The Italians have many reasons to keep things secret from tourists. They
have been invaded so often in their history that hiding treasures has become
second nature. What a wonder, then, to discover a location on the coast of
Italy where the magic of mythology and the reality of hard stone meet to
create a treasure that is still open to tourists and Italians alike!
That is the secret of SPERLONGA. The setting is as dramatic as the
Bay of Naples, but the throngs are missing and the dangers of volcanoes.
Bay of Terracina in daytime and sunset
The place has the head and breast of the Siren
lying as enticement to Ulysses and to modern visitors. One can see from the natural forms
of the land why the area has always had
associations with the voyage of Ulysses from
Greece and why those stories still resonate
The Roman Emperors knew it was an
evocative place, and in the first century B.C.,
the Emperor Tiberius had a villa built right on
the coast to enjoy something of the view
that still exists. He then had sculptures carved out of marble to remind himself of the stories of
Ulysses and set them inside a cave where
his guests could enjoy cool dining during the
whereabouts for centuries. A recent museum has been built to house the marbles and visitors can
still visit the cave within walking distance to sense what Tiberius' guests might have enjoyed.
Above the entrance to the cave was the statue group of Zeus and Ganymede (the youth snatched by Zeus for his beauty; Zeus takes the form of an eagle in this myth).
Within the cave originally were four other stories from ancient mythology, all having to do with Ulysses:
1) The Taking of the Palladium, the statue of Athena, from Troy, by Ulysses.
emphasized the difference between statue and real man by placing Ulysses' hand splayed out over
the chest of the statue of Athena. Athena herself is stiff and unmoving, with helmet on and almost archaic split eyes, while the hand of Ulysses pulses with life and veins and his face is full of the strain
of carrying the statue's weight while running, as his companion is doing:
tone in the faces and bodies in this group. That they can take hard marble and make the viewer see
the difference between live person carved and statue carved is a remarkable display of their skill.
One critic's reconstruction of how the sculpted groups would have been set in the cave is represented below and on the wall of the museum; in this reimagining, the Taking of the Palladium is on the far right, three figures.
2) The so-called Pasquino group is placed on the far left and may be a representation of Ulysses'
recovery of the body of Achilles after the hero's death in the Trojan War. Very few sections of marble
remain from this group (in far corner of this slide you can see the slumping legs of Achilles).
entire complex, but few pieces of the Polyphemos and Ulysses statues are intact marble from ancient times. The display in the museum is a 20th-century reconstruction of the arrangement and has plaster casts to fill in the missing areas (much of Ulysses' chest and most of Polyphemos' body and head). While the reconstruction displays an ugly giant with one-eye who is being blinded by Ulysses and his men, it also shows the beautiful body of a naked man. In contrast to his magnificent reclining body, the sculptors placed the smaller figures of Ulysses and his men who are rushing to put a stake through the giant's eye. Their anxious and frantic movements emphasize even more clearly the muscular power of the drunken giant himself. Did Tiberius choose this subject to remind himself of his own lack of foresight when agreeing to Augustus' demands to divorce his first wife? Tiberius would not see himself as Ulysses in this grouping but rather as Polyphemus. His body is greater than the others but he is twice-blind.
From the original marble statues of the men, set to the side of the reconstruction it is possible to see that the muscles on the legs are realistically depicted, the rib-cage shows through the skin, and hair has deep-cut curls. The viewer is overwhelmed by Polyphemos' nakedness and the grandeur of his body and feels less his menace and more the pity that he should be slain.
4) The central grouping and perhaps the most complex and most emotional, though, is the story of
ULYSSES' MEN REPULSING the angry animals of the SIREN (Scylla). The Siren's body is not visible in what remains of the marble pieces but is reimagined on the wall of the museum, a naked woman in the middle of the tumult:
the weight and crush of the teeth of the wild beings, some of whom appear to be sea snakes:
Hard not to associate this whirling, gnarling marble group with the emotional tumult in Tiberius' own life.
Tiberius reigned as Emperor from 14-37 A.D. The villa in Sperlonga was begun much earlier, perhaps as a place for him to escape from Rome and its politics. Could these sculptures date from around 2 A.D.? Tiberius had married the only woman he ever loved, Vipsania Agrippina, in 19 B.C., but was encouraged to divorce her in 11 B.C. and marry Julia, Augustus' daughter, in order to secure his place as Augustus' heir. His marriage to Julia was a disaster, and he never stopped mourning his first wife. The villa in Sperlonga may date then to the days before he became Emperor, before 14 A.D. but after his 11 B.C. divorce from Vipsania. The wanderings of Ulysses would have appealed to him as a story because he never wanted to settle and rule Rome as he should have, in Rome, but instead, never returned to the capital city after 26 A.D., and ended up on the Island of Capri, where he died. Was he hoping, like Ulysses, to eventually regain the love of the woman he had married first? Did he commission the sculpted stories as a reminder that perhaps someday he could go back, after many struggles, as Ulysses did? Did he include the Blinding of Polyphemos to remind himself how far the mighty do fall? We don't know, but what we do know is that he allowed the sculptors to carve their names into the work on the boat in the center of his cave.
They are the names of the same sculptors who carved the Laocoon, according to Pliny:
Athenadorus, Hagesandros, and Polydoros
The carving of the mouth open in struggle, the lines of the mustache, the curls set out from the face, the deep-cut eyes
slanted towards the temples in grief, all suggest stylistically that the same sculptors did both major works of art.
The similarities in the carving of the figures and the association of the same sculptors' names with both statue groupings state very strongly that the Laocoon group was carved for Tiberius, too. He was in Rome in 2 A.D. and his palace was quite near the location Pliny gave for the Laocoon later, the Gardens of Maecenas. The Laocoon was not rediscovered and dug up again until 1506, when Michelangelo was present in Rome for the excavation. The Laocoon was the work of the same sculptors who signed their names on the Siren group and were responsible for the rest of the figures in Sperlonga. These Rhodian-trained sculptors with Greek names were familiar with Greek Hellenistic works and used their consummate skill and memory of the Hellenistic works such as those in Pergamon to decorate Tiberius' homes with mythical texts from Homer and Vergil. The sculptors give powerful voice to the stories from the Odyssey and the Aeneid and create grand entertainment in stone through those stories of strife. If they are the same sculptors in Rome and Sperlonga, they are hired by Tiberius to enhance his palatial settings with literary subjects for conversations about conflict and survival. The Laocoon could have been passed down from Emperor to Emperor from Tiberius to Nero (was it in his Golden House in 64 A.D.?) and from him to Titus (when Pliny mentions it around 78 A.D.), but it seems most likely to have been originally commissioned by Tiberius in a much earlier period (11 B.C. to 14 A.D.?) since the sculptors of Sperlonga are responsible for it.
That the Emperor Tiberius chose subjects which carry fatal doom within the tales speaks perhaps of the ultimate song of the Siren, the depression of his own personal shipwreck in his own life. That the non-Italian visitor is openly allowed access to the sculptures in Sperlonga now is to witness yet another secret treasure revealed in a proud peninsula of hidden myths. The treasures of Sperlonga enhance our understanding of Roman and Greek history and give us a clearer picture of the artists who produced the Laocoon. In the process these dramatic statues also enhance our understanding of the sensitive struggles of the human condition.