Ulysses Head from the Polyphemus group. Original Marble.

Sperlonga Sculptures. A tribute to Ulysses in the National Archaeology Museum of Sperlonga.

The museum is white, white as the page before to be written, white as the ground of the imagination, white as the tale before its beginning, the music before to come into existence, because white can be filled without limit, because white is the freedom of creation.

The National Archaeology Museum of Sperlonga gently reclines on a steep hill, between the shadow of the Aurinci Mountain and the bright blue of the Thyrrenian Sea. We are in the outskirts of Sperlonga, half-way from Naples and Rome, and not far from where once was the home of the sorceress Circe… Here are preserved the remains and the cast reconstructions of an impressive series of sculptures depicting scenes of the Odyssey. They are widely known as Sperlonga sculptures or Sperlonga groups.

The museum is surrounded by a garden, the trees are higher than the building: it has nothing of a monumental building, but a look as a countryside resort good for a quiet retirement. Giorgio Zama, the architect, has been inspired by the greatest simplicity. He winkled to the classic architecture in order to create an intimate, harmonic space. It has a rhomboidal “jagged” plant and consists of a unique space made by three open “modules”. The walls are almost entirely occupied by windows overlooking the beach of Sperlonga. This solution gives a nice sensation of opening, and allows the visitors to overlook all the sculptures with their original location on the background. Some columns add a charming touch and give us the impression to be in a Roman villa.

A small stair on the left leads to an upper corridor, opened to the main room, where are showcased smaller findings from the area nearby. In the basement find place the laboratory for the restoration (closed to the public) and a small room about the story of the museum and the discovery of the Sperlonga sculptures.

Tell me, Muse, of the multiform hero, who wandered far and wide, after destroying the holy citadel of Troy: many the man whose cities he saw, whose thought he knew, many the sorrows he suffered at sea, while trying to bring himself and his friends back home. (Homer, The Oddyssey, Book I)

The museum is white, white as the page before to be written, white as the ground of the imagination, white as the tale before its beginning, the music before to come into existence, because white can be filled without limit, because white is the freedom of creation. In this milky space some hexagonal windows open a space into the space: the Mediterranean sea glimmers behind them, the sea from where Ulysses comes from, the Legend comes from, and the sculptures too come from. In fact, the Sperlonga Sculptures has been found a stone throw from the Museum, in a grotto that was part of the garden of a Villa by the sea, that belonged to the Emperor Tiberius. The windows of the Museum overlook the place of the finding.

The Sperlonga Sculptures were originally arranged in four groups around an artificial circular pool inside the grotto. On an island in the center of the pool stand the group showing Odysseus’ ship attacked by Scylla, at the rear of the cave the Blinding of Polyphemus, on the left side the group of Odysseus carrying the body of Achilles, and to the right side Odysseus about to betray Diomedes after the theft of the Palladium. The Sperlonga sculptures were voluntarily crushed into thousands of fragments. The modern reconstruction of the Sperlonga sculptures misses many elements and a lively debate is still on.

Scylla group

Scylla seized six of my strongest and ablest men from the deck. As I looked along the swift ship towards my friends I saw their arms and legs dangling above me. In anguish, they cried my name aloud one last time, then each of Scylla’s heads dragged a man writhing towards the rock… there at the entrance to her cave she devoured them raw, as they shrieked and reached out their hands to me in their last dreadful throes.
(Homer, The Oddyssey, Book XII)

The Scylla group, sculptured in one unique marble block measuring 2.50 x 2.70 meters, it is considered one of the most complex antiquity group ever made. The monster rises in the center, catching 6 Ulysses companions from his ship. The monster has a woman’s bust, but a ring of wolf bodies spreads out of the waist biting cruelly the Ulysses’ companions, whilst they are falling out from the ship. The body of the sailors are tensed in the worthless effort to escape from death, their hands try in vain to push back the wolf heads. All the elements are intertwined in a complex and twisted rhythm. The pilot stand on the deck frozen by terror: Scylla already holds is head in her hand. The cruelty of the scene contrasts with the stillness of Ulysses. He is out of the action, out of the confusion, as to underline his powerlessness. He can do nothing but grabs his useless weapons and watches the terrific scene. There is a strange sense of enchantment. It looks that the action happened in slow motion, a halo of unreality surrounds the scene. Odysseus states in the Odyssey: “It was the most pitiable sight of all I saw exploring the pathways of the sea”. It was the most pitiable because it was the only one out of the comprehension of both the Hero and Homer. When Polyphemus ate Ulysses’ companions he cocked the flesh before, he drank milk with the meal, he promised to Ulysses a gift even if it was a cruel one. Polyphemus was still acting into the frame of civilization. Scylla, instead, is the incomprehensible horror waiting out the perfect signs of the Greek civil life. Scylla represents the fear for the horror generated by living out of what Greek people perceived as the only civil world: the “polis”. In this scene Ulysses is simply a man overcame by the unknown. Deep, shaped by the highest artistic skills, this work has the power to break the reality and bring the observer into the other world, the world of the legend.

