Pair of Etruscan Bronze Lion Protomes
Culture: Etruscan, Etruscan
Period: late 7th century B.C. (ca. 620-600 B.C.)
Dimensions: H: 7.8 and 8.1 cm
Provenance: Ex-Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt collection, USA.
Conditions: Both pieces are undamaged and in an excellent state of preservation; a beautiful green patina covers the entire surface of the bronze. They are completely hollow cast, including the lions’ heads. Vertical bronze stems with traces of iron still appear on the inside, near the opening.
These two protomes are specular.
The shape of the posterior part – oval but cut straight on one side – as well as the nails clearly show that these protomes were attached to a support made of a perishable material (wood?), unfortunately lost; they were probably decorative finials adorning horizontal rods, such as seat or throne armrests, a hypothesis reinforced by the elongated and rounded shape of the protomes. The cats’ heads were directed outwards (the animals turned their head respectively to the left and to the right), while the flat portion of the finial was placed on the inner part of the chair. The bronzes smith expressed in a very simple and plain way the elements that characterize these animals’ heads. The shapes and anatomy are rendered only on the surface, by incisions and edges, without any modeled or elaborated nuances; the neck (a simple bent cylinder) as well as the feet are barely sculpted.
Although the resemblance is not conclusive, the animal represented here is probably a lion, as suggested in particular by the open, snarling mouth revealing menacing fangs and a clearly visible tongue. Some elements, however, are not related to a wild cat’s anatomy: the shape of the skull, for instance, rather suggests a dog’s head, the mane (rendered by long incisions separated by a central part) evokes a horse mane, and the ears (elongated and turned backward) resemble those of certain dog breeds. The legs – two long, thin stems with claws indicated at the ends – were cast separately and then soldered to the nape of the neck; the part that widens in connection with the soldering that represents the cat’s shoulder. This combination of details belonging to different animals – which is one of this piece’s most significant interests – is certainly linked to the fact that the sculptor had no direct knowledge of wild cats, since this species did not live in central Italy at the time. Like other contemporary Etruscan artists, he reproduced these bronzes relying on pieces imported from Greece and Near East, which were largely widespread in Etruria during the 7th century.
Though there is no doubt that these objects were cast, their shape and style, including the absence of modeling, resemble the griffon and lion protomes, made using the cold hammering technique, which adorned the cauldrons found in Etruscan princely tombs dated to the mid-7th century B.C. (the Regolini-Galassi tomb at Cerveteri, for example). In those days, such objects were generally rare, even if there are a few known pieces that can be compared with these cats. One can mention, in particular, the pair of seated lions of the Bernardini tomb at Palestrina, which are certainly earlier, and especially another ornamental finial with a leonine protome, discovered in the same tomb, which is the closest example from a typological point of view.
Similar pieces are more common in the 6th century and often decorate andirons; their protomes also take other shapes (griffin, eagle or horse’s head). Stylistically and chronologically, an ornamental finial with a griffin head, originating from Vulci and now in the British Museum (London), is a close parallel to our example.
BibliographyClosest parallels in:
Canciani, F., and Von Hase, F. W., La tomba Bernardini di Palestrina, Rome, 1979, p. 56, n. 67; p. 57, n. 69.
Haynes , S., Etruscan Bronzes, London, 1985, n.13, p. 249; n. 25-27, pp. 254-255 (griffins and horses protomes).
About the lion in Etruria, see:
Llewellyn Brown, W., The Etruscan Lion, Oxford, 1960, pl. X, a 1-2, p. 21 (an andiron ornament from Palestrina, imported perhaps from Caucasus);
pl. X, b, p. 25, note 1 (from Palestrina, the same in Canciani, F., and Von Hase, F. W., op. cit., n. 69).