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Cinerary urns (cineraria)

CINERARY URNS: Introduction and overview


 


Cornelius Vermeule, 1953 [updated 2011]

The proportionately large number of so-called 'Cinerary Urns' in the Soane Museum are of two types – the round, vase-type urn and the square urn. The former, especially the example in alabaster in the Crypt (No.357, M570), appear to have provided a somewhat better quality burial than the latter. In several cases the round urns are quite richly carved in festoon and lower detail and a few, particularly the Labours of Hercules urn (No.342; M837), have elaborate frieze bands. The rectangular urns also include examples, particularly in the double-plaque urns, of complex, detailed decorative sculpture, although the best of their workmanship does not equal that of the larger circular urns. The simple dignity of the modestly ornamented urns presents on the whole a more effective picture, for over-enrichment, particularly overuse of the drill in foliate detail, does not lend itself thoroughly to the limited scope of a rectangular cinerarium.
The cinerary urns in the Soane Collection are like most of this class of Roman sculpture of increased interest because of their inscriptions. Through these in most instances we can trace the history of the urn for a considerable period prior to its purchase by Soane; the diligence of the Renaissance and later epigraphists in recording ancient inscriptions of all sorts – great and small – led to the keeping of manuscript records and ultimate incorporation of the accumulated pedigrees in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum1 . For this reason, although the provenance of most objects in the Museum can seldom be traced beyond the owner prior to Soane, several of these cinerary urns have distinguished histories among the post- Renaissance antiquaries, epigraphists and restorers.
These inscriptions on the urn fronts – usually the name of the deceased with a dedication by the chief mourner – wife, son, tutor, or friend, throw light on the character of the people for whose ashes the urns were intended. Most of the persons connected with the Soane urns were liberti or the descendants of freedom of known families of the first two hundred and fifty years of the Roman Empire [F.Sinn, Stadtrómische Marmorurnen, Mainz, 1987, considers urns of that time were mainly burial vessels for this class in the Roman Empire]. It was customary for a freed slave to assume the gens name and cognomen (or third name) of his former master. Although many in all stations owned slaves in ancient Rome, the family from which a libertus came is generally recognisable through other inscriptions celebrating some well known member under the Emperors. In instances the very man, such as C. TURRANIUS THREPTO (Vermeule 325/M410), with whose household the deceased was associated can be quite thoroughly considered.
Most of the cinerary urns in the collection have been heavily restored, and in cases false or borrowed inscriptions have been inscribed to increase the atmosphere of authenticity. The majority of lids on the rectangular urns are ancient but may have been borrowed from other urns or cut down to fit smaller receptacles. These cineraria have bases which are not ancient; only rarely did such exist on ancient urns [note, Sinn, op. cit., considers 'never']. The carved bases appear to have been added to heighten the decorative effect, and they do monumentalize the urn by raising it away from the abrupt transition to the floor of shift level. The circular or cylindrical urns are on the whole more the product of the restorer, than of antiquity. As a result, these “urns” are perfectly in keeping with the neoclassical idea of a grand vase such as the Warwick, Borghese, or Villa Medici examples. From what we know of the histories of these vasi – especially the circular “urns” from the Robert Adam and contemporary collections, there is ample evidence that the rather uniform hand in restoration and recreation is that of the studios of Cavaceppi and the Piranesi family. The particular forte of these antiquarian artists lay in building beautiful restorations of vasi and candelabri from antique prototypes or incorporating miscellaneous antique fragments [note – see also the candelabra section].
A number of the marble cinerary vases and urns which are dealt with in these sections, which are incorporated in the Museum, were displayed as part of the decorative furnishings of Soane’s country residence, Pitzhanger Manor at Ealing. The first of the urns were placed therein in the early 1800’s, and the house was sold by Soane in 1810.  Near that time [NB probably 1809] these objects were transferred to locations within the house and newly-built museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In the two watercolour views of the interior of Pitzhanger Manor by J. Gandy A.R.A., (dating from 1802), the cinerary urns and vases are seen set in arched niches which appear to have been specially designed to receive such objects. In one room these niches are constructed in three tiers either side of the fireplace, with the marble vases at the top, statuary in the centre, and a rectangular urn in the near bottom niche; beside this urn appears one of the small stone vases at present in the Museum Dome (Vermeule nos. 358 and 361). [NB since Vermeule's time, the dimensions of the niches at Pitzhanger have been carefully calculated and it has been pointed out that some could not have held the items depicted in them by Gandy - they are simply not deep enough: Helen Dorey].  The effect is precisely that realized on viewing the ancient catacombs and columbaria in the environs of Rome. In the other room, the six niches are spaced about the room over low bookcases and in each appears a rectangular urn, on top of which has been set one of the circular vases. Smaller urns and painted vases are located about on the tops of the bookcases, much as in the Library of No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields today.
In the highly personalized style that characterized Soane’s interpretation of British neoclassical architectural traditions, the cinerary urns and the circular cinerary vase featured as motives or as decorative elements in works which marked the flowering of Soane’s “Picturesque” classicism2 . The Centre Bay of the Back Elevation of the Bank of England (1805) is dominated by an architectural cinerary urn. Three models for tombs designed by Soane appear to be inspired by the niche arrangements in the living rooms at Pitzhanger Manor – a rectangular cinerary urn topped by cinerary or painted vases3 . In speaking of Soane’s favourite dome motive in connection with its adaptation in the miniscule on the gate-piers at Pitzhanger, Mr. Summerson [John Summerson: Curator of the Museum 1945-1984] states that “the ornaments have become something very like the lids of those antique cinerary urns which Soane was just then (1802) beginning to collect4". Finally, in a water colour drawing of the Cenotaph to William Pitt, National Debt Redemption Office (1819), (Bolton, op. cit., p.85), three cinerary vases appear between the columns in the cut-away view of the dome and two rectangular urns are set in niches over the doors flanking the Westmacott statue.
The cinerary urn, especially the rectangular variety, was admirably suited to the decorative effect of Soane’s house and museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Or rather, the interior arrangement was cleverly adapted to the display of the cinerary urn. The effect of the urns set in the recessed niches of STUDY, MONKS PARLOUR, and CRYPT is precisely that created by similar urns which Soane must have seen in situ in the sepulchres and columbaria around Rome, during his youthful travels, or which he studied in engravings celebrating these locales. The very name CATACOMBS, applied to one of the Basement rooms in which the rectangular cinerary urn played a key part in Soane’s efforts to transfer some of the romance of Italian neoclassical archaeology to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The Columbarium of the freedmen and slaves of the family of Augustus, excavated 1726 on the Via Appia about a mile distant from the Porta di S. Sebastiano in the Vigna di Filippo Benci, was one of the greatest single contributing factors to Soane’s “columbrium” style in architecture and no doubt supplied several of the urns, fragments, etc. in the Museum. [NB none are specifically known to hve come from that source]. In addition to probably having been visited by Soane in his youth, the excavations were drawn and published from all aspects by Piranesi in pls. XXI-XXXIX in volume III of Le Antichità Romane. (The inscriptions from the Columbarium of Livia are for the most part at present built into the walls of the upper hall of the Museo Capitolino, Rome5).


 


1 further reference CIL, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaft, Berlin (second edition) 
2 the general subject see, John Summerson, “Soane: The Case-History of A Personal Style”, RIBA Journal, Jan. 1951, pp. 1-9.
3  For illustrations and the history of these, see A. T. Bolton, The Works of Sir John Soane, Museum Publ., No. 8, p. 41, xxi, etc.
4  Summerson, 1951, p. 5.


e.g. in 1953.

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