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  • Rebirth

    A sentimental journey among the ancient statues of the Uffizi Gallery

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    Intro /1

    Sentiments, bonds and passions have inspired art everywhere, all through the ages, and man has always attempted to express and portray these affections using a very wide range of different art forms. Ancient art is no exception and early on it used the discretion of its subjects’ gestures, and the details of their clothing or hairstyle, to make precise allusions to the ethical and moral identity of the characters portrayed. It would take centuries for sculptors or painters such as Lysippos or Apelles to succeed in conveying man’s mood or adapting the facial expressions of their subjects to express this. We go from the ataractic humanity (from the Greek word ἀτάρακτος, free from agitation, impassive) of the Phidian friezes of the Parthenon, to the Gigantomachy Frieze of the Pergamon Alta, where the theatrical pathos of the characters involved, whether demons or gods, reaches levels of extreme exasperation. The formal style of ancient art, based on the criteria of symmetry, compositional clarity, balance and clear lines, has an almost hypnotic power over modern man and is capable of arousing in him a feeling of peace and quiet that is more yearned for an valuable today than ever before.

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    Intro /2

    Having experienced the suffering of a long period of time in which our affections were put under a huge strain, it might be a source of inspiration to find that those same sentiments of ours had already been immortalised in the marble works of the Greeks and Romans. The selection we are offering aims to be a sort of anthology of these passions, expressed in a gallery of works which are often only glanced at by the hastiest visitors. Their faces and gestures show the widest range of emotions and sentiments: fear, sadness, rage, loneliness, joy, love, friendship, brotherhood and we have therefore preferred to let the marble do the talking, discarding a formal commentary, and limiting ourselves to matching each work with a passage taken from ancient sources. In this way, Antiquity is the only player that dialogues with us, through its words and its images.

    The tender embrace of Cupid and Psyche cannot help but remind us of how we were forced to keep our distance from loved ones in recent months. And it is a sculpture like Pothos (yearning for a loved one) that paints the most effective, explicit image of this sentiment, which the Greeks not only honoured with a specific name, but even went as far as to personify with a divinity. The lively school scene depicted on the sarcophagus known as that “of the general”, reminds us how, as far back as in the ancient world, education could not be considered as complete without a relationship and a dialogue between students, and also between the same young people and their educator. The attitude we all had in the last few months can be summarised in the face of the Pseudo Seneca, a portrait marked by the pain and cruelty of the events taking place, but, despite everything, by a gaze that is looking upwards, seeking the promise of eternal serenity in the future. And this same note of joy is the one we want to highlight with the choice of the group Invitation to the dance. It is a metaphor for what the Uffizi Gallery wants for everyone: the hope that one day soon we will all rediscover the light-hearted, carefree approach to life that only music and human contact can provide.

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    Venus and Cupid

    130-150 A.D.
    Inv. 1914, no. 153


    The group was made for a funerary monument, as suggested by the detail of the upside-down torch held by the young Cupid, son of Venus according to the most widespread tradition in the classical age.

    Ἔρος αὖτέ με κυανέοισιν ὑπὸ
    βλεφάροις τακέρ᾽ ὄμμασι δερκόμενος
    κηλήμασι παντοδαποῖς ἐς ἄπει-
    ρα δίκτυα Κύπριδος ἐσβάλλει·
    ἦ μὰν τρομέω νιν ἐπερχόμενον…

    (Ibycus, Fr. 287 P, vv. 1-5)

    Again, Cupid gazes at me from under his dark eyelids with an alluring glance, and with all sorts of spells tosses me into unbreakable nets of Cyprus [Venus] and I truly tremble when she attacks …

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    Chained putto

    Mid-2nd century A.D.
    Inv. 1914 no. 1059


    Another aspect of the relationship between Eros and Aphrodite instead alluded to the restless nature of the goddess’ son. Indeed, love is such a strong, unpredictable feeling that he slips out of his own mother’s control. And to make him tamer and more obedient, she has no choice but to punish him by chaining him up.

    Et vocat confestim puerum suum pinnatum illum et satis temerarium, qui malis suis moribus contempta disciplina publica, flammis et sagittis armatus, per alienas domos nocte discurrens et omnium matrimonia corrumpens impune committit tanta flagitia et nihil prorsus boni facit.

