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Work Patera handle

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

Patera handle

© RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

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

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This bronze patera handle was designed to be slipped over the wearer's arm (like the object Br 3058). This type of metal utensil, which apparently served a ritualistic purpose, is extremely rare; it appears to have been produced exclusively in Magna Graecia in the 5th century BC. The meaning of the animal decoration remains uncertain. The handle is modeled in the form of a snake devouring a cicada, while the handle attachment features a lion's skin surrounded by horses' heads.

Paterae made exclusively in Magna Graecia

This bronze utensil, which entered the Louvre in 1864, belongs to a homogeneous group of patera handles that were worn wrapped around the arm. This one was made in the latter years of the Archaic period, in the early 5th century BC. Only six such objects have been found to date in southern Italy (in Naples, Locri, and Rutigliano). These exceptional items all appear to have been made in the 5th century BC in workshops of Magna Graecia, in southern Italy; none have been found in Greece or Asia Minor.

A ritualistic function?

Of this group, one patera handle comes from a grave excavated in 1976 in Rutigliano (in the Puglia region) and dates from 430 BC. However, we do not know for certain whether the other handles were discovered in a funerary context. Regarding the Louvre patera handle, the registration notice indicates only that it was brought from Naples. The function of these metal utensils therefore remains unclear, especially as the interpretation of their decorative themes is difficult and somewhat arbitrary. We can presume, however, owing to the small number of objects found, that they served a ritualistic purpose.

An enigmatic bestiary

As with this object, all of the patera handles of this group are fashioned in the form of a sinuous snake clenching in its mouth a cicada with folded wings. The handle's point of attachment to the dish is decorated with the head and paws of a lion's skin surrounded by horses' forequarters. The motif of the snake, a chthonic creature connected with the earth, the underground, and a funerary context, is widely featured in Greek and Italic art. The presence of the cicada, however, is more mysterious. The cicada is often mentioned by writers of antiquity, who associate it with music, poetry, and the Muses, generally presenting it as a favorable insect. It is sometimes also seen as a chthonic creature, born of the earth, since the larvae, before hatching, develop in the ground. We do not fully understand, however, why the snake appears to attack the cicada. Some interpret this image as a transposition of the cults and representations of Attica to objects of Magna Graecia by establishing a hypothetical connection between the snake, the cicada, and three figures: Kekrops, whose name means a type of cicada; Erechthea, born of the earth and associated with the snake; and Tithonos, who was turned into a cicada by his lover, Eos (Dawn). This patera handle is comparable in function and decoration to the handle Br 3058 displayed at its side; the latter, which formed part of the Durand collection before being purchased in 1825, stands apart from the usual pictorial representations in showing a snake devouring a man rather than a cicada.

Bibliography

C. Rolley, "Le serpent et la cigale", Kölner Jahrbuch 33, 2000, Berlin,
p. 261-266.

Technical description

  • Patera handle

    Early 5th century BC

    Southern Italy

    Workshop in Magna Graecia (southern Italy)

  • Cast bronze with incisions

    L. 36 cm

  • Purchase, 1864

    Br 3058, Br 3059

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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