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  • image X26

Fragment of a Graeco-Roman statuary group: a Nereid riding on a sea creature

98-117 AD

Large-grained Greek marble

Height: 33cm
Width: 40cm

Museum number: X26

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 364help-vermeule-catalogue-number

On display: Colonnade - central aisle
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

This fragment comprises the torso from the waist down of a Nereid (sea nymph) seated facing right, in the same direction as the head of a sea beast, perhaps a hippocamp. The Nereid has a himation thrown across her lap, one end hanging down to her left in a heavy, rolled fold, the other end beneath her and over the back of the animal. There are lines and ridges to suggest the scaly folds of the animal's body and a curve where the tail begins.

This not overly inspired example of garden sculpture differs from many representations of Nereids on sea beasts in the relative simplicity of the drapery forms, the simple mass broken only by slight folds topped by the heavy roll in running folds which winds around behind the torso and falls heavily and almost stiffly across the thighs. This is not the style of the series of examples, including the Belvedere fragment and a complete group in Naples, considered by Wilhelm Klein1, especially from the fussy treatment of wet or windblown drapery, to epitomise the Rococo tendencies of the late Hellenistic period (150 BC - 50 AD). In these creations the tails of the sea creatures are more elaborately decorated and violently curved and in the two complete Vatican examples Erotes were added to elaborate the composition. The simplicity and the lack of ornamental elaboration in this Soane fragment certainly gives it a better claim, though in a rather distant way, to recall the early Hellenistic groups to which Amelung links the Belvedere fragment.

Perhaps in this Roman copy of the Trajanic period (98-117 AD), we can in fact see a reflection of one of the figures of the famous group of Neptune, Thetis, Achilles, the Nereids and Tritons, etc. attributed by Pliny to Skopas2 and said to have stood in his day in a Temple of Neptune in Circo Flaminio3.

Other related statues of Nereids, Erotes, etc. on sea beasts in and about Rome seem to fall into two general categories determined by size. Close to this Soane fragment in size and style, though heavily restored and badly weathered, is the Eros on a Sea 'Panther' in the Garden to the right approaching the Coffee House of the Villa Albani4. In the Antiquario on the Palatine are two fragmentary statuettes(?) of Nereids on Sea Beasts which are about half the size of the Soane figures and which come from the Imperial Palace statuary; they show similarities in the technique of running drill grooves to delineate the folds of drapery and could easily be accessory figures of the same general ensemble. Others which may be related to the Palatine figures are the three sets of four statuettes in the Leda Gallery of the Villa Torlonia-Albania: pendant Nereids on Sea Chimeras5 (horned Abyssinian lions), with waterspouts in the animal's mouths) an Eros and a Nereid on Sea Bulls6. The one rather distinctive feature of this Soane group, unlike the Antiquario Palatino and Albani statuettes and the Belvedere fragment7, including a "Campana" relief8, is that the Nereid sits in the same direction as the Hippocamp. They are posed in the same way in the pendant group from Formia, the figures in which are half-lifesize, in the Museo Nazionale, Naples9 and the Uffizi fragment10 which is of the same class as that in the Belvedere, shows the Nereid on the right side of the hippocamp and seated forward.

As Amelung hinted and the Villa Albani examples demonstrate, these small figure groups were probably, from their aquatic associations, used as parts of the decorative ensembles of fountains; their motives are popular and occur in many expressions of the architectural and purely decorative arts, to cite a random relief example far removed from Rome, the Nereid on a Sea Boar in the Trier Museum in Germany.11 A marble vase from Rhodes, now in Munich12, shows Nereids in a wide variety of draped and half-draped poses on a number of beasts. They bear the arms of Achilles, and probably, from the ancient description, at least some did likewise in the original Skopaic group. P.E. Arias reviews Pliny's description of this famous group and points out its probable characteristics.13 He suggests it represented either the union of Thetis and Achilles in the Isles of the Blest or the progress of Achilles to the Isle of Leuke in the Euxine Sea. His candidates for reflective derivations of this large ensemble are:
(1) The polychromed mosaic from the House of the Nereids, Olynthus (see D.M. Robinson, Olynthus, V, p.109 ff.; VIII, p.284 ff).
(2) Munich, Glyptothek, frieze representing the union of Poseidon and Amphitrite from the Palazzo Santa Croce, Rome: see F. Castagnoli, in Arti Figurative, I, 4, 1945, pp.181-196.
(3) Berlin Museum, Statue of a Triton: see K.A. Neugebauer, "Die Berliner Tritonstatue", in JDAI (Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts), LVI, 1941, pp.179-200.
(4) London, British Museum, torso of a Triton: see A.H. Smith, Catalogue of Sculpture in the department of Greek and Roman antiquities, British Museum, 3 vols, London, 1892-1904, Vol. III, p.272, no. 2220.
(5) Vatican, Torso of a Triton. see W. Amelung, Die Skulpturen des Vaticanischen Museums, Berlin, 1903-08, Vol. II (1908), p.158f., 60A, pl.17.
(6) (Belvedere), Nereid on Hippocamp. See above.
(7) Naples, Museo Nazionale. Two Nereids on Hippocamps. See above, (note that in Anzeiger (Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts) they are treated as late Hellenistic adaptations of the Epidauros akroteria).
(8) Taranto, Museo Nazionale Archeologico: relief on a silver vase depicting a Nereid on a sea lion.