    (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, IV, 30)

    Then by and by [Venus] called her rash winged son Cupid, who by his evil manners, condemning all public justice and law, armed with fire and arrows, running up and down at night from house to house, and corrupting the lawful marriages of every person, doth nothing (and yet he is not punished) but that which is evil. 

    Chained Putto
    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    1st century A.D.
    Inv. 1914 no. 261


    In tradition, the amorous yearning caused by the remoteness of a person’s beloved had taken on the forms expressed skilfully by Scopas, one of the greatest Greek artists of the second half of the 4th century B.C.

    μετὰ δὲ τοῦ Διονύσου τὸ ἱερόν ἐστιν Ἀφροδίτης ναός, ἄγαλμα δὲ ἐλέφαντος Ἀφροδίτη πεποιημένον Πρᾶξις ἐπίκλησιν. τοῦτό ἐστιν ἀρχαιότατον ἐν τῷ ναῷ· Πειθὼ δὲ καὶ ἑτέρα θεός, ἣν Παρήγορον ὀνομάζουσιν, ἔργα Πραξιτέλους· Σκόπα δὲ Ἔρως καὶ Ἵμερος καὶ Πόθος, εἰ δὴ διάφορά ἐστι κατὰ ταὐτὸ τοῖς ὀνόμασι καὶ τὰ ἔργα σφίσι. πλησίον δὲ τοῦ τῆς Ἀφροδίτης ναοῦ Τύχης ἐστὶν ἱερόν, Πραξιτέλους καὶ αὕτη τέχνη· καὶ ἐν τῷ ναῷ τῷ πλησίον Μούσας καὶ χαλκοῦν Δία ἐποίησε Λύσιππος

    (Pausanias, Description of Greece, I, 43, 6)

    After the sanctuary of Dionysus is a temple of Aphrodite, with an ivory image of Aphrodite surnamed Praxis. This is the oldest statue in the temple. There is also Persuasion and another goddess, whom they name Consoler, works of Praxiteles. The works by Scopas are Love and Desire and Yearning, if indeed their functions are as different as their names. 


    Architettura | Gli Uffizi
    Artwork details
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    Venus and Mars

    2nd century A.D.
    Inv. 1914, no. 4


    The images of these two divinities were often used as background for the portraits of individuals who implicitly compared their relationship to that of the two famous lovers.

    αὐτὰρ ὁ φορμίζων ἀνεβάλλετο καλὸν ἀείδειν
    ἀμφ' Ἄρεος φιλότητος ἐϋστεφάνου τ' Ἀφροδίτης,
    ὡς τὰ πρῶτ' ἐμίγησαν ἐν Ἡφαίστοιο δόμοισι
    λάθρῃ· πολλὰ δὲ δῶκε, λέχος δ' ᾔσχυνε καὶ εὐνὴν
    Ἡφαίστοιο ἄνακτος.

    (Odyssey, VIII, 266-270)

    he struck the chords in prelude to his sweet lay and sang
    of the love of Ares and Aphrodite of the fair crown,
    how first they lay together in the house of Hephaestus
    secretly; and Ares gave her many gifts, and shamed the bed
    of the lord Hephaestus…


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    Bacchus with Satyr

    130-150 A.D.
    Inv. 1914 no. 246


    The group portrays one of the strongest unions in the courtship of Bacchus, that between the god and the Satyrs, minor gods that symbolised such an unbridled sensuality that they were likened to animals, as indicated by the detail of their animal ears.

    μάκαρ, ὅστις εὐδαίμων
    τελετὰς θεῶν εἰδὼς
    βιοτὰν ἁγιστεύει καὶ
    θιασεύεται ψυχὰν
    ἐν ὄρεσσι βακχεύ
    ων ὁσίοις καθαρμοῖσιν,
    τά τε ματρὸς μεγάλας ὄρ-
    για Κυβέλας θεμιτεύων,
    ἀνὰ θύρσον τε τινάσσων,
    κισσῶι τε στεφανωθεὶς
    Διόνυσον θεραπεύει.

