Ancient Rome was so rich in statues that as late as the sixth century, when their destruction was already under way, Cassiodorus wrote, 'the City has an artificial population almost equal to its natural one.'
Carrying out Theodoric's enlightened policy of protecting Roman antiquities, Cassiodorus appointed guardians for the statues' protection. But the tide of feeling was running against such survivals from the pagan past; two centuries earlier, Lactantius Firmianus, tutor of one of the sons of Constantine the Great, had voiced the Christian belief that such images were often the instruments of demons and that 'there is no religion whereever there is an image'. Their destruction was hastened by plundering invaders and by the melting down of works in bronze for their valuable metal.
Presently the very art of making large sculpture in the round was almost forgotten, and the few great statues which remained must indeed have seemed like denizens from another world. About these surviving figures from a more spacious time, unburied and unforgotten among the ruins of the past, fanciful and elaborate explanations gathered, suited to the hearers of a later day. Most of these figures--the equestrian Marcus Aurelius, a colossal head and hand, one of three river gods, the Horse Tamers of the Quirinal--appear as landmarks in medieval views of Rome.
Most famous of all these unburied statues is the bronze figure of Marcus Aurelius, now in the centre of the Capitol Piazza. But the Middle Ages passed over this philosophic emperor in favour of Constantine, and the statue probably owed its preservation through the centuries when most available bronze was melted down to the belief that it represented the first Christian emperor.
Throughout the Middle Ages the statue stood near the Lateran, the official residence of the popes until their return from exile at Avignon at the end of the fourteenth century. It is shown there in the medieval plans of Rome in the Marciana Library at Venice and in its probable copy at the Vatican. Van Heemskerck drew it there too. Beside it lie the head and hand of the colossal sun god which stood near the Colosseum--or so the medieval mind felt certain. Some have thought that it was brought there from the Caelian hill, while others maintain with equal certainty that it had always stood in the Lateran neighbourhood, in the grounds of the palace of Annius Verus, grandfather of Marcus Aurelius.
The twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet, Wace, reflected the admiration of medieval visitors for this statue in his Roman de Rou, the Romance of Rollo, Robert I, Duke of Normandy. His hero:
'Saw Constantine in Rome display'd
In manly shape, of copper made,
Of copper is the horse also,
No wind nor rain them overthrow.
Such is the fame and the honour
Of Constantine the Emperor.'
Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish traveller who visited Rome about 1170, noted also 'the Emperor Constantine, who built the city that is called after his name Constantinople, whose image with his horse is of gilded brass'.
Although the statue was commonly known as Constantine in the Middle Ages, it had other names as well--Antony, Septimius Severus, and Theodoric. The Mirabilia tells a legend designed to prove that it was none of these. 'There is at the Lateran,' it says, 'a certain brazen horse, that is called Constantine's Horse; but it is not so, for whosoever will know the truth thereof, let him read it here.
'In the time of the Consuls and Senators, a certain full mighty king from the parts of the East came to Italy, and besieged Rome on the side of the Lateran, and with much slaughter and war afflicted the Roman people. Then a certain squire of great beauty and virtue, bold and subtle, arose and said to the Consuls and Senators: If there were one that should deliver you from this tribulation, what would he deserve from the Senate? and they answered and said: What thing soever he shall ask, he shall presently obtain it. Give me, said he, thirty thousand sesterces, and ye shall make me a memorial of the victory, when the fight is done and a horse in gilded brass of the best. And they promised to do all that he asked.'
The squire then set out disguised as a groom, riding without a saddle, and lay in wait for the king, who was a dwarf. Presently the king came by, accompanied by his nobles, and the squire seized him and bore him away, despite their resistance. The Romans then put the enemy to flight and 'returned glorious to the city; and all that they had promised to the aforesaid squire they paid and performed it, thirty thousand sesterces, and an horse of gilded brass without a saddle for a memorial of him, with the man himself riding thereon, having his right hand stretched forth, that he took the king withal. . . . The king, which was of little stature, with his hands bound behind him, as he had been taken, was also figured by way of remembrance under the hoof of the horse.'
This little figure, probably representing one of the barbarians conquered by the emperor, is now gone, but it appears in medieval figures copied from this famous statue. The emperor sits upon a cloth or pad. The riding saddle, whose absence attracted so much medieval interest, was not used by the Romans until long after the time of Marcus Aurelius; it was probably taken over from the barbarians in the fourth century. The Romans did not use stirrups until even later.