Our information about the orignal Skopaic group is of such a general nature that the only limitations, aside from the connections of the Munich frieze with the area where Skopas' figures stood, are peculiarity of subject and the inferred style. The former was such that we might be almost justified in seeing all figures or pairs of marine figures found in the Rome area as based more or less directly on the corresponding member of the original group. Given this, we then proceed to grade these on order of proximity to later fourth century BC style, and, where necessary evidence such as heads survives, the style of Skopas himself. (The manner of representation and style of the entire group with which we deal is quite far removed from any possibility of reflecting, other than in subject and seated position, the Nereid akroteria of the temple of Asklepios at Epidauros, generally ascribed to Timotheos, see G.M.A. Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, New Haven, 1929, p.276ff, figs. 710 ff and Johann Friedrich Crome, Skulpturen des Asklepiostemples, p.23ff., plates 6ff. Aside from variations in treatment of costume, the idea of placing the Nereids on sea beasts has not yet developed beyond mere representation of an ordinary horse rising from the water). We eliminate immediately those Tritons and Nereids cited by Klein et al as typifying the antique "rococo", for whether we accept application of modern artistic sequences to classical art we cannot doubt that these figures do not mirror Skopasian style. When we compare the examples of minor fountain sculpture given above as illustrative comparisons for this Soane fragment, it seems that the figures which may best claim the honour of reflecting Skopas are not the larger, more elaborately designed marbles of individual merit but rather the survivors from these small fountain and garden-type sculptural ensembles.

There is one set of monuments, generally overlooked by archaeologists because of their unique and unjustifiably suspected nature, which reproduce very closely the style of the ensembles from which the Soane and related figures derive and which have a better claim to preserving the Skopasian originals than most examples cited previously. These are three of the celebrated gold medallions of Abukir (Giannino Dattari, Venti Medaglioni d'Abukir, pl.I, K.R.S: Nereid on a Triton; N: Nereid on sea monster; pl.II, D: Nereid on Sea Bull; see also H. Dessel, Fünf Goldmedaillons Aus Dem Funde Von Abukir, Berlin, 1906, pl.II, D). It will be noted that while precise stylistic details cannot be judged, the drapery of the Nereid on no. 1 in particular is arranged in a manner similar to the Soane figure and as we would expect to find it before the 'rococo' modification of the later Hellenistic period. These medallions are the products not of provincial artists or second-rate sculptors but of the best die designers of the Imperial central mints and, as a consequence, present the best claim to be the actual work of men who knew the Skopasian group in its location in the capital during the Imperial period.

For the timelessness of such marine figures on Roman sarcophagi, whether mythological persons or the creatures on which they rode, see Bulletin, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, LXX, 1972, pp.40-42, fig.24. On Nereids generally see J. M. Barringer, Divine escorts: Nereids in archaic and classical Greek art, Ann Arbor 1995.

1 W. Klein, Vom antiken Rokoko, Wien, 1921, pp. 107-114, figs. 45-47.
2 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, XXXVI, 26.
3S.B. Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Boston, 1911, pp. 360-361.
4 P. Arndt, Photographische Einzelaufnahmen antiker Sculpturen, Munich, 1893-1912, Ser. XVI A, col.1, no V A 798.
5 Phot. Alinari 27682; nos. 150 and 162; Arndt, Einzelaufnahmen, op. cit., Ser. XII, nos. 3569, 3575.
6 Nos. 155 and 160; Arndt, Einzelaufnahmen, op. cit., nos. 3571b; 3573b, see below Soane no. 433.
7 Amelung, VC, II, pp. 158-9, no. 6A, pl. 17.
8 Campana, AOP, pl. 10; von Rohden, p. 29, pl. 133.
9 Nos. 145080, 145070; Arch. Anz., 1941, cols. 573 ff., fig. 100f.: Picard, Manuel, III, 1, p. 686, n. 2.
10 See also Amelung, Führer, p. 77f, no. 108.
11 Espèrandieu, VI, pp. 379-380.
12 Reinach, RR, II, p. 78.
13 Skopas, Rome, 1952, p. 61ff., esp. n. 2; p. 112ff.

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