You may wish to see a page on the town first.
(left) Palazzo Negroni Romani, one of the very few historical palaces of Velletri which was not damaged by bombings during WWII, unlike Palazzo Borgia; (right) modern statue of Cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731-1804) a very distant relative of the Spanish Borgia family
Velletri, February 22, 1787. Velletri is agreeably situated on a volcanic hill, which, towards the north alone, is connected with other hills, and towards three points of the heavens commands a wide and uninterrupted prospect.
We here visited the Cabinet of the Cavaliere Borgia, who, favoured by his relationship with the Cardinal has managed, by means of the Society of Propaganda Fide, to collect some valuable antiquities and other curiosities. Egyptian charms, idols cut out of the very hardest rock, some small figures in metal, of earlier or later dates, some pieces of statuary of burnt clay, with figures in low relief, which were dug up in the neighbourhood, and on the authority of which one is almost tempted to ascribe to the ancient indigenous population a style of their own in art. Of other kinds of varieties there are numerous specimens in this museum. I noticed two Chinese black-painted boxes; on the sides of one there was delineated the whole management of the silk- worm, and on the other the cultivation of rice: both subjects were very nicely conceived, and worked out with the utmost minuteness. Both the boxes and their covers are eminently beautiful, and (..) are well worth seeing. (..) July 10, 1787. At Velletri we dined with Cardinal Borgia and looked through his museum, to my particular gratification, noticing, as I did, a great deal I had overlooked the first time.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - translation by Charles Nisbet
The Cathedral contains a chapel of the Borgias, who are still one of the great families of the place.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875
Cardinal Stefano Borgia was born at Velletri and he was a nephew of Alessandro Borgia, Archbishop of Fermo, who took care of his education. His museum was similar to that which Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher gathered at Collegio Romano in the XVIIth century, but some of its exhibits came from the environs of Velletri, rather than from Catholic missions around the world. In 1817 the heirs of Cardinal Borgia sold almost the entire collection to Ferdinand IV, King of the Two Sicilies for the newly founded Museo Borbonico of Naples.
Museo Archeologico di Velletri inside Palazzo Comunale - from the Borgia collection: (above) "Tabula Veliterna"; (below) inscription celebrating Lollius Cyrus, a local magistrate, for having restored the amphitheatre at the time of Emperors Valentinian I and Valens (364-375)
Some members of SocietÓ Letteraria Volsca Veliterna, a local academy for the study of the ancient town (Velitrae) managed to publish a catalogue of the ancient inscriptions in the Borgia museum and to keep some of them at Velletri. Excavations carried out in 1881 in the environs of the town yielded some valuable objects; other findings occurred in the following years and eventually a proper local museum was inaugurated in 1920.
The Tabula Veliterna is a four-line bronze inscription written in Latin alphabet, but in a language which is assumed to be that of the Volsci, an Italic tribe who lived near the Latin one. It is dated IIIrd century BC and its tentative translation suggests that it was a decree meant to protect a sacred wood (see a Roman inscription at Spoleto having the same purpose). The Volsci were defeated by the Romans in 338 BC.
The inscription of Lollius Cyrus testifies to the existence of an amphitheatre at Velletri; it is interesting to notice that its restoration was celebrated, even though the emperors of the time were Christians and many Christians opposed gladiatorial combats and similar shows (including theatrical ones).
Painted terracotta reliefs which decorated a temple - from the Borgia collection
The Tabula Veliterna was found in 1784 during changes made to SS. Stimmate di S. Francesco, a small church outside the city centre; some fragments of painted terracotta reliefs depicting chariots and horsemen were also found on that occasion. Cardinal Borgia regarded them as evidence of a specific artistic culture of the Volsci. He wrote an essay supporting his opinion which was illustrated by eight painted engravings by Marco Carloni, an antiquarian, draughtsman and etcher (see one of his illustrations of the frescoes of Domus Aurea). Today the reliefs are regarded as examples of Etruscan art (see some Etruscan vases), rather than of an original local culture.
