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Fragment of a large Roman altar or statue group(?) base

27 BC-14 AD

Pentelic marble

Height: 36cm
Width: 29cm
Length (side): 26cm

Museum number: S105

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 222help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

The oxhead is similar to those on another fragment SM S111 and bears the right end of the garland behind its horns. The part of the reverse face preserved here is carved with double palmettes at the edge, flowers, tendrils, and a stem leading to the start of a larger palmette at the break.

This, and the larger fragment S111 both formed part of a semi-circular (statue) base with a delicately carved frieze of probably four bulls heads linked by garlands of Bacchic character suspended from their horns. That this pedestal was intended to be viewed from all sides or at least partially from the rear can be seen by the fact that the straight, flat surface as preserved on the rear of this, the right upper corner fragment, was as carefully finished as the work on the curved portion of the marble.

The superiority of the carving indicates a date contemporary with that of the Ara Pacis or in the rule of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), and even in its mutilated state the base may be considered one of the most nobly carved examples of its kind surviving from antiquity. Comparison with two similarly enriched circular statue bases in the Braccio, Nuovo of the Museo Nuovo Capitolino (nos. 2453 and 2693) reveals the superiority of these fragments over contemporary but average analogous Graeco-Roman decorative carving. A close parallel to this base lies in an example circular in shape and which is recorded in two beautifully detailed drawings in the Dal Pozzo-Albani collection in the British Museum (British Museum nos. 2005,0926.151 and 2005,0926.150.)1. The BM website Curator's note for drawing 2005,0926.150. records that the original altar is in the Museum in Lyons(?).

These drawings show two sides of a base with bulls' heads and forest and vine garlands. In the areas above the loops heads of various animals of the chase protrude, and the base moulding and style of the bulls' heads as reflected in the drawing give every indication of paralleling the Soane fragments and presenting another example of outstanding early Imperial decorative carving. The altar or base shown in the BM drawings is a particularly rich, elaborate example of a fairly standard decorative type that can be compared with the altar in the Louvre: Reinach-Clarac, p.20, no. 2. To provide another qualitative contrast, there are ten round bases with garlanded bulls' heads or those of other beasts either side of the lower range of the main staircase to the Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre. None exhibit the more funerary motive of bukrania (ox skulls) in place of the actual bulls' heads and most appear from their worn, weathered look to have stood out of doors in ancient and perhaps also Renaissance times.

That this carving has its roots firmly planted in later Hellenistic art is confirmed not only by the carved swags from Pergamon2, but the circular altar in the Theatre of Dionysos at Athens, which is dated 100 BC on the basis of the persons mentioned in its inscription3. Comparable, but still markedly inferior carving, is found in a similar circular altar in the Museum at Terracina4, which from its peculiarly classic base moulding may be located in the Hadrianic era (117-138 AD). For the shape and concept of garlanded circular altars, Altmann demonstrates their development from the Hellenistic to the Roman sepulchral altar form5. For the history of the decoration see also his chapter on garland and bukrania motives6. In addition to its outstanding carving, the Soane base is noteworthy because of the rarity of the semicircular shape. When these altars or bases depart from the circular norm, they generally take the form of complex curved-and- recessed-niche bases quite suited to the ancient or Italian baroque idea (as in the fountains discussed above, under Soane no. SM M35 (Vermeule 180). The circular form is also found widely used in ancient times for well-heads or puteals, the entire centre naturally being hollow to a point fairly close to the outside surface.

At Harold Acton's Villa La Pietra, Florence, there was a curious Renaissance copy of this type of puteal, with a reclining river god in the centre of the conventional enrichment and the inscription IVLIANO FANTAGVZO, 1480.

The symbolism of these bovine heads and skulls has been much studied7. The head was Greek Imperial, while the skull was more Roman or Latin and usually funerary, as on the interior wall of the Ara Pacis Augustae8.

1 Franks I, fol. 150f. Also C.C. Vermeule, The dal-Pozzo Albani Drawings of Classical Antiquities in the British Museum, Transactions, American Philosophical Society, Vol I, 1960, fol.150f. British Museum online catalogue entries also cite another drawing Cod. Cob. no. 128, 2 (Matz 90).
2 Altertümer von Pergamon, VII, pl. XLI, 418.
3 G. Welter, in Anzeiger (Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts), 1939, cols. 36ff., fig. 10.
4 From photos shown to Vermeule by the Soprintendenza, Museo Nazionale Roma, no. 702.
5 W. Altmann, Die römischen Grabaltäre der Kaiserzeit, Berlin, 1905, chpt. vi: 'Die Hellenistischen Grabaltäre'
6 W. Altmann, Die römischen Grabaltäre der Kaiserzeit, Berlin, 1905, chpt. vi: 'Die Hellenistischen Grabaltäre'
7 See American Journal of Archaeology 61, 1957, pp. 223-244, pl.74, on the Fogg Trajan.
8 See also C.C. Vermeule, Hellenistic and Roman Cuirassed Statues, Berytus, XIII, 1959, p. 53, under no. 168 and pl. XIII, fig. 42; S.B. Platner and T. Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Oxford-London, 1929, p. 31.

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, p.40. Tatham notes on his drawing, "In the possession of Signor Angelo Grimaschi, Sculptor at Rome and for which he demanded 20 Scudi." Tatham's drawing of this fragment is labelled: 'fragment of one of the sides'.


Tatham: Drawings, 9.

Associated items

S111, other part

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