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Sarcophagus with scenes of vita humana et militaris

Roman art

180 A.D. ca
Niobe room
White marble
H 94 L 243 D 110
1914 n. 82

The sarcophagus is of the casket type with a large rectangular plan, and prior to its modern restorations, it had been reused as a fountain. On the front and the short sides it bears a figured decoration in relief, bordered above and below by a plain band.

The decoration is composed of many scenes that can be interpreted as moments from subsequent periods of the life of its occupant. These are probably allusions to the virtues and qualities of the deceased, who belonged to a high social rank. The front decoration begins with three charging horsemen, supporting the theory that it originally depicted a battle scene. This assumption is sustained by the presence of a scene depicting them getting dressed and ready for battle, carved on the short left side of the casket. The three horsemen on the front are followed by a scene of supplicatio and clementia, and a scene of sacrifice in front of a small temple. At the end of the frontal relief, a marriage is depicted, with a married couple shaking hands (dextrarum iunctio) in the presence of Iuno Pronuba (or Concordia), Suada, Greek goddess of persuasion, a witness behind the groom and a genie holding a torch, perhaps Hymen.

The scene could allude to the wedding of the deceased, or to that of his son, as suggested by the head-portraits of the two male figures, since they share very similar physical features. The wedding could therefore represent a moment of harmony made possible by the deeds of the father, behind the groom. The scene carved on the short right side of the casket shows a child being bathed in the presence of his mother and an old nursemaid, under the happy auspices of the Fates, present in the background. The first has a volumen in her hand, while the second is indicating a point on a globe placed on a pillar. The combination of the bathing of the newborn baby and the presence of the Fates could be a reference to the ancient rite of the dies lustricus, (the ceremony of purification with water), celebrated a few days after birth: the Fates read the destiny of the newborn on the volumen and interpret the stars on the globe. It is followed, on the right, by the scene of the lectio, that is the teaching of a young man, who reappears in the background, as mousikòs, with a theatrical mask in his hand. Here too, there is some doubt as to whether the scene refers to moments in the childhood of the deceased, or in the life of his son. In both cases, the celebratory value of the depicted images remains unchanged.

The draperies, though often obtained by making incisions with a moving drill, are simplified but do not flow smoothly. The figures appear composed, anatomically coherent, and organic, with the exception of the group of charging horsemen, shown full-face and smaller in size than the other figures. The foliage is boldly shaded through the extensive use of the drill. The characteristics of the sarcophagus indicate that it is a work produced by an urban workshop that served a client of very high rank. The sarcophagus may have already been the subject of a first intervention of integration in the 15th century, and it was then restored by Carradori in 1784. The 2006 intervention has highlighted how, in the lower left portion of the front, the fifteenth-century integration is not consistent with the original representation, which probably depicted a battle and not a hunting scene. The sarcophagus arrived in the Gallery from the Villa Medici in October 1784.


G. Capecchi - O. Paoletti, Da Roma a Firenze: le vasche romane di Boboli e cinquanta anni di vicende toscane, Firenze 2002; A. Filippi, Scultura antica: catalogo dei sarcofagi romani nella città di Firenze e un’ipotesi ricostruttiva del complesso del Battistero, Firenze 2013; G. Mansuelli, Galleria degli Uffizi, Le sculture (I), Roma 1958.

Text by
Fabrizio Paolucci; Alejandra Micheli
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Niobe room

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