a dolphin over a mass of water. The body of the youth is slightly turned to the right, a torsion emphasised by the tension of the muscles in his back and position of his limbs. His left arm and right leg are moved forward, while his right arm and left leg are moved back. The figure’s weight is put his left leg, which is bent and moved back, touching the water. The tip of his left foot, in particular the big and middle toes, is less finished than the right, which, bearing no weight, rests inert on the base. The torso also contributes to this balance, with the muscles of the chest and pelvis, as well as the left shoulder, all turned to the right, and the spine following the curve of the body forward and to the left There is also light tension in the muscles of the neck, which follows the turn of the head. His right hand grasps the dolphin’s caudal fin, and he holds the animal’s mouth open with his left. The satyr’s head is turned to the left, he has smiling eyes and his semi-open mouth reveals his teeth. The only element of the representation of the youth that evokes his animal-nature are his pointed ears. There is a little hole near the sacrum, which suggests that there was once a tail attached with a pin, but it could have also been from the modification of the sculpture group for use as a fountain. The dolphin is smaller than its rider. Its mouth is open to reveal sharp teeth, and its scaly, spiraliform tail is twisted to the right, ending in two fins, one turned downward, the other upward and grasped by the satyr.

The sculpture was already famous in the sixteenth century. It seems to have been the inspiration for Lorenzo Lotti’s portrayal of Jonah in the Chigi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, completed in 1520 and based on a design by Raphael; a contemporary model of the figure is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museom in London. The sculpture also inspired the faces of the youths in Taddeo Landini’s Fontana delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei, Rome, made based on a design by Giacomo della Porta in 1581. And the satyr’s face is also found in a drawing attributed to Michelangelo or his circle, now in the British Museum (Kleiner, 1950, pp. 22–26). The composition of the group is repeated in the statue of a satyr riding a dolphin that Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli sculpted in 1540 to decorate the garden of Palazzo Doria in Genoa. There is a statue in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, identified as Narcissus, from the same period and with similar tension, which was created using an ancient fragment by Valerio Cioli in 1560.

Numerous studies have been published on the Borghese group. In 1900, Walther Amelung was the first to interpret the sculpture as a fountain decoration, and dated it to the early Roman Empire, seeing it as a reinterpretation of a Hellenistic original. Amelung compared the work to a small sculpture in the Munich Glyptothek (no. 111; see Fig. 2 according to Clarac 749 A, 1841). This work depicts a boy, identified by Nebris as a satyr, sitting on the side of a dolphin, which carries him through the waves. In 1927 and 1929, respectively, Arnold Walter Lawrence and Bernhard Schweitzer both confirmed the dating of the prototype to the early Hellenistic period, no later than the third century BCE, based on the handling of the hair and the youthful rendering of the face.

Representations of dolphins flanked by other figures were very common in the figurative arts as well as the earlier vase painting of the sixth century BCE. In Greek visual culture, the dolphin represented loyalty to and friendship with humans and gods, especially when endangered by the perils of the sea, as widely attested in literature. Pliny tells the story of a boy who became friends with a dolphin. To get to school in Puteoli from Baiae, the boy called out ‘Simo Simo’ (‘upturned nose’, probably in reference to the shape of the animal’s nose), and the animal would come and carry him on his back. When the boy died from an illness, the dolphin waited for him for days, and then died himself, from sorrow (Nat. Hist. 9.25).

The pairing of a satyr with a dolphin would seem, however, to be very rare, making the Borghese group a somewhat isolated case.

Giulia Ciccarello

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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008527, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020