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Mattea’s sarcophagus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Mars and Rhea Silvia in front of the sargophagus from Palazzo Mattei in Rome
Mars and Rhea Silvia in front of the sargophagus from Palazzo Mattei in Rome

Today I will tell you about a monument hidden from the eyes of tourists, which is a sculptural illustration of the myth about the foundation of Rome. We are talking about the front of the sarcophagus, which is today built into the wall of the staircase of the Palazzo Mattei in Rome. The sculptor managed to place all the important elements of the story about the founding of the city in a small space resulting from the dimensions of the sarcophagus.

So let’s look at it in turn:

The central figures in the bas-relief are, of course, the god Mars and Rhea Sylvia. On the sarcophagus, we can see Rhea Silvia lying in the lower part of the bas-relief, slightly to the right. The woman is depicted in the dream position. On its left side we see a great god. Notice his nakedness, symbolizing heroism. The only items of clothing on Mars are military attributes: helmet, cloak and weapons. Mars is depicted higher than Rhea Sylwia and seems to be slightly suspended in the air, as if descending towards her from the clouds. The representation of his left hand is charming – Mars gives the spear to Amor on his right. God is going to the woman and plans to enjoy her with her – so he will not need a weapon.

In the upper left corner you can see a chariot drawn by four horses. A figure wearing a radiant crown (corona radiata) indicates that it is a chariot of the sun. The horses are rising so this is a symbolic expression of dawn. Perhaps this is how the sculptor wanted to signal that the loving fusion of Mars and Rei Sylwia took place at dawn?

To the right of the chariot, we see an almost naked young man with long hair, holding a torch. It is probably Hymen – the god of marriage, wedding ceremonies and the wedding night. The association with today’s word “hymen” synonymous with the hymen is not accidental. The presence of Hymen in the bas-relief indicates without bewildering what Mars is going to do to Rei Sylvia.

There are many other details referring to the myth on the bas-relief: in the lower left we see, for example, a half-naked god lying on the waves – it may be the personification of the Ocean or (which seems to me more likely) the Tiber playing a very important role in the myth. On the right, we see a tree – a fig tree: a symbolic representation of the place where the Tiber threw its cradle with twins ashore.

At the bottom on the right, we see the lying goddess of the so-called “Horn of plenty” – is the image of the goddess Tellus: the patroness of fertility and bountiful harvests, considered the mother of mankind. There is an allusion to Rome’s future growth, power and wealth.

Some of the sculptural elements of the sarcophagus are debatable and cause disputes: who is the majestic female figure in the sitting position, placed in the upper right corner? There are various theories: that this is the goddess Juno (unlikely, but not impossible. According to some versions of the myth, Sylvia was not a priestess of Vesta, as is usually believed, but Juno). This character can be interpreted as Vesta. Some see Venus in her – the goddess from whom Aeneas was to descend and thus the patroness of the city. The weakness of this interpretation is that Venus is usually depicted in a more flirtatious pose rather than so monumental and dignified. I am most convinced by the theory that it is the personification of Rome – the goddess Roma.

The temple in the upper right corner is equally controversial. Assuming that the goddess next to it is Roma, the temple would then be dedicated to her (the podium of the double temple of Venus and Roma is today between Forum Romanum and Colosseum in Rome). Others consider the sanctuary a symbol of the sacred grove of Mars, where the divine rape was to take place, and others – the temple of Vesta (I do not like the theory from the sanctuary of Vesta because a sculptor would certainly present it as a rotunda).

If I were to look for the goddess Venus on this bas-relief – I would be inclined to consider it to be the figure in the lower-left corner – a half-naked woman resting on one hip, looking towards Mars. Recall that according to mythology, Mars was the lover of Venus, and Venus was the wife of the lame god Vulcan. The volcano is also present on the sarcophagus (the figure is seated, to the left of the temple). Thus, the sculptor presented us here with a real love quadrangle: a cheated husband (Volcano), a faithless wife (Venus), cheating on her husband with Mars, who, in turn, seeing the alluring Rhea Silvia in a sacred grove, gives himself up to male desires and abandons his constant lover for her (Venus). The jumble of love even emphasizes the arrangement of the characters here: note that Mars is located right between the divine consorts: Volcano and putative Venus. He separates them, but he directs himself to the other… Venus’ raised hand looks as if the goddess was summoning Mars in vain, and he succumbs to Rhea Silvia’s charms.

I’m not sure who the male figure in the center is – a bearded man in a tunic and a coat, stretching his hand towards Rhea Silvia. Is this her father (and thus the grandfather of Romulus and Remus)? Or maybe Faustulus, who raised twins? Or maybe the villain of this story, i.e. the evil and insidious Amulius? I really don’t know.

Finally, pay attention to one detail. The expressive and full of symbols bas-relief referring to the myth about the founding of Rome cannot obscure the most important thing: we are dealing with a sarcophagus, i.e. the resting place of a Roman. And here we come to the point: all the figures present in the bas-relief have fairly regular features without any particularly individual features, but there are two exceptions: Mars and Rhea Silvia. When you look closely, neither he nor she is very beautiful. Mars in particular, with its retracted lower jaw and probably overshot bite, is far from the Roman canons of male beauty. The explanation seems simple to me: they are probably the real people for whom the sarcophagus was intended. Nice to think that the reference to Mars and Rei Silvia is perhaps a romantic reminder of their fiery love, the fruit of which was meant to be for their families, or Romulus and Remus for Rome: the beginning of ancestral glory.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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