    (Euripides, The Bacchantes, vv. 72-82)

    O happy he! who to his joy
    is initiated in heavenly mysteries
    and leads a holy life, joining heart
    and soul in Bacchic revelry upon
    the hills, purified from every sin;
    observing the rites of
    Cybele, the mighty mother,
    and brandishing the thyrsus,
    with ivy-wreathed head,
    he worships Dionysus.

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    Cupid and Psyche

    150-200 A.D.
    Inv. 1914 no. 339


    In Greek and Roman mythology, the two young people were the ultimate symbol of the amorous relationship, visible in their embrace, and the kiss to which they are succumbing in the sculpture.

    Sume", inquit, "Psyche, et immortalis esto, nec umquam digredietur a tuo nexu Cupido, sed istae vobis erunt perpetuae nuptiae.

    (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, VI, 23)

    Hold, Psyche, and drink to the end thou mayest be immortal, and that Cupid may never depart from thee, but be thine everlasting husband.


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    Altar of Theopropus

    2nd century A.D.
    Inv. 1914, no. 989


    In this case, Cupid and Psyche become a funerary metaphor that alludes to the separation of the soul from the body.

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    Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone

    160-180 A.D.
    Inv. 1914, no. 86


    One of the cruellest myths of classical tradition is undoubtedly that of young Persephone, torn away from her mother by Dis, merciless god of the underworld.

    Hanc videt et visam patruus velociter aufert        
    regnaque caeruleis in sua portat equis.
    illa quidem clamabat 'io, carissima mater,
    auferor!', ipsa suos abscideratque sinus:
    panditur interea Diti via, namque diurnum
    lumen inadsueti vix patiuntur equi.

    (Ovid, Fasti, IV, 445-450)

    Her uncle saw her, and swiftly carried her off,
    And bore her on shadowy horses to his realm.
    She called out: ‘Oh, dearest Mother, I’m being
    carried away!’ and tore at the breast of her robe:
    Meanwhile a path opened for Dis, since his horses
    are unaccustomed to the light of day and
    can barely tolerate it.

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    Sarcophagus with the myth of Leucippides’ abduction

    2nd century A.D.
    Inv. 1914 no. 104


    Ilaira and Phoebe, daughters of Leucippus , king of Messenia, were kidnapped by the Dioscuri and wed. The choice of this myth to decorate the sarcophagus can be explained by the sudden death of the young bride commemorated in the epigraph

    Abstulerant raptas Phoebe Phoebesque sororem Tyndaridae fratres, hic eques, ille pugil.

    (Ovidio, Fasti, V, 699-700)

    The Tyndarides, brothers, one a horseman, the other
    A boxer raped and abducted Phoebe and her sister. [Castor and Pollux].

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    Ajax and Achilles

    1st century A.D.
    Loggia dei Lanzi


    The two greatest heroes of the Greek army engaged in the ten-year siege of Troy were linked by a profound mutual respect and by a close friendship, demonstrated by Ajax at the time of Achilles’ death. In fact, Ajax does not hesitate to push into the enemy lines to recover Achilles’ lifeless body.

    Αἴας μὲν γὰρ ἄειρε καὶ ἔκφερε δηϊοτῆτος ἥρω Πηλείδην, οὐδ ̓ ἤθελε δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς (Little Iliad, fragment 2 B)

    For Ajax took up and carried out of the strife the hero, Peleus' son: this great Odysseus cared not to do.


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    Early 2nd century A.D.
    Loggia dei Lanzi


    The statue is the ultimate example one of the most popular ways of portraying the defeated, imprisoned woman used in Roman art. In the tradition of the Renaissance, this figure was identified as Thusnelda, heroic wife of Arminius, Germanic prince.

    Inerant feminae nobiles, inter quas uxor Arminii eademque filia Segestis, mariti magis quam parentis animo, neque victa in lacrimas neque voce supplex; compressis intra sinum manibus gravidum uterum intuens.

    (Tacitus, Annales, I, 57)

    They included some women of high birth, among them the wife of Arminius, who was at the same time the daughter of Segestes, though there was more of the husband than the father in that temper which sustained her, unconquered to a tear, without a word of entreaty, her hands clasped tightly in the folds of her robe and her gaze fixed on her heavy womb.