There are many indications that the Octavian family was in days of old a distinguished one at Velitrae. (..) A small room like a pantry is shown to this day as the emperor's nursery in his grandfather's country-house near Velitrae.
Svetonius - The Life of Augustus - Loeb Classical Library.
These reliefs were found in the early XXth century in the countryside of Velletri. They are dated late Ist century BC and it has been suggested they might have decorated a rural villa of the Ottavi, the family of Octavian. The temple which Octavian built near his house on the Palatine after he became Emperor Augustus was decorated with painted terracotta reliefs not very different from those found near Velletri.
It is certainly inexplicable that these treasures should be within so short a distance of Rome, and yet should not be more frequently visited, but perhaps the difficulty and inconvenience of getting to these regions, and the attraction of the magic circle of Rome, may serve to excuse the fact. Goethe
Goethe's comment applied to the Borgia Museum, but it is definitely applicable to the modern Museum of Velletri after its collections were enriched by a new extraordinary exhibit: a grand and finely sculptured sarcophagus. It was found in 1955 in a vineyard some miles outside the town along the route of an ancient road which linked Velitrae to Praeneste (Palestrina). Most likely it had been abandoned by grave robbers. It contained some skeletons which were dated ca XIIIth century which indicates it had been reused. The original location of the sarcophagus is still unknown, but because of its size and weight it cannot have travelled very far. Perhaps one of the small hills around Velletri still hides a round mausoleum, similar to those which have been identified along Via Appia Antica. Overall the sarcophagus depicts a building which is populated by gods, human beings, animals, monsters, etc. Its design and execution required the talent of both an architect and a sculptor. A child of the XIXth century would have thought the sarcophagus resembled a doll's house.
(Jupiter said) He who conquered all else is not to be conquered by those flames which you see blazing on Mount Oeta. Only his mother's share in him can perish; what he derived from me is immortal. I shall take him, dead to earth, to the heavenly shores, and I require of you all to receive him kindly.
Thomas Bulfinch - The Age of Fable or Stories of Gods and Heroes - 1855
The thunderbolts had consumed Heracles's mortal part. He no longer bore any resemblance to Alcmene but, like a snake that has cast its slough, appeared in all the majesty of his divine father. A cloud received him from his companions' sight as, amid peals of thunder, Zeus bore him up to heaven in his four-horse chariot; where Athene took him by the hand and solemnly introduced him to her fellow deities.
Robert Graves - The Greek Myths - 1955
The sarcophagus is named also after the Labours of Hercules which are depicted on the two short sides and on the rear one. The myth of Hercules hinted at some form of life after death and the depiction of the Twelve Labours was a popular subject for sarcophagi, especially in the IInd century AD (see a sarcophagus from Collezione Torlonia). His apotheosis can be seen in a relief of Igeler Saule, a IIIrd century AD Roman funerary monument in the Mosel Valley.
Short left side: the two first labours and between them the dead making an offer before entering Hades; above this scene a serpent-legged triton or Typhon (you may wish to see the triton which Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed for one of his fountains)
This short side could also be regarded as the front one because of its depiction of the two first labours of Hercules: the slaying of the Nemean Lion and the killing of Hydra. The two events took place in Argolis but Hercules had to travel outside Greece to complete his labours.
The sarcophagus bears the name of Velletri or of Hercules simply because the name of the person for whom it was made is still unknown. Assuming it was housed in a large mausoleum, the name of the dead was most likely placed on the outside of the building, e.g. in the mausoleums of Lucius Petus and L. Munatius Plancus. In some other large sarcophagi depicting the same subject, e.g. one found near Teatro di Marcello, a couple was portrayed on the lid while attending their funerary banquet. In other large sarcophagi without inscriptions the dead was perhaps portrayed at the centre of a battle scene (e.g. Sarcofago Grande Ludovisi).
