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Work Mirror with baluster handle

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

Mirror with baluster handle

© 2006 Musée du Louvre et AFA / Daniel Lebée et Carine

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

The silver treasure discovered in 1895 at Boscoreale in a Roman villa buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 contained only a few toiletry objects. However, like this mirror richly decorated with a mythological scene in relief, these luxury items made in the first century of our era reveal a flourishing period of Roman silverwork. The decoration representing the meeting of Leda and Jupiter, turned into a swan, is a hymn to femininity and sensuality.

The Boscoreale silver treasure

A violent eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 destroyed the Naples region, burying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in particular. The catastrophe froze the everyday life of the inhabitants, saving for posterity many ordinary or precious objects that were rediscovered in their original context from the eighteenth century on. In 1895, the excavation of a Roman villa at Boscoreale on the slopes of the volcano yielded an exceptionally large silver treasure consisting of 109 tableware, toiletry, and jewelry items buried in a cistern by the owner before the tragedy. This magnificent set of objects came to the Louvre in the same year, thanks to the generosity of Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Made between the end of the first century BC and the beginning of the first century of our era, the treasure dates from one of the most brilliant periods of Roman silverwork. Like the two other mirrors found in the villa, this one illustrates the decorative and technical richness of objects designed for women.

A toiletry object

Polished on one side to reflect the face of the user, this silver mirror is mounted on a baluster handle terminating in two heads of birds with long beaks and affixed to the disc by a stylized leaf of a design widespread in Campania. Although it might seem unusual, the presence of women's toiletry objects in a treasure consisting mainly of tableware is hardly surprising. Mirrors were precious objects for the lady of the house and often hidden away in case of danger, in the same way as jewelry or dishes.

The myth of Leda and the Swan

The decoration of these luxury objects generally echoed their function, as is demonstrated by the medallion with the repoussé work decoration in relief on the back of the disc. The subject, taken from mythology, is a paean to feminine seductiveness and is well suited, therefore, for decorating a toiletry object. Extremely widespread in ancient iconography from the fourth century BC on, especially in silverwork, the scene depicts the meeting between Jupiter and Leda. After falling in love with the young woman, the god changed himself into a swan so that he could approach her and satisfy his passion. Seated on a rock and in an advanced state of undress, Leda is giving water from a patera to the bird whose outspread wings and claw resting on the girl's knees show its impatience. The tale is handled with delicately sober refinement; sensuality emerges through allusions, without giving way to the sometimes crude eroticism of some illustrations of Jupiter's romances.

Bibliography

Die Griechische Klassik, Berlin, 2002, p. 652, n 516.

Pirzio Biroli Stefanelli L., L'argento dei romani : vasellame da tavola e d'apparato, 1991, p. 265, n 62, fig. 115-116.

Baratte Fr., Le trésor d'orfèvrerie romaine de Boscoreale, Paris, 1986, pp. 44-45.

Héron de Villefosse A., "Le trésor de Boscoreale", Monuments et Mémoires. Fondation Piot, 5, 1899, pp. 92-93, n 23, pl. 29.

Technical description

  • Mirror with baluster handle

    End of first century BC-first half of first century AD

    Discovered in 1895 at Boscoreale in a Roman villa on the slopes of Vesuvius (Campania, Italy)

    Italy

  • Partially gilded silver; cast, soldered, repoussé work, chasing.

    H. 28.7 cm; Diam. 16.7 cm

  • Gift of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, 1895

    Boscoreale treasure

    Bj 2159

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Salle Henri II
    Room 33

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