In 1538 the statue was moved from the Lateran, under Michelangelo's direction, but somewhat against his will, to form the central feature of the great piazza he planned for the Capitol. Michelangelo himself is said to have constructed the statue's pedestal. In 1940 an ornamental pavement was laid here, following a plan of Michelangelo's preserved in a contemporary engraving, and the statue now rises from the centre of a star composed of travertine blocks.
Hawthorne's description of the statue in The Marble Faun is typical of the reaction of nineteenth-century visitors to Rome: 'The moonlight glistened upon traces of the gilding which had once covered both rider and steed; these were almost gone, but the aspect of dignity was still perfect, clothing the figure as it were with an imperial robe of light. It is the most majestic representation of the kingly character that ever the world has seen. A sight of the old heathen emperor is enough to create an evanescent sentiment of loyalty even in a democratic bosom, so august does he look, so fit to rule, so worthy of man's profoundest homage and obedience, so inevitably attractive of his love.'
Some gilding remains today on the emperor's face and cape and on the horse's head. Popular belief has it that this gilding, gradually transpiring from a store of gold within, will one day cover the statue; this will be the signal for the Judgment Day.
A great bronze head and hand which lay beside the emperor's statue at the Lateran were scarcely less famous in the Middle Ages. According to tradition these had belonged to the statue of the sun god which stood before the Colosseum, mentioned by Martial as the 'wondrous colossus . . . girt with rays'. Nero had erected this originally as a statue of himself, in the vestibule of his Golden House. After his death it was transformed into that of the sun god, and the head may have been changed once, or more than once, in later years, to give it the features of other emperors.
The head from the Lateran seems, beyond reasonable doubt, to be one now in the Conservatori Museum, probably brought to the Capitol in the late fifteenth century when most of the bronzes from the papal collections were transferred there. A colossal left hand on the same scale, and an orb which seems to fit the palm from which it has been detached, are also in the Conservatori collection and probably belonged to the same statue. The head as it now exists appears to be of late workmanship and is thought to represent one of the sons and successors of Constantine the Great, although it has borne many names since it became the subject of inquiry. The Middle Ages, however, accepted both head and hand unquestioningly as those of the great sun god and gave them a colourful history.
The earliest version of the Mirabilia says flatly--and incorrectly--that the statue 'stood on the top of the Colosseum,' and does not mention the head and hand by the Lateran. A later version gives the typical medieval story:
'In the midst [of the Colosseum] abode Phoebus, that is the god of the sun, which having his feet on the earth reached unto heaven with his head, and did hold in his hand an orb signifying that Rome ruled over the world.
'But after a space of time the blessed Silvester bade destroy that temple, and in like wise other places, to the intent that the orators [pilgrims offering prayers] which came to Rome should not wander through profane buildings, but shall pass with devotion through the churches. But the head and hands of the aforesaid idol he caused to be laid before his Palace of the Lateran in remembrance thereof; and the same is now called by the vulgar "Samson's Ball".' This name, of course, refers to the orb.
Master Gregory's twelfth-century description states that the image 'was over gilt with gold imperial, shining continually in the darkness, moving equally with the sun'. This idea of movement with the sun seems another echo of Suetonius' account of the revolving ceiling of Nero's banquet hall, met already in the medieval description of the Colosseum. Ranaulf Higden's fourteenth-centuryPolychronicon says much the same, its Roman section being based on Master Gregory. Both of these accounts state that the statue was destroyed by Gregory the Great in the sixth century, not by Silvester in the fourth. Silvester, indeed, could not have destroyed it: the last mention of it in antiquity refers to its coronation in a June festival of A.D. 354, nineteen years after Silvester's death. And no one destroyed the Colosseum, the temple in question.
Though there is little doubt that the head and hand in the Conservatori are those which lay before the Lateran, there is some difficulty of size in identifying them with the ancient colossus before the Colosseum. Pliny says that this statue was one hundred and ten feet high; Suetonius, that it was one hundred and twenty feet, or at least in the neighbourhood of twenty times life size. The head and hand in the Conservatori are only about five times larger than life. Also, there is a slight discrepancy about the hand. Master Gregory and Ranaulf Higden both say that it was a right hand, and it is an unmistakable right hand in the Marciana plan; but the hand in the Museum is a left. However, considering the centuries through which the fragments were thought of as belonging to the famous ancient statue, they may be regarded with all the deference due to long tradition and association.
Among other unburied statues are the colossal river gods which repose at the sides of the staircase to the Senator's Palace today. They appear in drawings by Marten van Heemskerck and in many early plans of Rome. These lay for centuries on the Quirinal, where they had perhaps adorned the Baths of Constantine. In 1517 they were moved to the Capitol, first to the arcade of the old Conservators' Palace, where Van Heemskerck drew them, and finally, in 1552, to their present place.
