Early Roman Empire   :|:   Analysis

The boats on Lansdowne relief

ref. : en.1767.2018 | 25 November 2018 | by Francis Leveque
sculpture | Second quarter of IIe century AD
Latium ( Italie )
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Mythological scenes in a marine context in the spaces liberated between 4 niches dug in a black stone. The precise use of this original realization is not known.

The Lansdowne Relief was unearthed in 1769 during excavations undertaken the site of the Emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, 120-138 AD, about 30 km east of Rome, by the art dealer and archaeologist Gavin Hamilton, who sold it to Lord Lansdowne. The latter was an avid collector of antiquities who owned a fine collection of classical sculptures until most of it was sold and dispersed in 1930.

It is now displayed in the Greek and Roman Gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, although it has been on loan to the Museum since 2004 and on display since 2010.

This sculpture from Hadrian’s Villa is a dark grey limestone relief decorated with mythological scenes. It is made from an unusual dark grey limestone which provides a striking contrast to the lighter usual sculptures

The Relief is beautifully decorated with scenes from Greek mythology, all of which are connected to the sea. From left to right (from the viewer’s perspective) we see Odysseus and the sirens; the wine god Dionysos conveying the gift of wine, in the form of a spreading grape vine, across the sea to Greece; and the Argonauts with the man-eating Stymphalian birds.

The three scenes are in the intervals between 4 small nest that were to house small statuettes.

dimensions :
- height : 56 cm,
- width : 181.5 cm,
- depth : 23 cm

Three mythological scenes

The choice of scenes and their staging is an aesthetic choice but they also have a clear meaning for the sponsor. This meaning escapes us today but it is clear that the three scenes have in common a hero who gets out of terrifying events occurred at sea.

In the first scene Ulysses defends himself from the sirens. He was curious as to what the Sirens would sing to him and, following Circe’s instructions, he plugged his men’s ears with beeswax and got himself attached to the mast of the ship.

In the second scene, the god of wine Dionysus flees Tyrrhenian pirates after being kidnapped and taken aboard their boat. The pirates, who promised to take him to Naxos sailed to Asia instead, intending to sell him into slavery. In anger Dionysos filled their vessel with vines and wild animals, and when the pirates jumped into the sea he transformed them into dolphins.

This third scene represents the Argonauts sailing past the rapacious Stymphalian birds. The Stymphalian Birds were a flock of man-eating birds which haunted Lake Stymphalis in Arcadia. Heracles defeated them as his sixth labour, using first a pair of krotala (clappers, similar to modern castanets) to frighten and drive them away with the noise, then shooting them down with a bow and arrows or with a slingshot. The surviving birds were forced to take refuge on the island of Aretias (modern-day Giresun Island on the southeastern coast of the Black Sea), where they later faced the Argonauts. The birds were frightened away by the sound of the Argonauts’ swords clanging on shields.

The boats

The three boats have similar profiles. Even if we can note an inversion of the decorations of the ends of the 3rd boat, the 3 representations show us round boats, without spur or taillemer. The top of the bow seems to end with a volute or a figure (horse’s head and bearded human’s head). The stern is decorated with a gooseneck.

The artist has depicted oars and rudders differently on each boat. That of Ulysses has 4 oars but no rudder; that of Dionysos is a simple barque where the sailor has an oar in each hand; that of Jason has only a rudder of which one perceives only the wick because the shovel is in the water, this rudder leaves the plating by a round port.

The representations of the 2 examples of sailing are challenging. That of Ulysses is a strange triangular veil; the mast has been bent and is held by 2 ropes, one towards the rear and the other towards the front. Jason’s is fixed on a yard that seems itself supported by a mat of fortune.