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    2nd century A.D.
    Niobe Room


    The myth of Niobe, one of the cruellest in classical tradition, is perhaps the most famous example of punished hybris. This term referred to the human arrogance that even stretched to denying the superiority of the gods, and therefore incurred exemplary punishments, such as the one issued by Latona who, offended by the words of Niobe below, appointed her two sons, Apollo and Artemis, to kill her many children.

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    Ecce venit comitum Niobe celeberrima turba
    vestibus intexto Phrygiis spectabilis auro
    et, quantum ira sinit, formosa; movensque decoro
    cum capite inmissos umerum per utrumque capillos
    constitit, utque oculos circumtulit alta superbos,
    quis furor auditos' inquit 'praeponere visis
    caelestes? aut cur colitur Latona per aras,
    numen adhuc sine ture meum est? mihi Tantalus auctor,
    cui licuit soli superorum tangere mensas;
    Pleiadum soror est genetrix mea; maximus Atlas
    est avus, aetherium qui fert cervicibus axem;
    Iuppiter alter avus; socero quoque glorior illo.
    me gentes metuunt Phrygiae, me regia Cadmi
    sub domina est, fidibusque mei commissa mariti
    moenia cum populis a meque viroque reguntur.
    in quamcumque domus adverti lumina partem,
    inmensae spectantur opes; accedit eodem
    digna dea facies; huc natas adice septem
    et totidem iuvenes et mox generosque nurusque!
    quaerite nunc, habeat quam nostra superbia causam,
    nescio quoque audete satam Titanida Coeo
    Latonam praeferre mihi…

    (Ovidio, Metamorfosi, VI, vv. 165-186)


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    Look, Niobe comes, followed by a crowded throng,
    splendid, in her Phrygian robes woven with gold,
    and as beautiful as anger will let her be. Turning
    her lovely head, with her hair falling loose over her shoulders,
    she pauses, and looks around with pride in her eyes,
    loftily, says “What madness is this? To prefer the gods
    you are told about to the ones you can see?
    Why is Latona worshipped at the altars,
    while my godhead is still without its incense?
    Tantalus is my father, the only man to eat at the table of the gods.
    My mother is one of the seven Pleiade sisters. Great Atlas,
    who carries the vault of heaven on his shoulder, is one of my grandfathers.
    Jupiter is the other, and I glory in having him as my father-in-law too.
    The peoples of Phrygia fear me. Cadmus’ royal house
    is under my rule: and the walls, built to the sound of my husband’s lyre,
    and Thebes’ people, are ruled by his power and mine.
    Whichever part of the palace I turn my eyes to,
    I see immense wealth. Add to this
    my beauty, worthy of a goddess, and add to that my seven daughters,
    and seven sons, and soon my many sons- and daughters-in-law!
    Now, ask yourselves what reason I have to be proud,
    and then dare to prefer Latona to me, that Titaness, daughter of Coeus...”

    (Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI, vv. 165-186)

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    1520 ca.


    The group closely resembles, but is not an exact copy of, the famous sculpture found in Rome in 1506, and in any case, it succeeds in retaining the same dramatic pathos of the original.

    Illi agmine certo
    Laocoonta petunt; et primum parva duorum
    corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
    implicat et miseros morsu depascitur artus;
    post ipsum auxilio subeuntem ac tela ferentem
    corripiunt spirisque ligant ingentibus; et iam
    bis medium amplexi, bis collo squamea circum
    terga dati superant capite et ceruicibus altis.
    ille simul manibus tendit diuellere nodos
    perfusus sanie uittas atroque ueneno,
    clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
    qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
    taurus et incertam excussit ceruice securim.

    (Virgil, Aeneid, 2, 212-224)

    They [the snakes] in unswerving course
    make for Laocoön; and first each serpent enfolds
    in its embrace the small bodies of his two sons
    and with its fangs, feeds upon the hapless limbs.
    Then they grab Laocoön too
    as he comes to their aid, weapon in hand,
    They wrap him up in their mighty folds; and now,
    twice encircling his waist, twice winding their scaly backs
    around his throat, they stand tall with head and lofty necks.
    Laocoön strains his hands to burst the knots,
    his fillets steeped in gore and venom;
    and he lifts to heaven hideous cries,
    like the bellowing of a wounded bull
    that has fled from the altar and shaken
    from its head the ill-aimed axe.

