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image M99

Fragment of the right-hand end of the front of a child's sarcophagus depicting a chariot race of cupids in the circus

Coarse-grained Greek marble

Height: 33cm
Width: 35cm
Depth: 8cm

Museum number: M99

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 309help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

As Michaelis observed, this is a fragment of the front of a Child's Sarcophagus, representing a Chariot Race of Cupids in the Circus. In sarcophagi of this type the main panel usually depicts the length of the centre of the Circus Maximus at Rome from meta to meta with four continuous scenes taking place in front of the monument-crowned spina. These sarcophagi usually vary in richness of background detail and complexity of scenes represented. The four usual scenes (from left to right) are: -

(1) the start of the race, with Cupids mounting their bigae [chariots] and setting off in the course, others accompanying them on horseback in the background;

(2) the race in full progress, with overturned karanthoi or reclining Cupids at the side to suggest merriment;

(3) an almost comic mishap, usually involving the drastic overturn of a biga and the unceremonious upending of a Cupid on the ground;

(4) and, finally, the victorious chariots and horsemen, the Cupids raising their hands to signify the decision and acknowledge the plaudits of the crowd.

This fragment is from scenes two and three, or the centre and right centre of the panel. Most of the horses from scene two remain, in full gallop to the right, in front of two Corinthian columns, bearing an architrave with six ova, representing the architecture of the right centre of the spina. Beneath and behind the horses appears the headless torso of a winged Cupid (on his hands and knees?) against the wall of the spina. To the right, ahead of and behind the off-side horse (the head of the near horse is missing), are fragmentary remains of a chariot high off the ground in the process of being upset; beneath the broken, four-spoked wheel, again against the wall, is seen a bit of shrubbery(?).

The theme of these sarcophagi was, as the subject would suggest, the happy life of children in the world of myth and fantasy - appropriately imparting a note of eternal joy to the particularly pathetic and challenging subject of funerary sculpture for child burial.

There are several notable examples of the richer of this type of sarcophagus in the Vatican Museums, mostly grouped in the Salla della Biga: one with a lid depicting a horse race of Cupids1, another with a lid showing chariots and jugs2 and a third with an extremely detailed view of the centre architecture of the Circus Maximus in Rome.3 For a more simplified version, not unlike this Soane fragment, see the sarcophagus front(?) in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek4 and also a sarcophagus in Verona with variant details of the circus background.5 Finally, there is a particularly fine example of the front of one of this group, with detailed background and crowded, lively composition, in the Museo Nazionale, Naples.6 Cumont links these scenes with the famous myth set out in Plato's famous dialogue Phaidros 248, A (written c.360 BC) which describes winged souls struggling towards the starry circuit and adds: 'L'allégorie était d'autant plus transparente aux yeux des Romains qu'un symbolisme, rapporté par plusieurs ecrivains, faisait du cirque, consacré au Soleil, un image de l'univers, et expliquait ses diverses parties comme représentant les signes du zodiaque, les planètes, l'ocean, la terre; les factions concurrentes elles-mêmes figuraient, les quatre saisons. Si l'idée que devaient eveiller, les jeux du cirque sculptés sur les monuments funéraires est celle que nous pensons, les mignons cochers ailés y sont les âmes platoniciennes et non une troupe d'Eros'.7 This explanation appears too complex: it overlooks the element of revelry in the overturned jugs and of parody in actuality of setting, and the theory of seasonal cycle seems ill fitted to the coincidence of four scenes. The apparent realism of overturned chariots, etc., makes the scene understandable in Roman terms. To be sure, in the climax of the scenes the idea of triumph does enter as a funerary motive, but the Platonic symbolism must not be too heavily emphasised else we bury the significance in terms of the average Roman. Cumont's theory of symbolic struggle in these chariot race sarcophagi seems further refuted when we add the evidence of a much rarer comparison type with Cupids engaged in a hoop-rolling contest in the Circus: a scene which emphasises the childlike happiness of their pursuits and eliminates all element of serious contest.8

1 S. Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs Grecs et Romains, Paris, 1909-12, Vol III, p. 368, no. 1; W. Helbig, Führer durch die öffentlichen sammlungen klassischer altertümer in Rom: Volume 1, die päpstilchen sammlungen im Vatikan und Lateran, Tübingen, 1963, no. 330ff.; Phot. Anderson, no. 23721ff.; no. 2364.
2 S. Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs Grecs et Romains, Paris, 1909-12, Vol III, p. 368, no. 2; F.V.M. Cumont, Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains, Paris, 1942, fig. 77; no. 2356; see also W. Amelung, Die Skulpturen des Vaticanischen Museums, Berlin, 1903 Vol. I, pl. 24, no. 21.
3 S. Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs Grecs et Romains, Paris, 1909-12, Vol. III, p. 369, no. 1; no. 2348.
4 Antike Kunstvaerker I Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, pl. LXVII, no. 785.
5 S. Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs Grecs et Romains, Paris, 1909-12, Vol. III, p. 437, no. 1.
6 No. 6712; A. Ruesch, Guida illustrata del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, Naples, 1908, p. 171f., no. 597.
7 F.V.M. Cumont, Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains, Paris, 1942, p. 348, also p. 461.
8 Like the Windsor Drawings, A-43, Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, trans. C.A.M. Fennell, Cambridge, 1882, IV, no. 8405.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Rome;collected 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 2, no. 32.

Literature

Tatham: Etchings, 17; Drawings, 1.
A. Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, trans. C.A.M. Fennell, Cambridge, 1882, p. 480, no. 32.


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