New Niobids - New Light on a Old Group

Very exciting news was announced today by Italian archaeologists, who have been digging a villa of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus at Ciampino, now a suburb of Rome (and the location of its airport) - they've found statues from a new group representing The Niobids, which they believe securely date to the first century BC. The full story can be read at La Reppublica here.

The statues as found in situ - note the distinctive herringbone brick floor.

This MVMC was consul in 31 BC replacing Mark Anthony, whose side he had previously been on. He was also the patron of Ovid, as all press accounts are mentioning.

One great-granddaughter through his son was  Valeria Messalina, wife of Claudius. Another possible, but by no means certain, great-granddaughter through his daughter (Valeria Messalina) might have been Statilia Messalina the third wife of Nero. Statilia Messalina as Nero's widow almost married Otho - but he too was forced into suicide. This sounds like a bit of a digression, but hopefully will make sense soon.

Lots of nice photos of the statues, although I'd love more - a head (above), and the body of one running Niobid (left and below).

Details of a coloured (above) and of a monochrome mosaic (below) - important for dating.

A nice rendition of the pool of the villa, and a plan showing walls excavated etc below that:

What makes this interesting is that although parts of a number of groups depicting the Niobids have been found over the centuries - the most complete and best known is now in Florence - this is the first to have been found in situ in archaeological context in modern times.

In my PhD dissertation on Greek architectural sculpture, which I submitted way back in the 20th century (try explaining to students that no, although it was pre-internet, that wasn't The Dark Ages), I wondered whether the original might have been a pedimental group from a famous fourth century temple, since it was widely copied - and perhaps by a sculptor working in the wake of Scopas (I suspect that Andrew Stewart deserves the credit for the latter idea).

In a discussion of some pedimental sculptures from Mazi in Greece, which I re-dated to the later fourth century, I wrote:
The details of the sculptures from Mazi clearly shows them to be the product of a sculptor working in the aftermath of the Mausoleum and of Scopas. Some similarities can be seen between his work and the Ariadne and Niobe Group, both also seen as being by a follower of Scopas,  but it would be premature to claim too close a link without further research.
And later:
Although the acquisition of well known Greek sculptures and their removal to Rome is well documented,  it is only relatively recently that groups of architectural sculpture are being recognised. ... La Rocca has published an Amazonomachy with Theseus and Heracles,  ca. 440-430, perhaps taken from Eretria after the sack of 198 by L. Quinctius Flaminius, or that of Sulla in 82 BC. ... They were reused in Rome, fitted into the front pediment,  ca. 17 wide by ca. 2.40 high, of the Corinthian temple of Apollo Sosianus, as rebuilt in 30-20 BC. ...
Pliny, NH 36.28, mentions a famous group of Niobids in conjunction with the temple. His use of est in is taken to mean in the temple; it could that the figures were inside the temple, or that they were in(side) the pediment. The Uffizi Niobid group are copies of an early Hellenistic group showing the work of an artist under the influence of both Scopas’ and Praxiteles’ style; the originals of this group are generally believed to be the sculptures Pliny refers to. It should be noted that a partially preserved group of the Slaughter of the Niobids, also brought over to Rome, may have been the pendant to the Etretrian Amazonomachy .... La Rocca has also suggested that a Niobid group, of which only three figures are now extant, was deemed unsuitable as pedimental decoration in Rome and thus placed instead in the Gardens of Sallust;  it can be noted however that the theme was part of the decoration of the temple of Apollo Palatinus, where the symbolism represented Augustus’ struggle with, and victory over, Anthony [ivory doors = Propertius 4.6.67].  The Niobid now in Copenhagen and the Sosianus Hippolyta are particularly close in style.

The figures of both groups were all fully worked, even on the back which was not designed to be seen. This was a feature of High Classical pedimental sculpture, and allowed the figure of Theseus to be reversed and seen from the back in the Roman composition, as has been pointed out by Cook. ... The Amazonomachy figures had holes cut into their backs for struts, a feature absent on the Niobids which would seem to confirm that they were not reused in an architectural space. The cuttings for supporting struts on this set of sculptures is not contemporary to their creation but date from the time of their Roman re-use; they came into use at Tegea in the fourth century and in the early Hellenistic period as a result of the appearance of more elaborate compositions. There was one large square cutting per figure, above the centre of gravity. Both groups were ‘cleaned’ upon their arrival in Rome, by a process that removed their surface. The surface of the Niobids was recut to clarify their weathered contours, as were their plinths, and locks of bronze hair were added to the Theseus.
A second set of sculptures depicting the Slaying of the Niobids is to be found in the Uffizi, Florence*.  These are Roman copies of a Hellenistic group; the originals have been dated to various times within the period, but are likely to be ca. 330-290 BC, by a sculptor working in the wake of Scopas and Praxiteles, elements of both of whose styles he has absorbed (There are also a number of similarities between the group and the pedimental figures from the temple of Athena At Mazi.).  Since copies of the heads were found amongst the tondi of the Mahdia shipwreck, possibly as early as ca. 120 but more often dated to ca. 45 BC, this provides a terminus ante quem for the originals. The widely copied figures are the most likely candidates for those said to have been displayed at the temple of Apollo Sosianus by Pliny, NH 36.28; That fragments of copies have been found at Hadrian’s Villa, amongst a pantheon of other famous sculptures, adds credence to this theory.  The figures can easily be arranged into a composition that would suitably fill a pediment; Stewart suggests that they originally decorated a temple in the East [Stewart 1977, p. 119: he suggests that the figures were from the a temple of Apollo built by Seleukos and brought to Rome in 32 BC.].  If the figure were part of the sculptural decoration of a temple, their level of imitation and influence is paralleled only by the architectural sculpture of the Acropolis and a few other buildings.

