Medici Vase

Roman art
End of the 1st century B.C.
Pentelic marble
Height 173 cm; max. diameter 135 cm.
1914 (Sculpture) no.307

At the time of the discovery of this monumental marble vase, which may have been a lucky finding on the Esquiline Hill in the 1570s (Di Cosmo - Fatticcioni 2010, 77 note 1), the vase must have appeared to the eyes of the discoverers as broken into dozens of pieces, but, altogether, almost complete in all its parts. The work was laboriously and painstakingly reassembled in the years immediately after its discovery and was then purchased by Ferdinando who decided to keep it in his villa on the Pincian Hill, where it remained until 1780 when he moved to Florence (Cecchi-Gasparri 2009 p. 308).

Of the approximately forty marble vases, both intact and fragmented, that we still have today, only the Medici Vase presents a figurative scene with a non-Dionysian theme. The interpretation of the frieze, however, is extremely complex. The protagonist is a bare-chested woman lying at the feet of a statue that originally represented Apollo Liricine, but that was restored as an Artemis in the 16th century. Seven characters are turned towards her, with a pensive and sad gaze. Some of them, who are completely nude except for the helmet on their heads, are undoubtedly heroes from the Homeric epos, although there is no certainty regarding their precise identification. Ulysses, the second man to the left of the woman, is the only one who can be identified with certainty, thanks to the use of an unmistakable and exclusive iconographic scheme. The illustration of the frieze is characterised by a lush decoration of vine shoots and leaves on the upper part, while the lower part of the vase is entirely decorated by a complex phytomorphic pattern with flowers and fruit. The archaeometric analyses carried out in parallel with recent restorations showed that the surface of the vase used to be refined with a vivid polychromy, of which there are still traces of green on the leaves, of gold on the arms and dresses, and of blue in the background (Paolucci 2018).


The theory hypothesised by E. Paribeni (Paribeni 1985), according to which the woman lying at the feet of the statue should be identified with Helena, who was prisoner in Attica and then freed by the Dioscuri, was defined as 'more suggestive' by Vincenzo Saladino (Saladino 1983 p. 120) compared to the one that interprets the scene as an oracle by Pythia to the Achaean princes (Hauser 1913, 41-48), which was re-proposed also recently with new arguments (Bochicchio 2010, 43-52). Since the years of Saladino, many times the vase has been the subject of scholarly interest, although the most original results seem to have been achieved mainly while reconstructing the work's fortune and the history of its discovery and preservation (Di Cosmo - Fatticcioni 2010). At the exegetical level, however, there has been a growing awareness that this subject would have caused difficulties for “many (if not very many) ancient observers” (Bochicchio 2010, 52). According to the clear and precise reconstruction of the exegetical events conducted by L. Bochicchio, the iconography should refer to an episode taken from a lost poem of the Homeric epos, whose author, title, era and plot are unknown, but which was probably meant to describe the interrogation of the Delphic oracle by the future protagonists of the Trojan war.

As far as the chronology of the work is concerned, it should be noted that within the class of marble craters, some direct comparisons for the kymation (moulded decoration visible on the rim and base) of the Florentine vase are offered by the Torlonia crater (Grassinger 1991, 201 f. no. 41 figs. 63-66), dated to the 30s B.C., and by a second piece from Malibu, which can be dated to the end of the 1st century B.C. (Grassinger 1991, 174 no. 17 figs. 136. 137). Equally frequent in the decoration of large marble vases of Neo-Attic production is the vine shoot placed immediately below the lip. This motif defines the nature of the vase and its original function, and on the Medici vase it presents a discontinuous trait, thus denoting at least two different rendering of the leaves and their contour.

It should be also underlined that the spirals from the Uffizi marble pertain to the genre of 'polycarpophore' acanthus friezes found in the area of Pergamon since the 2nd century B.C. and frequently used for public and private monuments in the Augustan age (Paolucci 2018). The Medici vase thus seems to share the same critical fate of the Ara Pacis, whose figurative frieze was, for almost two centuries, the exclusive object of interest of exegetes, while the central role of the vegetal frieze was recognised only in recent decades for a better understanding of the general message of the altar, where it becomes a metaphor for a new era of peace and prosperity. Similarly, for the purposes of the exegesis of the illustrated frieze of the Medici vase, it seems necessary to also take into account the acanthus decoration, not only because of its evident compositional rhythm mirroring that of the characters in the relief, but also because of its undeniable Apollonian nature, which, not by chance, is precisely in axis with the statue of Apollo and literally becomes part of the upper scene thanks to its contact with the branch of the plant sacred to the god. Even though the hypothesis of integrating the acanthus frieze into the exegesis of the main iconography does not offer an immediate and unequivocal key to decrypting the work, nevertheless it appears to be perfectly compatible with the figurative and allusive language of the early Augustan age. The use of enigmatic motifs and the tendency towards intellectual 'exclusivism' were also characteristic, at least at first, of Octavian's propaganda. With the consolidation of the Augustan power, this language of symbolic images was abandoned in the official art, but survived in the sphere of private commissions close to the sovereign, where it acquired the traits of an 'art for the Prince'. This artistic production, strongly linked to the instructions of the client, was part of the official language of the Augustan propaganda. However, it was declined in forms that are almost incomprehensible to us, but that were certainly accessible to a small conventus (circle) of the urban elite. Therefore, it does not seem unwise to attribute this allusive iconographic taste also to the Medici Vase, where it might be possible to recognise a message that hides, under an apparently mythological iconographic guise, references to a well-known literary work from the Augustan period, such as Cassandra by Lycophron, and close connections with the political and cultural events of the last decades of the 1st century B.C. (Paolucci 2018).


F. Hauser, Ein neues Fragment des Medicäischen Kraters, ÖJb 16 (1913), 33-57; G. Mansuelli, Galleria degli Uffizi. Le sculture, vol. I, Roma 1958; V. Saladino, Musei e Gallerie. Firenze – Gli Uffizi. Sculture antiche, Firenze 1983; E. Paribeni, Della liberazione di Elena e di altre storie, in Capecchi G., Esposito A.M., Marzi M.G., Saladino V., (edd.), Scritti di Enrico Paribeni, Roma, 1985, pp. 137-139; D. Grassinger, Römische Marmorkratere, Mainz a. Rhein 1991; A. Cecchi - C. Gasparri, La Villa Médicis. Le collezioni del Cardinal Ferdinando, vol. 4, Roma 2009; L. Bochicchio, Sull’esegesi della scena raffigurata, in Maffei S., Romualdi A., (edd.), “Lavorato all’ultima perfezione”. Indagini sul Vaso Medici tra interpretazioni, allestimenti storici e fortuna visiva, Napoli 2010, 35-52; L. Di Cosmo L. – L. Fatticcioni, Interpretare restaurando, restaurare conservando: gli interventi sul Vaso Medici tra Cinquecento e Settecento, in Maffei S., Romualdi A., (edd.), “Lavorato all’ultima perfezione”. Indagini sul Vaso Medici tra interpretazioni, allestimenti storici e fortuna visiva, Napoli, 2010, pp. 77-88; F. Paolucci, Alcune osservazioni sul Vaso Medici restaurato, in Vasimania. Dalle Explicationes di Filippo Buonarroti al Vaso Medici, catalogo della mostra a cura di M. G. Marzi – C. Gambaro, Firenze 2018, pp. 59-72.

Fabrizio Paolucci