The collection of antiquities was made up by the members of the Farnese family starting from the first half of the 16th century through excavations, acquisition and requisitioning from other Roman families, and became one of the most admired in Europe. The excavation of the Baths of Caracalla and the discovery of some colossal statues, such as the group with the punishment of Dirce, later to be known as the Toro Farnese, or statues with an unusual iconography, such as the Atlas or the Aphrodite Kallipygos clearly illustrate the magnificence of the family.
Together with them, there is also a large group of sculptures excelling in beauty and rarity of material.
Statua di Artemide Efesia (2010/2018)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli
Statues in colored marbles, porphyry or alabaster conveyed a more lively image of the ancient world.
sacred image of the goddess Artemis, whose temple in Ephesus is
attributed to the Amazons, was originally made of wood and covered
with cloth garments. The Farnese sculpture, a replica dated to the
Hadrianic period (117-138 AD), is carved in a bright honey-colored
oriental alabaster. Her face, hands and feet of dark bronze are
A variety of alabaster, the "cotognino" from Egypt, was often used to make busts.
The red porphyry stone, symbol of the imperial power, originated from Egypt. Its quarries, after the Roman conquest, ended under the direct control of Rome. The great statue of Apollo bearing the lyre, a modern age addition in white marble, was considered a representation of Rome deified.
Another Egyptian stone, the basanite, is a compact stone primarly used for the curvy lines of Apollo's body.
The use of colored marbles and stones as sculptural materials has ancient origins, right within the culture of Pharaonic Egypt.
The use of colored marbles in Rome, however, is characterized by entirely new aspects. The Romans were the first to import colored marbles from distant lands, optimize the work routine in the quarries and plan the commercial routes. This resulted in a great variety of materials to be used in buildings and sculptures.
The Roman culture was the first to perceive the extraordinary symbolic value of colored marbles as spectacular symbols of power, because they originated in the conquered lands. For the same reason, in the late republican age the Roman elite used the exotic colored marble as instruments of self-assertion on political opponents.
The first Roman sculptures in colored marbles date back to the beginning of the Empire. Among the most ancient sculptures, we have the two kneeling barbarians in pavonazzetto marble coming from Phrygia, a region of the eastern Mediterranean area. A third sculpture,today in Copenhagen, is to be added to the two sculptures of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples: they all constituted the support of a monument erected in Rome, probably in the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, to celebrate Augustus' victory over the Parthians in 20 BC.
It is evident here the use of marble to emphasize the meanings of the work: the defeated barbarians, on their knees, are supporting the sacred tripod of Apollo - the tutelary deity of Augustus. They are made of an oriental kind of marble, whose nuances respond to the richness of the garments of these oriental people, enemies now reduced to sumptuous servants.
Marble could also be chosen for its mimetic qualities: the Phrygian marble, with its white spots on a dark background, was often used to imitate the spotted cat's fur.
The multi-colored marble imitates the cloak of the animal. In this case it is a gray granite, a variety stone coming from Egypt.
Stones with less gaudy colors also had a strong visual impact thanks to white marble, used for the uncovered parts of the body. The only remaining parts of the statue of Nike in bigio morato marble are those covered with a dark robe.
The statue of Isis instead, made of the same marble, allows us to appreciate the original effect.
Large basins, used as furnishings for both private and public buildings, were also carved out of these amazing blocks of stone. The giant porphyry basin belongs to the Farnese collection and is a spectacular example of the decoration of the Baths of Caracalla.
Photo credits Luigi Spina