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Work Athena known as the Pallas of Velletri

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This huge statue of Athena, found in Velletri in the eighteenth century, is a copy of a bronze effigy, now lost, known from Roman copies and fragments of antique casts, found in Baia, near Naples. The original, dating from about 430 BC, is generally attributed to Cresilas, a Cretan sculptor who also produced a portrait of Pericles, a copy of which is in the British Museum. The hero's oval face and sharply defined features are strikingly similar to those of the goddess.

The Pallas of Velletri: an exceptional discovery

In 1797 Vicenzo Pacetti, an art restorer, discovered a huge statue, more than three meters tall, in the ruins of a Roman villa near Velletri, a small Italian town whose name has now become synonymous with the copies of this style of statue. The helmet and aegis (a breastplate edged with serpents and with the head of the Gorgon Medusa fixed in the center) indicate that the statue represents the goddess Athena-known by the Romans as Pallas or Minerva. The statue was purchased by the French commissioners of the Directoire and taken to Rome before being confiscated by Neapolitan troops in 1798 and moved to the royal collections in Naples. On 28 March 1798, the work was handed over to France by the Treaty of Florence. It has been on display in the Louvre since December 1803.

A copy of a work dating from the late 5th century BC

This monumental work is a copy of a bronze effigy on the same scale, now lost, although several Roman copies survive. Fragments of antique casts were also found during the excavation of a Roman workshop specializing in copies of ancient works, in Baia, near Naples. It is likely that these fragments were cast from the original, confirming the size and the material of the original statue, which probably dated from the Classical period, in the late 5th century BC. The small size of the aegis, the goddess's long, sleeved tunic, and her cloak or himation, gathered at the hips in a large triangular drape, are all characteristic of the period. The solemn, hieratic pose of the goddess, her attributes, and the folds of the cloth are influenced by the Athenas sculpted by Phidias, such as the Athena Parthenos and the Athena Promachos.

A sculpture attributed to Cresidas

The original from which this statue was copied has sometimes been identified as the statue sculpted by Alcamenes in about 430-420 BC for the interior of the temple of Hephaistos on the agora in Athens. However, the style of the goddess's facial features makes it more likely that the statue is the work of the Cretan sculptor Cresilas, who worked on the Acropolis in Athens in the late 5th century BC. The regular oval shape of the face, together with the sharply defined brows, eyes, and nose, are strikingly similar to the bust of Pericles wearing a helmet, now in the British Museum. The bust is a copy of the statue of the strategist that Cresilas produced in about 430 BC, according to Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (34.25). This work is mentioned again in the second century AD by the traveler Pausanias, in his Periegesis (1.28.2), when it was in the Acropolis in Athens. The Pallas of Velletri is therefore likely to be a Roman copy of an original by the Cretan master sculptor, although it is impossible to say precisely which statue, whether the original was religious in nature, and what building the original was made for.

Bibliography

Papini M., Palazzo Braschi, la collezione di sculture antiche, 2000, p.36-42, fig.30.
Rolley Cl., La sculpture grecque, II. La période classique, Picard, Paris, 1999, p.138, fig.123.
Nocca M., Dalla vigna al Louvre : la Pallade di Velletri, Museo Studi e Ricerche 1, 1997.
Todisco L., Scultura greca del IV secolo. Maestri e scuole di statuairia tra classicità ed ellenismo, Milan, 1993, p. 39, fig. 5.
Neudecker (R.), Die skulpturen ausstattung roemischer villen in Italien, 1988, p.246, n 72-2.
Haskell Fr., Penny N., Pour l'amour de l'art antique : la statuaire gréco-romaine et le goût européen 1500-1900, Paris, 1988, p.306-309, n 148 (éd. anglaise, Taste and the antique : the lure of classical sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven, 1981).
Ridgway B.S., Fifth Century Styles, Princeton, 1981, p.176-177.
Harrison E.B., "Alkamenes' Sculptures for the Hephaisteion: Part I, the Cult Statues", American Journal of Archaeology 81, 2, 1977, p.150-155, fig.8, 15-16, 37, p.176, n 1.

Technical description

  • Athena known as the Pallas of Velletri

    Roman work dating from the Imperial era (first century AD?)

    Discovered in 1797 in the ruins of a Roman villa near Velletri, Italy

    Italy

  • Paros marble, sculpted in the round

    H. 3.05 m

  • Assigned to France by the Treaty of Florence, 28 March 1801; deposited in the Louvre, December 1803

    Inventaire MR 281 (n° usuel Ma 464)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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