Seven Against Thebes (5)

The Farnese Bull, Naples


In the year 1546, when Paul III, from the noble family of the Farnese, was Pope, accidentally a great discovery was made in Rome. In the vicinity of the Great Thermae (they had been built by Emperor Caracalla) a great sculpture was dug up from the ground, composed of several pieces of marble, broken up and scattered here and there, and much damaged. At one point, when the Thermae of Caracalla stood at the zenith of their glory, the sculpture had decorated one of the halls of the Thermae; or perhaps a nearby park. Though many fragments of it were missing, it was easy to guess what the great work represented:

Two young men, standing upon a rock, hold by the horns a great bull; at their feet a terrified woman sits, stretching out her arms in a gesture of supplication; a tiny shepherd who squats in the foreground, among some rocky crags, symbolizes that everything happens in the mountains, and, at the same time, through his tiny size, emphasizes, as it were, the terrifying power of all the main figures.

Scholars of ancient mythology had no doubt and declared immediately that the group represented Amphion and Zethus, tying, by the tips of her hair, the prosecutoress of their mother, Dirce, to the horns of the bull. Amphion is immediately recognized by the lyre at his feet. The vine and basket by the feet of Dirce represent the cult of Dionysius.

Soon after its discovery, Renaissance artists set out to restore the group. The results of their work must surely be recognized as overall successful, though it is possible that in some details the antique original looked somewhat different. And so Zethus, who towers above Dirce, pulls with both hands upon a rope tied to the horns of the bull; the ancient sculpture may have been more drastic: the young man’s left hand may have held the woman by the hair. After the missing details have been filled in, the statue graced for many years the Roman palace of the Farnese; hence has come its name, the Farnese Bull. Today, it is to be found in the Archeological Museum in Naples.

One antique author reports that just such a statue, though that one carved in single block of marble, was in the days of Emperor Augustus in the possession of a certain rich and famous aristocrat. His name was Asinius Pollio, and he was known for his historical interests. The same author informs us that the sculptural group was carved by two Greek sculptors living in Rhodes in the first century A.D., Apollonion and Tauriscos. The sculpture, discovered near the Thermae of Caracalla almost certainly is not the original work – it is made up of several blocks of marble; it is therefore no more than a copy, made in Rome, in the first century AD.

But the sculptors of Rhodes were not entirely original. We know that representations of the punishment of Dirce belonged to the favorite genres of painting and sculpture; this was all because of the popularity of Antiope of Euripides. Apollonius and Tauriscus created their work upon commission: someone very rich had wanted to glorify his estate by placing among his trees and artificial rocks that very group, full of primitive energy. But this billionaire did not enjoy his mythical Kithairon in the seclusion of his villa for long: Romans who loved nothing better than to pillage the treasures of Greek art, moved the sculpture to the capital of their state, where it fell in the possession of Asinius Pollio.

He showed this Rhodian creation with great pride to all visitors to his house. Among these visitors was a well known poet of his times, Propertius. It was this sculpture which suggested to him a subject for one of his great love poems. Propertius was in love with a great lady whom he called in his poems by the invented name of Cynthia. But – the poet admits it right off the bat in his poem – when he was but a mere sapling, someone else inducted him into the mysteries of physical love: Cynthia’s servant, Licinna. She did it out of pure sympathy; she didn’t even accept a gift! The poet says:

“Since that time, nearly three years have passed, and I have not exchanged with her more than ten words. Everything that connected me with Licinna, dear Cynthia, has been buried once and for all by my love for you! Since I have fallen in love with you, no woman has embraced my neck with her sweet embrace!”

But knowing well the hearts of women, Propertius immediately passes to the following warnings:

“Remember, Cynthia, the fate of Dirce! She cruelly punished the poor Antiope, suspecting – as groundlessly as you suspect me and Licinna – who was her friend! But what terrible fate has Dirce met at the hands of Antiope’s sons! Likewise, you, too, should not torment the poor Licinna, who – honestly – has not deserved her fate!”

Propertius himself did not seem to place much hope in the efficacy of these arguments, for he ends:

“Yet, there appears to be no way to calm a woman’s anger…”


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