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  • image M450

Roman funerary (cinerary) vase

Turned and moulded alabaster

Height (excluding lid): 52cm
Height (lid): 13cm
Height (pedestal and base): 16cm

Museum number: M450

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 357help-vermeule-catalogue-number

On display: Basement West Corridor
All spaces are in No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields unless identified as in No. 12, Soane's first house. For tours https://www.soane.org/your-visit

Curatorial note

Vase consisting of a body of ovoid shape with two small knobs as handles on opposite sides of the body, set on a heavy, turned and moulded pedestal.

The inscription: C.VARI, C.F. POMIVLI. ⁄ PROCVII. P.R., which translates as ‘[Urn containing the ashes] of Caius Varius Pompilius(?) Iulius Proculus, son of Caius, praetor(?) appears on the upper part of the body. The lid is turned with heavy capping mouldings, terminating in a round knob on top.

The patrician P. Varius C. F. Iulius Proculus was Senator in Rome.

Alabaster urns distinguish themselves by the rare and precious material alone and very often belong to high-ranking Roman citizens. A honeycoloured albaster urn in the Vatican Museums, for example, is supposed to have held the ashes of Livilla the daughter of Germanicus.1 Several others, some of them reused Egyptian vases, can be atributed to other high ranking deceased persons.2 Alabaster urns were rarely found in columbaria, which suggests that they were probably set up as single 'tombs', perhaps a more appropriate setting for these rather precious objects. A record of a dedicated alabaster urn that a certain Flavius Ursus gave to his favourite slave3 stresses the preciousness of alabaster urns. Romans were highly aware of the meaning that material could have. Alabaster cinerary vases of simple design appear to have been used for burial of persons of higher rank under the Empire, and are therefore considerably rarer than the many square and even round marble urns used by various classes of freedmen and lesser citizens. There was probably some suggestion of Republican austerity and simple dignity in the undecorated, smooth surfaces and conservative shapes of these vases: the use of rich materials, such as alabaster and precious marbles, created a pleasing, rich effect. This Soane example can be compared with the oriental alabaster vase illustrated in the Berlin catalogue4 which came from Rome. The small museum in Aquileia possesses a cinerary vase in green glass of shape suggestive of a Greek hydria and of a simple luxury paralleled in our more durable example. A date in the first century of the Empire is correctly suggested for the Aquileia vase5. For a further analogy to the simple style of the Soane urn, see the urn of Minitia Pollia6 found (and remaining) in the Selpulchre of C. Sulpicius Platorinus and his family from the Farnesina (reconstructed in the Museo delle Terme, Rome). The Galleria dei Candelabri of the Vatican contains a number of the simple but luxurious alabaster-type cinerary urns or vases7, as does the Villa Albani. The closest in shape and material to the Soane example is no.157 in the Vatican Egyptian collection.

Travelling beyond Egypt and into border regions penetrated by Graeco-Roman art through trade routes, a similar alabaster cinerary vase once in the L. A. Lawrence collection, London, bears a Quatabanian inscription and was apparently further reused to conceal a small hoard of silver coins on its rediscovery in the Aden region. The zebu (Indian bull) headed handles were probably also recarved for its later uses8.

1 Helbig 4, I No. 420 (E. Meinhardt).
2 Sinn, p.8.
3 (CIL VI 5306)
4 Königliche Museen zu Berlin, Beschreibung der antiken Skulpturen, Berlin, 1891, p. 244, no. 1148.
5 Brusin, Aquileia, p. 57, fig. 30.
6 No. 1046; Aurigemma, Terme di Diocleziano, p. 44f.
7 For example Galleria dei Candelabri, Vatican, nos. 55-2665 and 2669, on top of 51; 23-2704, etc.
8 J. Walker, Le Muséon, 1933, pp. 273ff.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Purchased by John Soane from Lord Mendip's Sale, Christie's, 18 May 1802, held at his house, Lot 32 (from the 'Marble Hall'), A small oval alabaster vase, and cover, £1.5.0.


Description of Sir John Soane's Museum, 1930, p.67 ['Canopic vase of Egyptian Alabaster']
Corpus Inscriptiorum Latinarum (CIL) VI, 1, (337) 1535.
Sinn, Stadtrömische Marmorurnen, p. 8.

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