[*] 14 or 15 figures, of an original 16, were found in 1583 beyond S. Giovanni Laterano, towards the Porta Maggiore, Rome. They went to the Villa Medici, and then on to the Uffizi.
I also noted (?) second century BC terracotta pedimental groups at Luni and Fiesole from Italian temples depicting the Slaughter of the Niobids. (Apologies for the wonky text).

I still think Stewart was on the right track, but being older and wiser, and having spent a lot of time looking at the various statues, something too few people do, I'm not sure about some of the other theories.

The Uffizi figures were in a vineyard on the Lateran, ie the "horti laterani" which don't seem to exist outside Wikipedia and Roman tourist sites. But then again they were found in 1583, when archaeology was still in its infancy. This is the second 'set' known to have been found, the first being a Dying Niobid now in Munich, which presumably was not dug up on its own (the Maffei are recorded as parting with it in 1540).

The Copenhagen figures may or may not have come from the Gardens of Sallust - the man who sold the museum most of its pieces at the time played fast and loose with find spots (the Italians have recently, I hear, stopped all Danish excavations because they are so angry with the continued dodgy buying practices of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek).

My photos of the three pieces in Copenhagen, showing the rears as well.
Yes, I know it's unusual to take photos of the rear of statues, but it's important to do so if you're discussing architectural sculpture. The Pedagogue for example has a notably flat rear - which could indicate it originally stood in a pediment, or against a wall.

This dying Niobid is reclining in a pose often used by Greek sculptors to fill the corners of pediments - he also has cuttings for struts at the rear.
And of course no set of Niobids would be complete without a (heavily restored) Running Niobid.

One figure from a Niobid Group, the Pedagogue, did come from the Gardens of Sallust and is now in the Palazzo Massimo. And one wonders why there would have been two Pedagogues in the same Garden ...

Then there is the fabulous Chiaramonti Running Niobid in the Vatican (photo - from who knows where), and a Wounded Niobid in the Capitoline (photo - from the via Aurelio Saffi, probably the Horti Caesaris), and ... okay, pretty much every Garden in Rome seems to have had a set, and they clearly copied an important original.

Except ... the Gardens of Lucullus on the Pincian, and that's where the newly discovered set comes in. Although L. Licinius Lucullus created the eponymous gardens, they were not always known by that name. In 46 AD they seem to have been called the horti Asiatici and belonged to Valerius Asiaticus. Messalina wanted them, forced him to commit suicide so that she could get her grubby paws on them, before being killed herself in those self same gardens in 48 AD.

Part of the reason Messalina may have wanted those particular gardens may have had to do with her family's history. Archaeologists excavated an inscription at the Villa Medici suggesting that at some point they were known as the horti Messelae Corvini (CIL VI.29789), and belonged to her great-grandfather. If so, this would explain why they didn't have a set of Niobids - he already had a set at Ciampino.

My conclusion about the original of the group was that it probably decorated a temple linked to Apollo or Leto, probably in the region of Caria or Lycia - for example at the Letoon of Xanthos - and were created by a sculptor working for the Hecatomnids. This is based on many criteria - for example the Hecatomnids being leading patrons at the time, for whom Scopas and Praxiteles worked extensively, particularly the latter, Apollo being important in their family propaganda, and so forth.

UPDATE - As David Meadows and I have been chatting - see his post here - a lot more photos of other statues from the newly Ciampino group have come out (and I've discovered how to upload multiple photos):


  1. Great job on new news as usual!!! I would love to here what the experts say about the portrait identification?

    Joe Geranio
    Julio Claudian Iconographic Association

  2. Great job on new news as usual!!! I would love to here what the experts say about the portrait identification?

    Joe Geranio
    Julio Claudian Iconographic Association

  3. Thank you - and that's a very good point I had not thought of. The photos of the head so far suggest a generic image of a Greek style goddess rathern than a portrait (PS - love your Flickr pool, well done)

  4. Dear Dr. King,

    Is your dissertation available as a PDF? I am teaching a course at the University of Virignia this semester on the Niobid group from Hadrian's villa.

    -Prof. Bernard Frischer

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