In the sarcophagus of Velletri the only possible portrait of the dead is a highly classical image of a young man entering Hades. He most likely belonged to the senatorial class and he must have been in good terms with the ruling emperor, because the making of such an imposing sarcophagus would not have gone undetected. The name of the emperor which comes to mind is that of Antoninus Pius who, as reported in Historia Augusta: He himself was often present at the banquets of his intimates, and among other things it is a particular evidence of his graciousness that when, on a visit at the house of Homullus, he admired certain porphyry columns and asked where they came from, Homullus replied "When you come to another's house, be deaf and dumb," and he took it in good part. In fact, the jibes of this same Homullus, which were many, he always took in good part.
Art historians have closely compared the sarcophagus with other works of art which we know when they were made and they date it ca 150 AD, i.e. when Antoninus Pius was emperor.
Detail of the front side: (in the middle band) Jupiter, Hades/Pluto and Persephone/Proserpina on their trones and Neptune; (above them) Sun, Caelus (Sky) and Moon; (in the lower band) Diana and Minerva watch the Rape of Persephone/Proserpina and Tellus (Earth) shapes the vault of a cave with her mantle
Emperor Hadrian was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries; he and his successors Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus all protected the shrine of Eleusi and contributed to its embellishment. A large bust of Antoninus Pius and pedestals of statues of the emperors' wives can still be seen there. The Hellenizing tastes of the emperors of the IInd century AD can explain why the front of the sarcophagus is most likely an imaginary palace of Hades (the God) and the inside of the sarcophagus is Hades itself (the Underworld).
Then, while all the others hesitated - even Achilles, whom Thetis had
warned that the first to land would be the first to die - Protesilaus
leaped ashore, killed a number of Trojans, and was struck dead by
Hector; (..) Protesilaus's wife Laodameia, missed him so sadly that as soon as
he sailed for Troy she made a brazen, or wax, statue of him and laid it in
her bed. But this was poor comfort, and when news came of his death,
she begged the gods to take pity and let him revisit her, if only for
three hours. Almighty Zeus granted Laodameia's request, and Hermes
brought up Protesilaus's ghost from Tartarus to animate the statue.
Speaking with its mouth, Protesilaus then adjured her not to delay in
following him, and the three hours had no sooner ended than she
stabbed herself to death in his embrace. Graves
Alcestis, the most beautiful of Pelias's daughters, was asked in marriage by many kings and princes. (..) Pelias let it be known that he would marry Alcestis to the man who could yoke a wild boar and a lion to his chariot and drive them around the race-course. At this, Admetus King of Pherae summoned Apollo, whom Zeus had bound to him for one year as a herdsman, and asked: "Have I treated you with the respect due to your godhead?" "You have indeed," Apollo assented, "and I have shown my gratitude by making all your ewes drop twins." "As a final favour, then," pleaded Admetus, "pray help me to win Alcestis, by enabling me to fulfil Pelias's conditions." "I shall be pleased to do so," replied Apollo. Heracles lent him a hand with the taming of the wild beasts. (..) It is not known why Admetus omitted the customary sacrifice to Artemis before marrying Alcestis, but the goddess was quick enough to punish him. When, flushed with wine, anointed with essences and garlanded with flowers, he entered the bridal chamber that night, he receded in horror. No lovely naked bride awaited him on the marriage couch, but a tangled knot of hissing serpents. Admetus shouted for Apollo, who kindly intervened with Artemis on his behalf. The neglected sacrifice having been offered at once, all was well, Apollo even obtaining Artemis's promise that, when the day of Admetus's death came, he should be spared on condition that a member of his family died voluntarily for love of him. This fatal day came sooner than Admetus expected. Hermes flew into the palace one morning and summoned him to Tartarus. (..) Admetus ran in haste to his old parents, clasped their knees, and begged each of them in turn to surrender him the butt-end of existence. Both roundly refused, saying that they still derived much enjoyment from life. (..) Then, for love of Admetus, Alcestis took poison and her ghost descended to Tartarus. (..) Some tell the tale differently. They say that Hades came in person to fetch Admetus and that, when he fled, Alcestis volunteered to take his place; but Heracles arrived unexpectedly with a new wild-olive club, and rescued her. Graves
The depiction of these two tales indicates that our beloved ones are not lost forever in the obscurity of Hades, because the gods may permit them to return to Earth. The two tales were depicted also in sarcophagi which were found along Via Latina (Protesilaus and Laodamia) and at Ostia (Alcestis and Admetus).
