by Roderick Conway Morris

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An Odyssey in Stone

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 4 May 1996
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Sperlonga
Head of Odysseus from the Sperlonga Odyssey, 1st century AD



The Roman historian Suetonius's account of the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) is now perhaps chiefly noted for the writer's salacious detailing of the emperor's alleged sexual excesses on Capri. But Suetonius also recorded as among Tiberius's vices his addiction to Trivial Pursuit-type teasers on his pet subject, Ancient Mythology, such as: 'Who was Hecuba's mother?' and 'What were the Sirens in the habit of singing?'

In fact, Tiberius was undoubtedly a keen and accomplished classical scholar, and this goes some way to explaining what led him to create in a cave (spelunca in Latin) on the seashore at Sperlonga, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Rome, an extraordinary marble scenario that has been dubbed an 'Odyssey in Stone,' illustrating key episodes in Homer's story. This was smashed to smithereens by Abbot Fortunato and his 200 monks in 511. Nonetheless, the German archaeologist Bernard Andreae believed that the 7,000 fragments that survived buried in the sands of the cave floor could form the basis for a reconstruction.

Thirty years on, Andreae has achieved his dream, and the re-creation of this cycle of monumental statuary forms the dramatic focus of 'Ulysses: Myth and Memory,' at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (through Sept. 2), which also includes more than 200 archaic and classical works inspired by Ulysses, and casts brilliant light on what the hero and the myths surrounding him meant to ancient civilization in general and Tiberius in particular. Described by Zeus in the Odyssey as 'godlike Odysseus, who is beyond all mortals in wisdom,' he was not only an example of supreme intelligence and experience, but also a quintessential human wanderer, the depiction of whose sorrows and sufferings, as well as triumphs, presented artists with a special challenge.

The reassembly of the Sperlonga Odyssey would not have been possible, said Andreae, had not so many images of the same scenes come down to us. Far from trying to illustrate the whole of Homer's epics, artists focused on relatively few incidents. Prominent among these were the blinding of the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, and the escape of Ulysses and his men from the giant cannibal's cave, and Ulysses' successful navigation of the strait between the whirlpool Charybdis and the sea-monster Scylla, a beautiful girl to the waist, but whose lower parts consisted of a pack of ravening dogs and a pair of scaly fishtails (this version of Scylla's form owing more to Ovid than Homer).

The reconstruction of the Sperlonga cycle, which in its original cave setting (used by Tiberius as a banqueting hall) consisted of groups of statuary on man-made islands in an artificial lake, is displayed in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni's cavernous main hall - an awkward space that, for once, provides an ideal theater for the exhibit. On one side is the scene of Ulysses recovering the body and arms of the slain Achilles, and on the other, Ulysses and Diomedes stealing the Palladium (Troy's sacred protecting statue of the goddess Pallas Athene), both these acts deemed essential for the Greeks' victory over Troy.

In the background, is a huge composition of Ulysses and his men driving their sharpened tree-trunk into the eye of the Cyclops, who lies befuddled by the wine with which our hero has plied him. But center stage is occupied by a towering representation of the stern of Ulysses' ship being rowed past Scylla, who has wrenched off the steering oar and whose girdle of ghastly hounds and fishy tails have already seized six sailors, dragging them to their doom.

The marble for the Scylla group has been traced back to quarries near Afyon in Turkey. The stone would have weighed about 80 tons, and yet the Romans managed to carry it down to the coast and ship it from Ephesus to Sperlonga. Andreae's investigations at the source also turned up a remarkable find. The upper part of Scylla's body had been destroyed by the monks - very likely because it represented the naked torso of a young girl. But at Afyon a one-fifth-size torso carved of the same marble transported to Sperlonga came to light, and appears to have been copied from the model brought to the quarries by the Greek sculptors when they went there to select their materials - giving Andreae and his team an almost certain replica to work from.

The Sperlonga Scylla was regarded as a major achievement in its day, and it was one of only three sculptures (the others being the Laocoön statue now in the Vatican and the Farnese Bull in Naples) chosen for a series of commemorative medals cast in Late Antiquity representing what were then seen as epoch-making works of art.

The legend that Aeneas, having escaped the fall of Troy, ended up in Italy, thereby playing a leading role in the eventual foundation of Rome (indeed, that had Troy not fallen, Rome would never have been founded), was already well established by the time of the writing of Virgil's Aeneid, but it was this poet (who died in 19 B.C.) who enshrined it in its full-blown form as official national mythology. In this sense, the Sperlonga complex can be seen as a state monument alluding to the origins of the Eternal City.

But, as Andreae cogently argues, Sperlonga was more specifically an elaborate sculptured affirmation of Tiberius's legitimacy as supreme ruler, for Tiberius's Julio-Claudian family, which was to supply Rome with its first five emperors, claimed Aeneas as an ancestor on the Julian side, and Telegonos - the son of Ulysses by the sorceress Circe - on the Claudian.

The intricacy of the symbolism at Sperlonga is attested by the statue of Ganymede, placed high over the mouth of cave (and here in the dome of the Palazzo's hall). 'Because the first of this complicated chain of events was the abduction of the beautiful boy Ganymede by Zeus to be his cup bearer, which aroused the jealousy of Hera, which brought about the Judgment of Paris to see who was the most beautiful of the Immortals, which led to the Rape of Helen, the Trojan War, the flight of Aeneas, the wanderings of Ulysses and the foundation of Rome,' said Andreae, summing up the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneidwith virtuoso succinctness.

The show's gathering together of some of the finest ceramics, statuary, reliefs, seals and metalwork picturing Ulysses and his adventures, from more than 90 museums, the like of which we are unlikely to see for a very long time, is a continual delight.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024