The July/August issue of Archaeology had a small notice reporting the find of a statue of Niobe in the Villa dei Quintili just outside Rome. What is quite exciting abot this find is that it is one of the few properly excavated pieces of sculpture from the villa, that was more or less emptied in the 19th century. The sculpture from earlier excavations is now in several different collections, both in Rome and outside Italy. It is also likely that the Niobe was found in situ.
The Niobe during excavation. From Archaeology.
According to the excavators, the head has been deliberately removed. There can of course be several reasons for this, and it would not make much sense to claim iconoclasm as the cause, especially when the find has not been fully published yet. It could still be a possibility, however, especially when we consider how close the villa was to one of Rome’s major roads, the Via Appia. Another interesting theory could be that the head was removed to be turned into a bust, but this was rare and a Niobe would be a strange choice for such an operation. Another guess is that the head is to be found elsewhere on the site. It is very common for fragments of the same sculpture to be found very far from each other, and it happens even on sites that have been intensively excavated (a recent example from Aphrodisias was reported by R.R.R. Smith in 2002). The head could even have been buried deliberately as part of a ritual deposit. There are many other possibilities, of course, and the above is naturally only guesswork, but it’s an interesting find and I look forward to seeing it fully published.
R.R.R. Smith. 2002. “The Statue Monument of Oecumenius: a New Portrait of a Late Antique Governor from Aphrodisias”, Journal of Roman Studies 92: 134-156.
There are quite a few busts of Niobe around – so if the statue was damaged, or the owner did not want a whole statue, it makes sense they it could have been cut down.
On the other hand, it’s a little difficult to tell from the photo, but … to me it looks like piecing – a dowel and a deliberate reworking of the surface to add something rather than to remove it. It looks to me as if another head was added at some point in the later history of the statue because the original Niobe head wad damaged. So this would thus be a repair rather than deliberate damage.
But only a closer look at the surface or a much clearer photo can confirm either theory.
Indeed, more information is needed about the find to made a qualified guess as to what happened to the statue.
In my thesis, I’m trying to prove that full-size statues were cut down to busts – but it’s not easy! There will hopefully be a post about in the new year.
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