Ulysses Head from the Polyphemus group. Original Marble.

A visit to Ulysses in the National Archaeology Museum of Sperlonga

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, between Naples and Rome, not far from where once was the home of the sorceress Circe. A garden rounds the small Museum, nothing monumental but a look as a countryside resort good for a quiet retirement.

Giorgio Zama, the architect, has been inspired by the greatest simplicity and winkled to the classic architecture. It has a rhomboidal “jagged” plant with a open courtyard and a big open space made by three modules. Some columns add a charming touch and give the impression to be in a Roman villa. This solution gives a nice sensation of opening and allows the visitors to overlook the sculptures in one sight. A small stair on the left lead to an upper corridor opened to the main room where are some showcases with smaller finding. In the basement find places the laboratory for the restoration (closed to the public) and a small room about the story of the museum and the discovery of the sculpture groups.

The museum is white, white as the page before to be written, white as the ground of the imagination, because white can be fulfilled without boundaries, as a tale, as a legend. In this milky space some hexagonal windows open a space into the space: the Mediterranean sea glimmers behind them, the sea from where He comes from, the Legend comes from.

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)

Here are preserved the remains and cast reconstructions of an impressive series of sculptures depitcing scenes of the Odyssey. They were found in a cave by the beach nearby and are widely known as “Sperlonga sculptures”. The sculptures were arranged in four groups around an artificial circular pool inside the cave which was part of a Villa of the Emperor Tiberius. On an island in the centre of the pool there was a group showing Odysseus’ ship attacked by Scylla and at the rear of the cave the Blinding of Polyphemus. On the sides of the pool’s there were the group of Odysseus carrying the body of Achilles, and to the right, Odysseus about to betray Diomedes after the theft of the Palladium. The sculptures were voluntarily crushed into thousands of fragments so that the modern reconstructions have many missing elements and a lively debate is still on.

Group of Scylla

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’s group, sculptured in one unique marble block measuring 2.50 x 2.70 metres, represents one the most complexed antiquity group ever made. The monster rises in the centre, catching 6 Ulysses companions from the ship. She has a woman’s bust but a ring of wolf bodies spreads out of the waist biting cruelly Ulysses companions, whilst they are falling out from the ship. Their body 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 that gives to the sculptures the vitality of the real life. Only one, the pilot, is still on the deck but Scylla already holds is head in her hand, lifting him up. 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 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 itself state 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 the civilization. Scylla instead is the incomprehensible horror waiting off the perfect signs of the Greek civil life, she represents the fear for the horror generated by living out of what they perceived was the civil world of the “polis”. 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.

Group of Polyphemus


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 contrast with the tension of the four Ulysses’ companions. They are caught in the act of piercing the eyes of the giant with a stake of olive wood. Two of them hold the stack 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 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 scene does not represent the pain of the monster not the joy of the winner. It is the exact moment before the action, where the tension is higher. The stillness of the giant is balancing the tension of the men. The strongest will, of the one who does not accept failing, the strength gave by the passion of the vengeance, are depicted on Ulysses face. He rises as the chieftain, his companions are scared, wicked, only his will support them in the challenge, only because of him they are fighting for their life. Here is Ulysses the hero, the king, the restless warrior. The ability of the artist underline it by moving the centre of the attention to figure of Ulysses, much smaller than the monster but, because of the perspective, extremely tense and dramatic, the eyes look constantly for him. The tension created to the audience is stunning. We feel ourself bounded to the end of an action that is about to begin, frozen in the whiteness of the marble.

Group of Pasquino and Group of Palladium.

They came in a very fragmented state. In the so called Pasquino group (the nickname comes from a famous statue still in a street close to Piazza Navona in Rome where modern Romans use to stick sharps and funny poems against the authority) Odysseus is shown at his most conventionally virtuous. The four legs, two trailing on the ground, and the head of Odysseus are the main elements reconstructed.

Just a head and the Palladium has been found of the Palladium group, so the identification remains somewhat speculative

Dating and identification of the groups
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 programme of the groups was specifically designed for Tiberius and the groups were made originally according to his program.
b) The groups predates his ownership of the villa and are an adaptation of earlier models, probably in bronze, to fit both the Sperlonga setting and the conceptual programme 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 the 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 and, unless there will be more findings, 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 has been the last of few decades of attempts. New data has been added and the mistakes corrected in a constant process that is slowly bringing us closer to the truth.

The reconstruction of Polyphemus group is the fourth, a fifth one was leaded 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. Rumours 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 still waits to be studied and reconstructed in the storage of the Museum. I had the chance to talk with the restorer in charge of the Sperlonga’s sculptures. Actually he works alone on the pieces. 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 Romans. The engineer Erno Bellante, directors of the works, was attracted by a cave nearby the construction site. It 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 and 15.000 pieces more were found in a circular basin inside the cave.

The original sculptures were intentionally broken into pieces and thrown in order to fill up the basin to allow the next owners for a better use of the cave. Among the fragments an inscription were discovered, the signatures of Athanodoros, Agesandros and Polydoros were read. They were the three famous Rodhes sculptors authors of the celebrated Lacoonte, which lead Giulio Jacopi to think he 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 state of the marbles needed an accurate work of restoration which led the authority to arrange the transportation of the marbles to Rome. This arrangement encountered a strong opposition of the locals who do not want be spoiled of their treasure. The morning of the 27th of September part of the finding was loaded on a truck and were ready to be moved 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 they filled it with big rocks. At morning the transportation could not take place. This restless opposition lead the authority to promote the construction of a museum “in situ “both to work on and showcase the pieces.

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 at the statue 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.


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

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