Sarcophagus depicting the myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus
The sarcophagus is of the casket type, with a figured decoration in relief on the front and the short sides, bordered above and below by a plain band. The decoration on the front is divided into two parts marked by the presence of a richly decorated pillar, on which part of an arch is represented. On the keystone, a sculpted head, seen from the side, is visible.
In the scene to the left of the pillar Phaedra appears, sitting with her head reclined and looking backwards. She is holding a coronet in her left hand, in a vain attempt to resist Eros, who is boldly approaching her with a torch, the symbol of his persuasive power. Three handmaids stand around Phaedra, powerless participants in the scene. One of them, the third from the left, is holding a papyrus scroll (volumen). Phaedra's nurse stands to the right of a small column. She has just revealed the terrible secret to Hippolytus. The latter is moving away from her to reach two hunting companions who are waiting for him outside, one holding his horse, and the other with two dogs on a leash and a net slung over his left shoulder. A large cloth hanging between the porticoed spaces parapetasma), not visible here, signals the break between the gynaecium, where the women are, and the outside environment. The scene to the right of the pillar depicts one of Hippolytus’ hunting parties. Virtus, the personification of Roman virtue, opens the scene, while on his right we recognise Hippolytus on horseback, ready to throw his spear at a wild boar, which is stalked by the dogs and another two hunters in the background. A second prey lies under the hooves of Hippolytus' horse: a deer, which has already been shot. A libation scene is carved on the left side of the casket. Here Hippolytus makes a sacrifice to Diana, visible above a rocky outcrop. Instead, on the right side, a hunter holds his dog by the collar, ready to release it to attack the prey. The relief on the short sides is lower and less accurate than the one on the front, while the inside and the back of the casket are roughly worked. The figures, except for that of the hunter on the right corner of the front, are generally large. Some have extremely realistic features and they are depicted, especially in the scene with Phaedra and Hippolytus, laced with a strong pathetic component. The shapes of the figures are crafted with precision; the drill is used extensively; shallow furrows are used to create the hairstyles. The myth depicted on the casket is adapted to the necessities of life and the figures acquire the essential characteristics required to celebrate the deceased protagonists. The aim is to exalt, on the one hand, Phaedra as a devoted wife or mother, with all the virtuous feminine qualities of a Roman woman and, on the other, Hippolytus, as her husband or son, a cultured young man devoted to hunting, who died before his time. More than half of the length of the casket is crossed on the front by a fracture parallel to the lower edge of the sarcophagus. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the sarcophagus was in the garden of the Medici Casino in San Marco, Florence. Although no documentary sources have confirmed it, Dütschke’s theory is widely accepted, according to which the piece came from Rome and had arrived in Florence as early as in the sixteenth century. In 1780, after the restoration carried out by Innocenzo Spinazzi, the work entered the Uffizi. It is currently located at the entrance to the Gallery.
H. Dütschke, Die antiken Marmorbildwerke der Uffizien in Florenz, Leipzig 1878, n.69; A. Filippi, Scultura antica: catalogo dei sarcofagi romani nella città di Firenze e un’ipotesi ricostruttiva del complesso del Battistero, Firenze 2013, pp. 76-78; G. Mansuelli, Galleria degli Uffizi, Le sculture (I), Roma 1958, pp. 237-238, n. 255