The figure at the left, as one faces the Senator's Palace, probably represents the Nile, resting one arm upon a sphinx. The other, leaning upon a rather nondescript animal restored as a wolf, now symbolizes the Tiber, but may once have been meant for the Tigris with a tiger. The figures of the twins, Romulus and Remus, suckled by the wolf, which are under this statue's arm, are later additions.
The Mirabilia says of the river gods in their old location:
'On the brow of the hill [the Quirinal] was the temple of Jupiter and Diana, that is now called the Emperor's Table, over the Palace of Constantine. There in the palace was the temple of Saturn and Bacchus, where their idols now lie. Fast by are the Marble Horses.' The 'Palace of Constantine' was the Baths of Constantine. The 'temple of Jupiter and Diana' or 'Emperor's Table', was the great ruin on the Quirinal now generally called the Temple of the Sun or the Temple of Serapis, where the immense block of marble lies in the Colonna Gardens. Master Gregory referred to the statues as 'two old men' and also as 'Solomon and Bacchus'.
The Marble Horses on the Quirinal mentioned in the Mirabilia and many other medieval descriptions as guides for the location of other monuments, appear in almost every medieval view of the city. They may have been meant to represent the Dioscuri or twin demi-gods, Castor and Pollux, and from this association and their gesture of checking the rearing steeds, have taken on another popular name, the Horse Tamers. 'Marble Horses', however, was their most common name for centuries, and the hill in their neighbourhood was called from them Monte Cavallo, the Horses' Hill.
They were probably made by a Roman artist who followed some Greek original, though for centuries they have borne inscriptions stating that they were the work of Phidias and Praxiteles. The first of these inscriptions, which have been renewed more than once, was probably attached in the very late classic or early medieval times, when nothing was known of these two Greek masters except their fame.
The Mirabilia has a typical medieval explanation of the group: 'Hear now to what intent the Horses of Marble were made bare, and the men beside them naked, and what story they tell. . . . In the time of the emperor Tiberius there came to Rome two young men that were philosophers, named Praxiteles and Phidias, whom the emperor, observing them to be of so much wisdom, kept nigh unto himself in his palace; and he said to them, Wherefore do you go abroad naked? who answered and said: Because all things are naked and open to us, and we hold the world of no account, therefore we go naked and possess nothing; and they said: Whatsoever thou, most mighty emperor, shalt devise in thy chamber by day or night, albeit we be absent, we will tell it thee every word. If ye shall do that ye say, said the emperor, I will give you what thing soever ye shall desire. They answered and said, We ask no money, but only a memorial of us. And when the next day was come, they showed unto the emperor in order whatsoever he had thought of in that night. Therefore he made them the memorial that he had promised, to wit, the naked horses, which trample on the earth, that is upon the mighty princes of the world. Meanwhile . . . there be the two men half naked, which stand by the horses, and with arms raised on high and bent fingers tell the things that are to be; and as they be naked so is all worldly knowledge naked and open to their minds'.
Master Gregory's guide calls the group the 'marble horses' and comments upon their 'marvellous size'--they are over eighteen feet high. The men he calls 'calculators' and says that the horses are symbols of their quick-working intelligence.
In the late sixteenth century Sixtus V moved the statues some distance from their ancient location, restored them and their inscriptions thoroughly, and set them up near their present location in the Quirinal Piazza. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century guidebooks added to their descriptions such fancies as that the statues were brought to Nero from Egypt or Armenia, that the men represented Alexander the Great and his father, Philip of Macedonia, and that one of the horses was Alexander's famous Bucephalus.
The statues were rearranged in the late eighteenth century, and an obelisk which had once stood near the Mausoleum of Augustus was set up with them. The marble basin of the fountain, set below them in 1818, came from the Roman Forum, where it stood near the three columns of Castor's temple and was used as a watering trough for the cattle of the Campo Vaccino. It shows clearly in Vasi's etching of the church of Santa Maria Liberatrice at the foot of the Palatine.
The figures have seldom been more pleasingly described than in Hawthorne French and Italian Notebooks:
'Those admirable ancient statues of Castor and Pollux . . . seem to me sons of the morning and full of life and strength. The atmosphere, in such a length of time, has covered the marble surface of these statues with a grey rust, that envelops both the men and horses as with a garment; besides which, there are strange discolorations, such as patches of white moss on the elbows, and reddish streaks down the sides; but the glory of form overcomes all these defects of colour. It is pleasant to observe how familiar some little birds are with these colossal statues,--hopping about on their heads and over their huge fists, and very likely they have nests in their ears or among their hair.'
