You may wish to see a page on the grotto where the statues were located first.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Sperlonga (along the modern road near the cave): (left) inscription praising the statues inside the grotto with specific references to those of Scylla and Polyphemus; (right) theatrical mask and mosaic fragments found inside the grotto
The excavations carried out in the late 1950s found a great number of small pieces of marble. It is thought that the statues were smashed on purpose because they depicted pagan subjects (although not deities). The pieces of some size were not easy to assemble, but the finding of an almost entire inscription provided a very useful clue. It is a short piece of poetry (ten lines) written by an otherwise unknown Frontinus. It says that only a new Virgil could appropriately describe the beauty of Spelunca (the grotto) with its statues of Scylla and of the blinding of a monster by the Ithacan (i.e. Odysseus/Ulysses). Keeping this in mind archaeologists were able to identify the pieces which presumably belonged to these statues and to separate them from those which depicted other subjects.
Eventually archaeologists identified five statues or groups of statues which embellished the grotto. They all had some references to events related to the War of Troy and its consequences:
A) Menelaus carrying the body of Patroclus, the subject of Pasquino (only the four legs and one arm of
Patroclus were found - they were being restored at the time of my visit in 2016)
B) Scylla, a marine monster, attacking Ulysses' ship;
C) The Blinding of Polyphemus;
D) Diomedes and Ulysses fighting for the Palladion;
E) The Abduction of Ganymede at the top of the cave.
In the middle of it (a huge rock) there is a large cavern, looking West and turned towards Erebus (a region of the Greek underworld); you must take your ship this way, but the cave is so high up that not even the stoutest archer could send an arrow into it. Inside it Scylla sits and yelps with a voice that you might take to be that of a young hound, but in truth she is a dreadful monster and no one - not even a god - could face her without being terror-struck. She has twelve misshapen feet, and six necks of the most prodigious length; and at the end of each neck she has a frightful head with three rows of teeth in each, all set very close together, so that they would crunch any one to death in a moment, and she sits deep within her shady cell thrusting out her heads and peering all round the rock, fishing for dolphins or dogfish or any larger monster that she can catch, of the thousands with which Amphitrite teems. No ship ever yet got past her without losing some men, for she shoots out all her heads at once, and carries off a man in each mouth.
Homer - The Odyssey - Book XII - Prose translation by Samuel Butler
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Sperlonga: (left) reconstruction of the group which depicted Ulysses' ship attacked by the monster; (right) detail showing one of the dog heads of the monster attacking one of Ulysses' companions
The monster was portrayed according to the description made by Ovid:
There was a little pool, curved in a smooth arc, dear to Scylla (a beautiful nymph who raised the jealousy of Circe) for its peacefulness. When the sun was strongest, at the zenith, and from its heights made shortest shadows, she retreated there from the heat of sky and sea. This, the goddess (Circe) tainted in advance and contaminated with her monstrous poison. She sprinkled the liquid squeezed from harmful roots, and muttered a mysterious incantation, dark with strange words, thrice nine times, in magical utterance. Scylla comes, wading waist deep into the pool, only to find the water around her groin erupt with yelping monsters. At first, not thinking them part of her own body, she retreats from their cruel muzzles, fears them, and pushes them away: but, what she flees from, she pulls along with her, and, seeking her thighs, her legs, her feet, in place of them finds jaws like Cerberus's. She stands among raging dogs, and is encircled by beasts, below the surface, from which her truncated thighs and belly emerge.
Metamorphoses - Book XIV- Prose translation by A. S. Kline
According to tradition Scylla lived on the mainland side of the Strait of Messina.
Museo Civico di Catania al Castello Ursino: relief depicting the blinding of Polyphemus and details showing the weapons used to attack the giant
Once archaeologists knew that the grotto contained a group depicting the blinding of Polyphemus they looked for known representations of the event and the relief shown above was very useful to understand the positioning of the fragments found at Sperlonga.
'Look here, Cyclops,' said I, 'you have been eating a great deal of man's flesh, so take this and drink some wine, that you may see what kind of liquor we had on board my ship. (..) He then took the cup and drank. He was so delighted with the taste of the wine that he begged me for another bowl full. 'Be so kind,' he said, 'as to give me some more. (..) I then gave him some more; three times did I fill the bowl for him, and three times did he drain it without thought or heed. (..) He fell sprawling face upwards on the ground. His great neck hung heavily backwards and a deep sleep took hold upon him. Presently he turned sick, and threw up both wine and the gobbets of human flesh on which he had been gorging, for he was very drunk.
Homer - The Odyssey - Book IX - Prose translation by Samuel Butler
You may wish to see a floor mosaic of Villa del Casale in Sicily portraying Ulysses offering wine to Polyphemus.
Then I thrust the beam of wood far into the embers to heat it, and encouraged my men lest any of them should turn faint-hearted. When the wood, green though it was, was about to blaze, I drew it out of the fire glowing with heat, and my men gathered round me, for a daimôn had filled their hearts with courage. We drove the sharp end of the beam into the monster's eye, and bearing upon it with all my weight I kept turning it round and round as though I were boring a hole in a ship's plank with an auger, which two men with a wheel and strap can keep on turning as long as they choose. Even thus did we bore the red hot beam into his eye, till the boiling blood bubbled all over it as we worked it round and round, so that the steam from the burning eyeball scalded his eyelids and eyebrows, and the roots of the eye sputtered in the fire.