Polyphemus group

 

Our spirits fell at his words, in terror at his loud voice and monstrous size… Devoid of pity, he was silent in response, but leaping up laid hands on my crew. Two he seized and dashed to the ground like whelps, and their brains ran out and stained the earth. He tore them limb from limb for his supper, eating the flesh and entrails, bone and marrow, like a mountain lion, leaving nothing. Helplessly we watched these cruel acts, raising our hands to heaven and weeping.
(Homer, The Oddissey, Book IX)

Polyphemus lies on a rock, won by the wine Ulysses gave him he sleeps deeply. He looks as an enormous child. His quietness contrasts with the tension of the four Ulysses’ companions. They are caught in the act of raising a stake of olive wood to pierce the eye of the Cyclops. Two of them hold the stack, while the others stand out of the scene probably to twist the stack with a rope once it will pierce Polyphemus’ eye. Ulysses is up on the rock where the giant sleeps, close to him, staring at him, preparing the assault.

We took the red-hot stake and twisted it round and round like that in his eye, and the blood poured out despite the heat. His lids and brows were scorched by flame from the burning eyeball, and its roots crackled with fire. As a great axe or adze causes a vast hissing when the smith dips it in cool water to temper it, strengthening the iron, so his eye hissed against the olive wood stake. Then he screamed, terribly, and the rock echoed. Seized by terror we shrank back, as he wrenched the stake, wet with blood, from his eye…
(Homer, The Oddyssey, Book IX)

The figure of Ulysses is much smaller than the giant, but the artist, with a wise use of the perspective, was able to move the center of the attention to Ulysses: the eyes of the spectator bounce from one sculpture to another but constantly looking for Ulysses. The scene does not represent the pain of the monster not the joy of the winners. It is the exact moment before the action, when the tension is higher. Ulysses rises above all as the chieftain. His companions are scared, weak, powerless: they are fighting for their life only because of the will of Ulysses, their chieftain. Ruthless, merciless, the face of the hero expresses the strongest will (the will of the one who does not accept failing), the strength given by the passion of the vengeance, and greed for victory. This is Ulysses the hero, the king, the restless warrior. The psychological tension becomes almost a physic element of the scene. We feel bounded to the end of an action that is about to begin but that will never end, frozen forever in the whiteness of the marble.

Pasquino group and Palladium Group.

 

They are the smaller and most fragmented of the Sperlonga Sculptures. In the so called Pasquino group (the nickname is due to a famous statue in a street close to Piazza Navona in Rome) Odysseus is shown at his most conventionally virtuous. The group represents a scene from the battle of Troy, when Ulysses carried the body of Achilles out of the battle field. The main element reconstructed are the head of Ulysses and four legs, two trailing on the ground.

Just a head and the Palladium has been found of the Palladium group, so the identification remains somewhat speculative. It should represent Odysseus about to betray Diomedes after they steal the Trojan cult image of the Palladium in the course of siege of Troy.


Dating and identification of the Sperlonga sculptures
Scholars argument over the precise dating of the groups and related issues as the question whether, in whole or part, they are copies of earlier works. It is not the purpose of this article go into details. Very roughly the scholars after basing their speculation on literary sources, comparisons to other works representing the same themes, and accurate studies on the pieces, adopted three main positions:
a) The four groups were specifically designed for Tiberius and the groups were made originally according to his program.
b) The groups predates Tiberius’ ownership of the villa and are an adaptation of earlier models, probably in bronze, to fit both the Sperlonga setting and the conceptual program of the emperor.
c) In the word of Peter von Blanckenhagen the two larger groups should be understood “neither as genuine originals nor as true replicas but as highly inventive and novel versions of only thematically similar Hellenistic groups in much smaller scale”, while he states the two smaller groups as copies of originals.
About the reliability of the reconstructions.

