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Work Boscoreale treasure

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Gobelets aux squelettes

© 1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Marie-Bénédicte Astier

The Boscoreale treasure was buried by its owner prior to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. It included a remarkable set of tableware reflecting the quality of Roman silverwork in the 1st century AD. The decoration on these two cups illustrates the fragility and vanity of the human condition: Epicurean maxims (engraved in dots) and the skeletons of poets and Greek philosophers represent an invitation to enjoy the present.

The Boscoreale treasure

In 1895, excavations at a Roman villa at Boscoreale on the slopes of Vesuvius unearthed a remarkable hoard of silver treasure, including 109 items of tableware, which the owner had stashed in a wine tank prior to the eruption that buried the region of Naples in AD 79. This prestigious collection, dating from between the late 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD, testifies to one of the finest periods in Roman silverware and reflects the taste of wealthy Campanians for drinking cups with relief decoration. These two silver cups, famous for their strange decoration, are embellished with gold. They formed a pair of modioli (from the Latin, meaning “small measures”), so called because their shape is reminiscent of the modius, a container used to measure wheat. A Latin inscription on the base of one of the cups gives their weight and the name of their owner, Gavia.

A ring of skeletons

The two cups have similar and complementary repoussé decoration depicting the skeletons of tragic and comic poets and famous Greek philosophers, beneath a garland of roses. Greek inscriptions engraved in dots form captions, and are accompanied by Epicurean maxims such as: "Enjoy life while you can, for tomorrow is uncertain." Clotho, one of the Fates, looks on as Menander, Euripides, Archilochus, Monimus the Cynic, Demetrius of Phalera, Sophocles, and Moschion provide a caustic and ironic illustration of the fragility and vanity of the human condition. But the main message of the cups' decoration is that life should be enjoyed to the full: Zeno and Epicurus, the founders of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies in the 4th century BC, confront each other before two mating dogs—a detail of some significance, as it represents the triumph of Epicureanism.

A hymn to life

Drinking cups like these were used at the verbal sparring matches held at Roman banquets. As at Trimalchio's feast (described by Petronius in the Satyricon), the guests sought to outdo each other in erudition, using Greek philosophical and literary references to promote sensual and intellectual pleasures. The choice of a ring of skeletons to decorate these modioli is neither macabre nor particularly surprising, but is on the contrary a hymn to life—an incitement to enjoy the present. This same theme is often represented—admittedly with less panache—on everyday items such as earthenware goblets, lamps, mosaics, or funerary monuments. Trimalchio himself had articulated silver skeletons placed on the table for his guests (Satyricon, 34, 8-10), reminding them that humans should be humble, as even the most enlightened poet or philosopher cannot avoid death.

Bibliography

Fr. Baratte, Le trésor d’orfèvrerie romaine de Boscoreale, Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux, 1986, p. 35, 65-67 et 91

K. M. D. Dunbabin, « Sic erimus cuncti… the skeleton in graeco-roman art », Jahrbuch des Deutschen Instituts, 1986, p. 224-228, fig. 37-42

G. Richter, Portraits of the Greeks, Londres, 1965, I, p. 67, 132 et 138

A. Héron de Villefosse, « Le trésor de Boscoreale », Monuments et Mémoires, Fondation Piot, 5, 1899, p. 58-68, n° 7-8

Technical description

  • Gobelets aux squelettes

    Fin du Ier siècle avant J.-C. - première moitié du Ier siècle après J.-C.

  • Argent

    H. : 10,40 cm. ; D. : 10,40 cm.

  • Don Baron E. de Rothschild, 1895

    Skeleton cups

    Bj 1923, Bj 1924

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Salle Henri II
    Room 33
    Vitrine centrale 4

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Additional information about the work

Latin inscriptions engraved on the base indicate the weight of the object (Bj 1923) and the name of the owner, "Gavia"; fifteen or so Greek inscriptions are engraved in dots.