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    Dying Alexander

    Mid-2nd century B.C.
    Inv. 1914, no. 338


    In this magnificent head, we find the sentiments of suffering and anguish, expressed in the most dramatic and powerful forms. These features have convinced us in modern times to recognise the statue as the effigy of a dying man.

    ... and the great sculptor Lysippus, who sculpted, among others, and in the most realistic way, the wounded Alexander the Great, of which now only a few relics are left (...). In this statue, he expressed with unique mastery the deep cavities of the eyes, the squareness of the nose and of all the other parts of the body with great harmony and consonance, and these features have subsequently been imitated by the modern sculptors Polydoros, Michelangelo and Raphael, to embellish our modern method to resemble that of ancient sculpture. And with great admiration, (...) the head was held in particularly high regard by art connoisseurs as the rarest and most well-made in the world today.

    (G. P. Lomazzo, Idea del Tempio della pittura, I, 1590, 4, 15)

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    1st century A.D.

    Inv. 1914, no. 58

    Unfortunately, the name of this character is unknown to us but his exasperated facial expression, marked by deep wrinkles and the merciless passing of time, was upheld for centuries as the emblem of the intellectual engaged in the painful pursuit of truth.

    τούτων γὰρ ἀπλανὴς θεωρία πᾶσαν αἵρεσιν 
    καὶ φυγὴν ἐπανάγειν οἶδεν ἐπὶ τὴν τοῦ σώματος 
    ὑγίειαν καὶ τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς ἀταραξίαν, 
    ἐπεὶ τοῦτο τοῦ μακαρίως ζῆν ἐστι τέλος.
    τούτου γὰρ χάριν πάντα πράττομεν, 
    ὅπως μήτε ἀλγῶμεν μήτε ταρβῶμεν

    (Epicurus , Letter to Menoeceus, 127-128)

    He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every preference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquillity of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the goal of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear.

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    Sleeping Ariadne

    Mid-2nd century A.D.


    This placid portrayal of a sleeping woman in fact conceals the drama of abandonment. Indeed, the young daughter of the king of Cnossos has still to realise that she has been left alone by Theseus on the isle of Naxos. In the original group, the drama was softened by a happy omen of future joy, because she was beside Dionysus, who would become her lover and gift her immortality.



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    Sleeping Ariadne

    Quae legis, ex illo, Theseu, tibi litore mitto
    unde tuam sine me vela tulere ratem,
    in quo me somnusque meus male prodidit et tu,
    per facinus somnis insidiate meis.

    (Ovidio, Heroides, X, vv. 5-8)

    The words you now are reading,
    Theseus, I send you from that shore
    from which the sails bore off your ship without me,
    the shore on which my slumber, and you,
    so wretchedly betrayed me
    – you, who wickedly plotted against me as I slept.

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    Sarcophagus with scene from the life of a leading Roman figure

    End 2nd century A.D.
    Inv. 1914, no. 82


    Two intimate moments of family life are depicted on the lower right-hand side of this ostentatious sarcophagus, destined for a leading figure of the city’s senatorial elite. The first shows the pedagogue who is listening to the child reading. Instead, on the opposite side, the other one depicts the mother, about to pick her son up after the nurse has bathed him.


    Atqui si vitiis mediocribus ac mea paucis
    mendosa est natura, alioqui recta velut si
    egregio inspersos reprehendas corpore naevos,
    si neque avaritiam neque sordes nec mala lustra
    obiciet vere quisquam mihi, purus et insons,
    ut me collaudem, si et vivo carus amicis:
    causa fuit pater his, qui macro pauper agello
    noluit in Flavi ludum me mittere, magni
    quo pueri magnis e centurionibus orti,
    laevo suspensi loculos tabulamque lacerto
    ibant octonos referentes Idibus aeris;
    sed puerum est ausus Romam portare docendum
    artis quas doceat quivis eques atque senator
    semet prognatos.

