Two-handled cinerary urn
Culture: Roman Imperial
Period: 1st century A.D.
Dimensions: Height: 73 cm
Ex- Roland Levy Collection, Geneva, 1956 (with dated invoice); Ex- Mireille Koutoulakis collection, 1960, thence by descent.
The well-preserved marble urn is ornamented on the body with deeply carved tongues that extend upward like an arrangement of petals from the foot to the shoulder. The urn’s cover terminates in a finial whose shape suggests a pine cone atop a round pedestal or altar form, beneath which a series of flutes or concave tongues radiate outward to the edge. The urn rests upon a disc-shaped foot, and two lug-shaped handles are placed on opposite sides of the cover. Both the shape and decoration of the marble urn reveal its derivation and inspiration from metal vessels.
In Homer’s Iliad, written in the 8th century B.C., the spirit of Patroklos beseeches Achilles to honor him by placing his cremated remains in the golden two-handled urn given to Achilles by his mother (Iliad 23.109-10). Cremation and burial of a person’s remains in an urn was well-established throughout the ancient world long before and after Homer’s early mention of the custom. The Roman emperor Augustus was likewise interred after cremation when his ashes were deposited in a golden urn and placed within the massive Augustan tumulus that remains standing in Rome. This finely sculptured urn of marble has a shape and form of decoration comparable to Roman marble urns of the 1st century A.D., which were influenced by a revival of the Greek Classical style initiated under Augustus and proliferated during the period of his reign and beyond. Such a retrospective style flourished under the emperor, whose empire not only aspired to emulate but also surpass the artistic achievements of Classical Greece. Certain aspects of this neoclassical style such as the use of marble – in which Augustus took such interest, finding Rome “a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble” – could lend a special aura of veneration and history to objects such as cinerary urns, that at the time were also made of more modest materials such as simple green glass or terracotta for poorer burials, marble cinerary urns being reserved for the wealthy. These urns were usually placed in niches within family vaults or tombs.
Following the artistic taste of their emperor, the wealthiest of Romans enriched their villas and gardens with marble figural sculpture as well as decorative marble vases with motifs drawn from Greek art of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. This renewed interest in things Greek extended to the tomb and undoubtedly, like Augustus, many aristocratic Romans would have been aware of ancient writers such as Homer. The association that could be implied between a finely made urn and the heroic past made an object such as this marble cinerary urn as aesthetically desirable as it was appropriate for their funerary customs.
For comparable marble urns: F. Taglietti in A. Giuliano, Museo Nazionale Romano, Le Sculture I, 1 (Rome 1979), 230, no. 144, 236-37, no. 150; Museo Nazionale Romano, Le Sculture I, 2 (Rome 1979), 148, no. 43; A. Giuliano and B. Palma, Museo Nazionale Romano, Le Sculture I, 4, I Marmi Ludovisi: Storia della Collezione (Rome 1979), 112-13, figs. 109-12; Museo Nazionale Romano, Le Sculture I, 7 (Rome 1979), 373-74, XII,7.
See also, F. Sinn, Stadtrömische Marmorurnen (Mainz 1987), 102, no. 42, pl. 15, an urn in the form of a rectangular altar, the front of which has relief decoration showing two lidded urns (of comparable form and decoration) placed in arched niches, from the time of Tiberius or the early Claudian period.
F. Sinn, Vatikanische Museen, Museo Gregoriano Profano ex Lateranense
Die Grabdenkmäler 1: Reliefs, Altäre, Urnen, 120-21, no. 122 and 241, no. 122, dated to the early Imperial period.