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Large flat mask from a Roman fountain or bath

Hadrianic (117-138 A.D.) or later

Luna marble

Height: 62cm
Width: 65cm
Thickness: 6cm

Museum number: M1125

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 179help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

A female face with perforated open mouth and eyes; the hair, parted over the centre forehead, falls closely either side of the round face in four long ringlets (plaits). The effect created is that of a wet, waving mass, such as might belong to a water nymph or goddess. The round perforations give the mask a terrifying Gorgon-like expression.

As Michaelis noted1, from the undoubtedly perforated mouth, this mask would have been for use in a fountain or vapour bath; the hair would be very effective under shimmering water and the flatness of relief might suggest that the piece was set in the bottom of a floor or bath as a drain, rather than used as a waterspout. A similar sort of arrangement in Roman mosaics featured fish and other marine life to be viewed through the waters flooding the pavement of the bath or pool in which they were set.

Of several at Ince Blundell, Ashmole notes that colossal architectural masks were popular during the Hadrianic period and later2; these and their counterparts built into the walls of the Cortile del Belvedere of the Vatican, and several in the gardens of the Museo delle Terme, Rome, are much thicker, more three-dimensional and were probably used for the decoration of buildings, such as theatres. A profile Maenad mask in red marble at the entrance at Michaelangelo's Cloister in the Terme, Rome is of similar size and low relief treatment as the Soane example and is said to have been used in the warm room of a bath3. This mask appears to have a pendant in the Satyr mask also in red marble in the main staircase in the Villa Albani. In describing the Soane mask as an "Antique Mask or Bocca della Verita" the 1837 inventory of the Museum made comparative illusion to the famous and quite similar mask (of possible late antiquity) of a male watergod with pierced eyes and mouth in S. Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, which was a dispenser of superstitious justice in the Middle Ages4. Another general parallel is offered by the Medusa-type bath or fountain mask used as a fountain spout in the Palazzo Caetani5.

1 Adolf Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, trans. C.A.M. Fennell, Cambridge, 1882.
2 B. Ashmole, A Catalogue of the Ancient Marbles at Ince Blundell Hall, Oxford, 1929, pp. 56, 57, nos. 130-133, pl. 46.
3 S. Aurigemma, La Terme di Diocleziano e il Museo Nazionale Romano, Roma, 1950, p. 115, no. 332 (8572).
4 G. Fattorusso, The Wonders of Italy, Florence, 1930, p. 426; G.B. Piranesi, De Romanorum Magnificenta, Roma, 1761, pl. XX.
5 German Institute, Rome, photograph, neg no. 33.1007.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Rome; collected in Rome by Charles Heathcote Tatham for the architect Henry Holland during the 1790s. See Cornelius Vermeule, unpublished catalogue of the Antiquities at Sir John Soane's Museum, Introduction, transcription of Tatham letters, list 3, no.94.


Tatham: Etchings, 1; Drawings, 3.
A. Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, trans. C.A.M. Fennell, Cambridge, 1882, p. 480, no. 35.

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