A Marble Head from Minturnae

By: J. J.

Originally Published in 1933

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ONE of the earliest areas to attract the attention of the staff of the Museum’s Expedition to Minturnæ was a walled-in temple precinct, consisting of the temple itself and a colonnade which enclosed it on three sides, leaving the south side for a formal entrance from the Appian Way. The temple itself could be dated to the years immediately succeeding the as assassination of Julius Caesar, but everywhere there were traces of an occupation which lasted well into the Byzantine period. Incidental to this occupation a long wash-trough of crude masonry was built along the east flank of the temple, apparently to catch the rain-water which dripped from the eaves-tiles of the building (Minturnæ’s water-supply had been curtailed by the destruction of the aqueduct during the Longobard invasion of A. D. 588-590).

At one end of this trough the packed earth which formed the original pavement was difficult to detect, and by a fortunate chance the workman who was digging there went through it. He came immediately upon an extensive deposit of antiquities of a particularly priceless sort-fragments of ten life-size statues in terra-cotta. Their complete restoration and study is a matter for another day, but they led indirectly to one of the most important discoveries of a vastly successful season.

Marble portrait of a man with deep wrinkles
Plate X — Marble Head From Minturnæ, Italy. First Century B.C.
Museum Object Number: 32-36-63
Image Number: 3253

They had been buried in a long, narrow trench, whose location coincided so perfectly with that of the later wash-trough that only three feet of the deposit were exposed at one end. It was obvious that a seventh-century wash-trough was of less importance than terra-cotta statues-particularly when we had found its twin brother in the corresponding position on the opposite side of the temple. We therefore agreed to destroy it to get at the terra-cottas. Plans were drawn, measurements and photographs were taken, and Giuseppe Imperatore was told to go ahead. He raised his pick high over his shoulder, brought it down neatly into a crack in the masonry, and the entire end of the trough collapsed in a choking cloud of dust. When that settled, a moist, white, deathlike human head of marble lay blinking up at us in the dazzling light.

It had been used as a stone in the wash-trough. Contact with wet lime for a millennium and more had coated the face with a pebbly white deposit, but nothing could dispel the impression that we were gazing at a man too long dead.

When he had been cleaned, however, we were able to regard him with less dubious emotions, and that is the remarkable head pictured in Plate X. The persistent uneasy feeling which we had with regard to him could be explained logically, and no less an authority on Roman sculpture than Mrs. Strong, in reviewing the Mostra d’Arte Antica held at Rome last spring, has done so (E. Strong, ‘Exhibition of Ancient Art in Rome,’ Bolletino, Associazione lnternazionale Studi Mediterranei, III, 1932, page 9).

‘Turning from pre-Roman Italy to Roman, the first exhibits to arrest attention are a number of heads of the Republican period. First in interest is a head from Minturnæ which has the harsh linear quality of native Italic art, this rigidity being due, perhaps, to death-mask influence.’

The piece therefore belongs to the early first century B. C., a date when Roman sculpture was still feeling its way, and when portraiture was based largely on the ancestral death-masks retained by every noble family. Small wonder that its realism should awe its new owners.

The portrait is of a man well past middle age, a strong, shrewd, ruthless individual, as shown by the hard line of the mouth, the deep-set eyes, the heavy lines of care in the cheeks and forehead. The identification is not yet clear. The period coincides well with the years of contest between Marius and Sulla, and few other names so prominent come to mind. Lacking other well-attested portraits of Marius and Sulla with which to compare this, we are forced to hope for the discovery of the dedicatory inscription which accompanied the statue from which came the head. Marius, as the readers of Plutarch’s life of him know, sought shelter at the city in his flight from Sulla in 88 B. C.; perhaps it is he, or perhaps it is one of a score of unsung local heroes of Minturnæ.


Cite This Article

J., J.. "A Marble Head from Minturnae." Museum Bulletin IV, no. 2 (February, 1933): 49-53. Accessed July 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/1082/

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