· the Façade
tree trunk may be an excellent thing to lean on to look upwards and carefully observe the marble reliefs inserted in the facade of the Casino.
It is a characteristic of this place, so unusual and out of this world: its secrets of extraordinary beauty are only revealed to people that have the persistence to look for them. The reliefs are from the slabs of Roman sarcophagi of the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.
|The loggia of the Casino
The common theme of «love-death»
Nearly all the reliefs adorning the facade of the Casino tell stories from the ancient mythologies, mainly from Greece and the Aegean Islands, later retrieved and revised by Alexandrine poets and writers. The latter contributed to making them known and they provided many sources of inspiration for the sculptors of their time and subsequent epochs. Mythological motifs prevail in the 2nd century, in the 3rd century the themes appear to be more realistic but they conceal more intimate and inner values. Funerary art, in particular, was inspired by myths that aroused the hope of life after death, through the quest for immortality, or through a cyclic return over time.
In the sarcophagi of the "Aurora", one is struck by the thematic unity shared by many reliefs, it is the "love-death" motif: in the myths shown here it is love that seeks the road to immortality.
Above the two windows, on the left of the façade of the Casino, there is a big relief representing a lion hunting scene of. The relief comes from a sarcophagus of 250 A.D. and is probably the biggest one known to date.
|Detail of the
"The lion hunt" - 250 A.D.
It depicts a Roman general, escorted by an officer, fighting a lion. The personage is about to start his journey into the Hereafter. Virtue also appears in the relief; the symbolic meanings are in fact that death is overcome by virtue and the courage and nobility of the knight's soul.
A group of sarcophagi illustrates scenes taken from the Dionysian cycle. One of the reliefs (210 A.D.) depicts the meeting between Dionysus and Ariadne. Ariadne, deserted by Theseus on the island of Naxos, is deep in sleep: Dionysus is approaching from the right, standing on a chariot drawn by a centaur. Dionysus consoles Ariadne and makes her his wife; as a wedding gift he offers her a golden crown, which the gods transform into a crown of stars. A special funerary meaning is attributed to the myth. This meaning is to found in the alternation between desperation and desertion, which are summarily pictured in the sleep of Ariadne, and the sense of joy and festivity that the god brings with him.
Another relief (200-210 A.D.) shows Dionysus accompanied by satyrs, maenads and fantastic beings like the centaurs, half man and half horse, which have always represented the difficult balance between instinct and thought. The whole procession is moving from right to left but everybody, including Dionysus, is looking back and their gaze is fixed on a male figure to which libations are being offered. This is probably the image of the dead person. The whole scene is a pattern of perfect harmony and the atmosphere is that of serene overcoming of the anguish of everyday life.
The most important sarcophagus in this group is probably the one depicting the triumph of Dionysus (190-200 A.D.). The god has travelled across the whole world to let mankind know him and venerate him. He has reached India and from there is travelling towards Greece, accompanied in triumph by his retinue, on camels and elephants. The god's visit to earth concludes with his ascent to Olympus. For a dead person, putting himself under the protection of Dionysus and joining his escort means taking part in the triumphal feast of the deity and in a certain way sharing in his immortality.
The myth of Endymion is particularly fascinating. There are at least three versions of the Greek legend. Endymion is a young shepherd of extraordinary beauty and Selene, the Moon, is deeply in love with him. Another version tells that Endymion persuades Zeus to allow him to fix the time of his death himself. And another that persuades Zeus to grant him eternal sleep, which guarantees him immortality and youth. On the facade of "L'Aurora" the myth is depicted on three different 2nd century reliefs, which seem to follow the first version. The young man is lying with one arm raised above his head, a position indicating sleep. One of the reliefs is fascinating because its grace and its tense and dramatic rhythm: the abandon of the youth in everlasting sleep with his eyes closed in a deep sleep.
|Endymion and the Moon
The myth of Persephone on the other hand indicates hope in eternal renewal. Once again it is love that creates the dialectic, Persephone has been abducted by the god of the Underworld and her mother Demeter searches everywhere for her, in desperation. On the earth, nature seems to be asleep because Demeter has lost her daughter. But harmony returns when the goddess obtains permission from Zeus for Persephone to return to earth for six months of the year. The sarcophagus is completed at both ends by lateral reliefs representing the opposite poles of the event: on the left stands Persephone and on the right she appears beside the deity as a veiled being. Nearly all the figures that tell the story are depicted in profile.
|The rape of Persephone
Two sarcophagi depict the myth of Adonis (160-170 A.D.), the youth loved by Aphrodite, who dies while fighting a wild boar. Venus, grieved by the loss of her loved one, descends into the Underworld and gets permission for Adonis to return to earth for two-thirds of the year. Once again, love triumphs over death and the observation of the cyclic renewal of nature mitigates the dramatic force of the individual event, linking it to the harmony that pervades the cosmos.
The myth of Adonis and that of Meleager are the only ones surviving on the sarcophagi of the 3rd century A.D., perhaps because of their affinity with the subject of hunting, a particularly common symbolic-realistic theme during that period.
The love-death theme appears again in an amazzonomachia from 230 A.D. Achilles and Pentesilea can be seen in the centre of the relief. Pentesilea is the queen of the Amazons who helps Priam, king of Troy, in the war against the Greeks. Achilles mortally wounds her in battle but at the same instant falls in love with her. In the workshops of the Roman marbleworkers the craftsman often left the heads of the protagonists of the story only roughly hewn so that they could later be given the features of the dead person. The faces of Achilles and Pentesilea were completed by a baroque sculptor, who went beyond tradition by giving Achilles a fine moustache.
Lastly, two 3rd century sarcophagi, which, for the reasons already mentioned, are different from the usually mythological subjects of the previous century.
One of them (260 A.D.) depicts the dead person, a woman of great qualities and virtues included in the circle of the Nine Muses, in the place usually occupied by Apollo, next to Athena, goddess of wisdom. the passing of time seems to have added a humorous touch to the composition, which looks a bit like a family group posing for immortality.