Another colossal statue, a river god not unlike those by the Senator's Palace, lay throughout the centuries in the very heart of ancient Rome. It rests now in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum. Its home in the Middle Ages and well through the sixteenth century was in the Via di Marforio, a street which ran between the Roman Forum and the Forum of Augustus. This was often called the 'Forum of Mars' from the temple of Mars Ultor dedicated there; the name of both statue and street is a contraction of 'Mars' Forum'. The Mirabilia speaks of the statue as a likeness of the god himself, saying, 'Before Mamertinus his prison was the temple of Mars, where is now his image.' The prison is the ancient Mamertine prison at the foot of the Capitol, where Nero was said to have imprisoned Saint Peter.
The statue was removed from its ancient place in 1587 and, after being set in various locations, among them the portico of the Conservators' Palace on the Capitol, where it figured as a fountain adorned with the bronze ball from the Vatican obelisk, it finally came to rest in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum in 1592. Its old location was the place where answers were posted to political satires composed in the name of another unburied statue, Pasquino, which still stands by the Palazzo Braschi. This mutilated torso, the remnant of a group showing Menelaus supporting the body of Patroclus, took its name, it is thought, from a nearby tailor noted for his sarcastic remarks. These pasquinades, so characteristic of Italian literature in late renaissance and baroque days, recall at times the biting satires of Martial centuries before.
A few other statues, too, have always stood unburied and visible in Rome--notably the bronze Boy Extracting a Thorn from His Foot, and the much-restored Romulus and Remus Suckled by the Wolf--but these, though noted by Master Gregory in the twelfth century, have not had the same frequent and detailed history in either art or literature as those which have been discussed here.
No statue of the most potent deity of all, the goddess of love, is known to have remained unburied in Rome throughout the centuries. Master Gregory, however, tells of one he saw on his visit there, one which impressed him strongly. It stood, he says, near the Marble Horses on the Quirinal, several miles from his hostelry, but so compelling was its beauty that he was drawn to see it three times despite the distance. The goddess was nude, according to his description, as she had appeared to Paris on the occasion of the famous contest with Juno and Minerva for the prize of beauty, and was so subtly made that the blood seemed to flush the cheeks and lips.
The hint of its location has tempted some to wonder whether the statue might have been the Capitoline Venus, found late in the seventeenth century near San Vitale between the Quirinal and the Viminal. There is an unproved tradition that it was discovered immured in a wall; certainly it was in excellent condition, as though it had been carefully preserved. It is tempting to think that someone, after Gregory's time, may have hidden it there to save it from a destruction threatened because too many men had pondered its un-Christian beauty.
The demonic power which such a statue might wield furnished the Middle Ages with a legend which William of Malmesbury told about I 125 in his Gesta Regum Anglorum, History of the Kings of England. According to William, a rich young citizen of medieval Rome, going out to exercise with his friends soon after his marriage, placed his wedding ring upon the finger of a bronze statue nearby. When he returned the hand had closed over the ring. Not wishing to attract attention he said nothing at the time, but came back at night to force it off. The hand was unclenched again but the ring was gone.
That night when he went to his bride, something dense and cloudlike came between, which could be felt but not seen, and he heard a voice, saying, 'Embrace me, since you wedded me today! I am Venus, on whose finger you put the ring! I have it, nor will I return it.'
When this had happened time after time the young man sought the aid of a priest skilled in necromancy, who told him to watch by night at a certain place where he would see a band of demons, male and female. When he should see one more corpulent than the rest, riding in a chariot, he should demand his ring. This he did, and the ring was returned--but the priest, who had been reviled by the demon, killed himself soon afterward. In the centuries since the English monk wrote his history this story has reappeared many times in many forms, from Prosper Mérimés Venus d'Ille and William Morris' Ring Given to Venus, to Nash and Perelman libretto of One Touch of Venus.
Not until long after William of Malmesbury and Master Gregory wrote were sculptors able once more to create figures which could rival the great works Cassiodorus had described when ancient Rome was not yet utterly cast down:
'Statues of men, showing the muscles swelling with effort, the nerves in tension, the whole man looking as if he had grown rather than been cast in metal. Statues of horses, full of fire, with the curved nostril, with rounded, tightly-knit limbs, with ears laid back--you would think the creature longed for the race, though you know that the metal moves not.'
Through these many and disastrous centuries, the wonder is, not that so few statues escaped destruction or burial, but that these few remained unburied amid the ruins to excite curiosity, awe, or fear in generation after generation.