    (Horace, Satires, I, 6, vv. 65-78)

    Still, if my character is flawed by only a few little faults, and otherwise sound, just as you’d censure perhaps the blemishes scattered over a noble body; and if no one can accuse me in fairness of greed, meanness, debauchery; if in truth, in my own praise, I live purely, innocently, loved by my friends; it is due to my father, who though with the meagre resources of a poor land,not only wouldn’t send me to Flavio’s school, attended by the illustrious sons of the most illustrious centurions, with their tablets and satchel under their arms, paying a fee of eight coins on the Ides of each month, but instead had the courage to take me to Rome, when I was little more than a child, to be taught the skills senator or knight would expect their sons to be taught.



    Non vides quanto aliter patres, aliter matres indulgeant? illi excitari iubent liberos ad studia obeunda mature, feriatis quoque diebus non patiuntur esse otiosos, et sudorem illis et interdum lacrimas excutiunt; at matres fovere in sinu, continere in umbra volunt, numquam contristari, numquam flere, numquam laborare.

    (Seneca, De Providentia, II, 5)

    Do you not see how fathers show their love in one way, and mothers in another? The father orders his children to be aroused from sleep in order that they may start early upon their pursuits,—even on holidays he does not permit them to be idle, and he draws from them sweat and sometimes tears. But the mother caresses them in her lap, wishes to keep them out of the sun, wishes them never to be unhappy, never to cry, never to toil.

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    Invitation to the dance


    1st-2nd century A.D.
    Inv. 1914, n. 220


    With this group, which we must imagine associated with wild, arousing music, in time to the beat of the kroupezio (foot castanet), we want to wish everyone a joyous return to social life.

    Ἴδοις δ' ἂν νῦν ἔτι καὶ τοὺς ἐφήβους αὐτῶν οὐ μεῖον ὀρχεῖσθαι ἢ ὁπλομαχεῖν μανθάνοντας· ὅταν γὰρ ἀκροχειρισάμενοι καὶ παίσαντες καὶ παισθέντες ἐν τῷ μέρει παύσωνται, εἰς ὄρχησιν αὐτοῖς ἡ ἀγωνία τελευτᾷ, καὶ αὐλητὴς μὲν ἐν τῷ μέσῳ κάθηται ἐπαυλῶν καὶ κτυπῶν τῷ ποδί, οἱ δὲ κατὰ στοῖχον ἀλλήλοις ἑπόμενοι σχήματα παντοῖα ἐπιδείκνυνται πρὸς ῥυθμὸν ἐμβαίνοντες, ἄρτι μὲν πολεμικά, μετ' ὀλίγον δὲ χορευτικά, ἃ Διονύσῳ καὶ Ἀφροδίτῃ.

    (Luciano, De saltatione, 10)

    You could also remark today that adolescents have the same training in dance and in fighting. In fact, after they’ve fought, close to one another, with their hands, and they have struck and been struck, they stop and the battle ends in a dance and the aulòs player stands in the middle, keeping the beat with his foot, and they follow one another in a line, showing all the movements, moving ahead, in time with the rhythm, first the warriors, then shortly afterwards the choreutes, those dear to Dionysus and to Aphrodite.

    (Luciano, De saltatione, 10)

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    Invitation to the dance


    I-II century A.C.
    Inv. 1914, n. 190


    Μουσάων Ἑλικωνιάδων ἀρχώμεθ᾽ ἀείδειν,
    αἵ θ᾽ Ἑλικῶνος ἔχουσιν ὄρος μέγα τε ζάθεόν τε
    καί τε περὶ κρήνην ἰοειδέα πόσσ᾽ ἁπαλοῖσιν …

    (Esiodo, Teogonia, 1-3)

    From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,
    who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,
    and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring ...

    (Hesiod, Theogony, 1-3)


A sentimental journey among the ancient statues of the Uffizi Gallery

Review: Patrizia Naldini, Chiara Ulivi

Translations: Eurotrad Snc.

Graphics: Andrea Biotti

Photos by Francesco del Vecchio e Roberto Palermo  

Please note: each image of this virtual exhibition may be enlarged for more detailed viewing.

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