In ancient time, a model of high quality often became a standard and was repeated over and over with little variations. Comparison with other works depicting the same subject could give us many elements to reconstruct a fragmentary work. The reconstruction of the Scylla’s body for example comes from a comparison with a little statue of the monster found in Norway. A careful study of the literature sources enlighten the story of the work, its original location, who was the author, who was the client, description, and others data. Finally, modern scientific methods can be applied to increase the chance to get close to the truth.

The Sperlonga’s sculpture are still debating, we can’t totally trust the accuracy of the reconstructions. Nonetheless, it is not ventured state that, in its general composition, the reconstruction of the four groups is not excessively far from reality. The reconstructions we see now are the last step of decades of work. New data has been added and the mistakes corrected in a constant process that slowly is bringing us closer to the truth.

The reconstruction of Polyphemus group is the fourth, a fifth one was made by the Austrian archaeologist Bernard Andrea for an exposition in the Haus der Kunst in Munch in 1999. Bernard would donate the cast reconstruction to the museum to be showcased in its original place: the cave. Rumors tell that the jealousy of some Italian archaeologists made impossible the donation, so, after the translation in Rome, the cast reconstruction has been abandoned in a pavilion of the “Università la Cattolica di Roma”. Here, due to the high temperature the place reaches in the summer, the cast reconstruction is simply ruining.

Around 4.000 pieces wait to be studied in the storage room of the Museum. I had the chance to talk with the restorer in charge of the Sperlonga Sculptures. Actually he works alone. He will retire within few years and probably nobody else will replace him. It looks that Italian Museums suffer a constant lack of staff.

The discovering

In 1975, works begun for the construction of the 213 National Road called Flacca, which coincides in several points with the ancient Flacca Road, constructed in 184 BCE by the Ancient Romans. The engineer Erno Bellante, directors of the works, was attracted by a cave nearby the construction site. The cave was by the beach, at the bottom of a promontory. Eventually he visited the cave and saw some remains of walls and marble pieces partially emerging from the water. The day after he came back with few workers and began to investigate. It was soon clear that a big building decorated with marble statues was waiting to see the light. From Bellante exploration 554 significant marble pieces were brought to light. The excavation has been continued by the Archaeological Superintended of Lazio Region Giulio Jacopi. He found 15,000 pieces more in a circular basin inside the grotto.

The Sperlonga Sculptures were intentionally broken into pieces and thrown into it in order to fill up the basin to allow the next owners for a better use of the cave. Among the fragments Giulio Jacopi discovered an inscription with the signatures of Athanodoros, Agesandros and Polydoros. They were the three famous Rodhes sculptors authors of the celebrated Lacoonte. This fact mislead Giulio Jacopi: he thought he had discovered a copy of the same statue. Further investigation soon revealed that Jacopi was wrong and the pieces were part of four groups representing episodes of the Odyssey.

The very fragmented status of the marbles needed an accurate work of restoration which led the authority to arrange the transportation of the Sperlonga Sculptures to Rome. This arrangement encountered a strong opposition of the locals who do not want to be spoiled of their treasure.
The morning of the 27th of September part of the Sperlonga sculptures was loaded on a truck and were ready to go to Rome, but the villagers of Sperlonga, including women and children, rounded the truck and forced the driver to stop. The truck was unloaded and the pieces were brought back into the cave.
The transportation was putted off on the next day. That same night the locals dug a trench around the cave and filled it with big rocks. Next morning the transportation could not take place. This restless opposition convinced the authority to promote the construction of a museum “in situ” to showcase the Sperlonga sculptures and bring on the reconstruction works.

Due to the courage and determination of the people of Sperlonga, Ulysses could remain near his sea, the sea from where he came from, from where the legend comes from. The emotion we get watching the Sperlonga sculptures on the scenery of a bright Mediterranean sea it is priceless and the fact that we can admire the statues in the place where they belong to, gives them a deeper meaning.

Info, address, and how to get there

During working days and out of high season the museum is a desert. I could spend the whole morning alone. During the summer it is assaulted by a mob of tourists.

Address and contacts:
Via Flacca, km 16.300
04029 Sperlonga (Lt), Italy
phone: +390771 548028
official website in english

How to get there by public transport
There are daily trains from Roma Termini Central Station or Napoli central Station to Fondi (time and prices at www.trenitalia.com). In front of the station there is a bus stop where you can catch a bus to Sperlonga. The museum is 1,5 kilometres from the city.

Gabi

I am Gabi, an itinerant traditional music player and storyteller, founder and content writer of OTW.

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