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image L75

An askos (an oil or wine jar, resembling closely the form of a wine skin) with sphinx handle


Height: 20.5cm
Height (excluding handle): 15cm

Museum number: L75

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 444help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

The upper part of the handle curves over and joins the body in the shape of a stylized Grecian Sphinx, seated erect with forelegs spread apart and wings carried back to form extra support for the handle.

Like the Roman jug Soane Museum HR5 (Vermeule 443) this bronze vessel is of a common household type, and similar examples in Paris1 evince find spots from Syria to Herculaneum2. There is a bronze Askos of similar size, but without sphinx handle, in the British Museum collection of utensils. The shape, where it concerns us in these bronzes, derives from the sewn skin winejug and is known in Italian pottery from earliest times, and in the Hellenistic age the figurated handles were added3. These creations in bronze, and the choice of accessory ornament, were adapted from contact with the Hellenistic cultures in Magna Graecia and Sicily - emanating from such centres as Tarentum. The four examples from Herculaneum and Pompeii are reproduced photographically in Chiurazzi - De Angelis4.

Soane wrote of this vessel "... it is remarkable for the position of the handles which, being centrical, the smallest quantity of liquid may be poured from it without spilling even when full", perhaps inspired in writing this by the donor, Miss Mary Fairfax, later Mrs. Somerville (1780-1872), who was a knowledgeable writer on science. Perhaps the rather rare shape of the piece struck her fancy and brought about the purchase in a Roman antique shop. Her drawing of an acanthus plant she found growing amongst 'the ruins of Cicero's villa at Gaeta' is also in Soane's collection (SM 48/5/3).

1De Ridder, Louvre Bronzes, II, p. 128, no. 2929ff., pl. 103.
2See also, Babelon-Blanchet, Bronzes Bibl. Nat., no. 1417, p. 573, and Mus. Borbonico, II, pls. XLVII, LIX.
3See Pernice, Gefässe und Geräte aus Bronze, Die Hellenistische Kunst in Pompeii, IV, p.13ff., fig. 18.
4Chiurazzi - De Angelis, Fonderie Artistiche Riunite, (1910), p. 258 (Naples 6917), p. 259 (69168), p. 261 (69163, 69161), also p. 287 (69171), where the details of the body are identical.
For bibliography and an example discovered at Tirlemont in a tomb, see Musée de Mariemont (Marcel Renard), p. 145, no. R 36, pl. 52.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Presented by Mrs. Mary Somerville and said to have been found "amongst Ancient Ruins in Rome" (Soane, Description, 1835).


J. Soane, Description, 1830, p. 94.
Sir J. Soane, Description, 1835, p.5

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk