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Female Deity Statue with a Dolphin

The figure, wrapped in a see-through chiton with a mantle covering the lower half of her body, stands on her left leg, with the right slightly bent and moved forward; the body slightly rotates to the right, as does the head, which was integrated in the eighteenth century. While the left arm is at the hip, the right touches the tail of the dolphin, which acts as a support, according to a scheme generally attributed to the ‘Venus Marina’, although the most prevalent reading interprets this statue as the representation of a Nymph, a subject that was very common in the imperial age in the decoration of horti and gardens.

Graphic records from the sixteenth century attest this statue’s original location  was near the Church of SS. Apostoli in Rome; in 1741 it is listed in the inventory of the Villa Borghese in Mondragone; from 1819 the statue entered the collection of antiquities of the Casino della Villa at Porta Pinciana.

Object details

120-130 A.D.
white marble
height without plinth 161 cm; head 22 cm

Probably found near the Church of SS. Apostoli (drawing by Melchior Lorck, Madrid, c. 1551, Codex Escurialense); Borghese Collection (documented in 1741 in the Villa Borghese in Mondragone). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 50, no. 124 (room IV). Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • XVIII sec (?) replacement of head, upper part of dolphin, right forearm
  • 1819 F. M. Laboureur
  • 1995 CBC coop.a.r.l.


In the sixteenth century this statue stood near the Church of SS. Apostoli, as attested by a 1551 drawing by Melchior Lorck in which the lower part of the right forearm and the tail of the dolphin are imaginatively integrated with the addition of a torch and the head; the piece was probably later transported to Palazzo Altemps (Becatti 1971, p. 22). In 1741 the statue reappears as ‘Venus with Dolphin’ in the inventory of the Villa Borghese in Mondragone, which was built in 1572–85. In 1819, the statue was transported to Rome and entrusted to sculptors Felice Festa and Francesco Massimiliano Labourer to be restored, as part of the new collection of antiquities in the Casino della Villa at Porta Pinciana, where in 1832 Antonio Nibby identified it as Tethys (based on a comparison with a bas-relief in the Sala Rotonda in the Vatican), and displayed in the southern niche of Room IV, where it still stands today.

The figure is wrapped in a transparent sleeveless chiton; a heavy mantle covers the lower half of her body, falling to the front in a triangular fold, while it comes up from the back to partially cover the left arm while being held at the raised hip. The figure stands on its left leg, with the right leg being in a flexed and advanced position; the body is slightly turned to the right, harmonising with the torsion of the modern head: the hair, parted at the forehead into two wide bands, is arranged around the face, with locks gathered at the top of the head in a knot and on the nape of the neck in a bun from which two original ancient locks fall on the chest; while the left arm rests on the hip, the right arm is extended to reach the tail of the dolphin which, placed on a rocky elevation, acts as a support.

The sculpture has long been related to a series of female statues that present a similar structure but with numerous variants, generally referred to as ‘Venus Marina’, for which two main types have been identified: type A with a nude torso and pillar with a vase on the left, with subtype A1 to which the chiton is added, and type B with a nude torso and dolphin on a rocky base on the left, with subtype B1 characterised by a chiton covering the torso (Becatti 1971). The identification of the subject has been the subject of much debate; the presence of water-related supports in both types and the predominance of type A suggest an interpretation as a deity or mythological figure connected to spring water, such as a nymph, although identifications with Aphrodite have also been suggested, even in recent times (Schmidt 1997, p. 201, no. 67). Chronological definition is another complex aspect: while the rhythm and the treatment of the drapery have led some scholars to look for the model in a statue of Aphrodite from the fifth or fourth century BCE, others posit it might be a neo-Attic classicist production combining Pheidian, Praxitelian and Lysippean motifs, in a chronological framework ranging from the second to the first century BCE (Romeo 1998, pp. 216–217; Pafumi 2009, p. 52).

The Borghese statue, the only known example of sub-type B1, is distinguished, like the Farnese example in Naples (MANN, inv. 6301), by the presence of a hole in the mouth of the dolphin, which attests it was used as a fountain element as part of the decorative apparatus of a garden or nymphaeum, in keeping with one of the predominant uses of the various known replicas of this type, mainly from western urban contexts. The treatment of the drapery, with a limited use of the drill, allow us to date this piece to the age of Hadrian.

Jessica Clementi

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  • Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 920, n. 39.
  • J. J. Bernoulli, Aphrodite: einBaustein zur griechischen Kunstmythologie, Leipzig 1873, p. 366, n. 10.
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  • degli oggetti antichi, Roma 1957, p. 8, n. 22.
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  • G. Becatti, Ninfe e divinità marine. Ricerche mitologiche, iconografiche e stilistiche, Roma, 1971, pp. 22-23, n. 31, tav. XXVIII, 45,46 (disegno di Melchior Lorck).
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  • E. Schmidt, s.v. Venus, in “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae”, VIII, 1 Zürich München 1997, p. 201, n. 67, tav. 136.
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  • P. Moreno, A. Viacava, I marmi antichi della Galleria Borghese. La collezione archeologica di Camillo e Francesco Borghese, Roma 2003, pp. 206-208, n. 189.
  • S. Pafumi, Statua femminile tipo Venus Marina, in Le sculture Farnese. I. Le sculture ideali, a cura di C. Gasparri, Verona 2009, pp. 51-53, n. 20.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/00147905, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2021.