Homer - The Odyssey - Book 9 - Prose translation by Samuel Butler
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Sperlonga: original of one of Ulysses' companions next to the reconstructed group
Initially the group was reconstructed utilizing the original fragments and epoxy resin for the missing parts. Eventually it was decided to show the original fragments and the epoxy resin reconstruction separately.
This new arrangement allows a better analysis of each of the fragments. Their dating is debated as well as their being a copy of a previous bronze group or an original work. They are generally believed to have been made in Rhodes in the Ist century AD and are a fine example of what we call Hellenistic sculpture, which flourished especially in Pergamum and which was highly praised by the Romans. Tiberius spent eight years in Rhodes in a sort of voluntary exile before being designated as his successor by Emperor Augustus. Some art historians suggest he saw the group when he was there and eventually bought it for his villa.
The head of Ulysses brings to mind that of Laocoon, another group portraying a subject related to the War of Troy, which was found in the early XVIth century in Rome and had an influence on the development of Renaissance sculpture. Ulysses wears a pileus, a conical felt cap which was often associated with him and with Castor and Pollux.
According to Roman tradition Aeneas carried the Palladion with him when he fled Troy. This group however is based on an account by Conon, who lived during the Augustan age and who wrote a series of mythological stories. We know excerpts of them because they were quoted by Photius, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in the IXth century.
Diomedes and Oydsseus are sent to steal the Palladion, and Diomedes climbs on the wall, standing on the shoulders of Odysseus. But he doesn't pull up Odysseus although he reaches up his hands; he goes to the Palladion and takes it and turns back toward Odysseus. And as they go down through the plain, when Odysseus questions him Diomedes knows the cunning of the man and answers that he didn't take the Palladion Helenos had said but a different one. Then the Palladion moved, by some daimon, and Odysseus understood it was that one, and a little later draws his sword, wanting to kill Diomedes and bring the Palladion to the Achaians himself. But as he is about to strike (there was a moon), Diomedes saw the glint of the sword. Odysseus was prevented from killing him, since he too drew his sword, and reproaching him for cowardice for not wanting to go in front, Diomedes drove him along striking his back with the flat of his sword.
Photius - Bibliotheca - Translation by René Henry
Ashmolean Museum of Oxford: Felix Gem
This fine sealstone was made by the engraver Felix for a Roman official named Calpurnius Severus, who might have been a member of Tiberius' court. The gem is dated early Ist century AD which coincides with the construction of the Sperlonga villa. It shows the same episode of the Palladion Group: Ulysses with the usual cap is portrayed on the left and Diomedes who holds the Palladion on the right.
The Abduction of Ganymede is not immediately associable to the War of Troy, but in this group Ganymede is not a beautiful naked boy (as in many ancient statues and floor mosaics), but a young man wearing a garment from Phrygia, a region near Troy. As a matter of fact Ganymede was a Trojan prince, most likely the uncle of King Priam. The grey veined marble comes from the same region, with the exception of the head for which white marble was utilized. A cast of the statue can be seen in its original location.
The king of the gods once burned with love for Phrygian Ganymede, and to win him Jupiter chose to be something other than he was. Yet he did not deign to transform himself into any other bird, than that eagle, that could carry his lightning bolts. Straightaway, he beat the air with deceitful wings, and stole the Trojan boy, who still handles the mixing cups, and against Juno's will pours out Jove's nectar.
Ovid - Metamorphoses - Book X - Prose translation by A. S. Kline
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Sperlonga: statues which were not placed in the grotto:(left) Circe and three companions of Ulysses who were turned into pigs; (centre/right) Andromeda (her arms were tied to a rock)
When Circe saw us, and words of welcome had been received, she smiled at us, and seemed to give a blessing to our desires. Without delay she ordered a drink to be blended, of malted barley, honey, strong wine, and curdled milk, to which she secretly added juices, that its sweetness would hide. We took the cup offered by her sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground.
Ovid - Metamorphoses - Book XIV - Prose translation by A. S. Kline
As Perseus rounded the coast of Philistia he caught sight of a naked woman chained to a sea-cliff, and instantly fell in love with her. (..) Poseidon sent a flood and a female sea-monster to devastate Philistia and (..) the Oracle of Ammon told that the only hope of deliverance lay in sacrificing Andromeda, the king's daughter, to the monster. She was therefore chained to a rock, naked except for certain jewels, and left to be devoured. (..) Perseus grasped his sickle and, diving miraculously from above, beheaded the approaching monster. The marks left by Andromeda's chain are still pointed out on a cliff near Jaffa.
From Robert Graves - The Greek Myths - Collins
It has been suggested that the statue of Andromeda was placed outside the cave facing the sea and was accompanied by a statue portraying Perseus on a rock in the sea. Similar to that of Ganymede it is made up of two different marbles.
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