Short right side: tenth labour (the cattle of Geryon), twelfth labour (the capture of Cerberus - see the same scene in another sarcophagus) and eleventh labour (the apples of the Hesperides)
Heracles's last, and most difficult, Labour was to bring the dog
Cerberus up from Tartarus. (..) Terrified by Heracles's scowl,
Charon ferried him across the river Styx without demur; in punishment of which irregularity he was fettered by Hades for one entire year. (..) When Heracles demanded Cerberus, Hades, standing by his wife's
side, replied grimly: "He is yours, if you can master him without using
your club or your arrows." Heracles found the dog chained to the gates
of Acheron, and resolutely gripped him by the throat - from which
rose three heads, each maned with serpents. The barbed tail flew up to
strike, but Heracles, protected by the lion pelt, did not relax his grip
until Cerberus choked and yielded. (..) With Athene's assistance, Heracles recrossed the river Styx in
safety, and then half-dragged, half-carried Cerberus from the Underworld. Graves
In this sarcophagus the gate of Hades opens for a third time to let Hercules and Cerberus out, thus confirming that it is possible to leave the Underworld.
The scenes of the labours of Hercules are all framed by architectural elements; in the image above one can note two spirally-fluted columns. This type of very elaborated columns was in fashion in the IInd century AD; fluted columns were used to decorate the very long main street of Apamea in Syria after the town was destroyed by an earthquake in 115 AD. The labours of Hercules inside niches supported by spirally-fluted columns were depicted in some other very fine sarcophagi, e.g. one in the Borghese Collection and one at Antalya (with horizontal entablatures rather than niches).
Lower band of the rear side: (above) the Hesperides pick apples from their tree, an Atlas and Sisyphus
carrying his rock; (below) a column-like mast stands at
the middle of Charon's ferry between two Atlases
The reference to Hades included the depiction of some famous sinners who were punished there:
Sisyphus was given an exemplary punishment. The Judges of the Dead showed him a huge block of stone (..) and ordered him to roll it up the brow of a hill and topple it down the farther slope. He has never yet succeeded in doing so. As soon as he has almost reached the summit, he is forced back by the weight of the shameless stone, which bounces to the very bottom once more; where he wearily retrieves it and must begin all over again, though sweat bathes his limbs, and a cloud of dust rises his head. Graves
The complex architecture of the four sides of the sarcophagus makes use of columns only in a few cases because the majority of the supporting structures are human or animal figures. Caryatids gently hold up two adjoining lintels (one with the head and the other with a raised hand), Atlases in the lower band are in charge of supporting the whole upper structure (see an Atlas at the Theatre of Dionysus at Athens). Bull heads replace the Atlases at the four corners of the sarcophagus. Other animals, real or mythologic ones, populate the architectural elements: lions attacking other beasts, tritons, sphinxes, gorgons, etc. in a sort of catalogue of decorative sculpture.
The lid (resembling the roof of a temple) and a detail of its decoration
On the lid, cupids carry garlands, a subject which was very often depicted as a relief on the box of Roman sarcophagi (see one at the Necropolis of Porto), but not on their lid. The pedestal of the sarcophagus was elaborately decorated too (see the image used as background for this page). You may wish to see a page on Roman funerary rites and see some other very important sarcophagi or go through a directory of sarcophagi from Rome and its environs.
The Sarcophagus of Velletri was made to order, but many small sarcophagi were made by workshops in Rome or Greece without knowing their final user. For this reason the faces of the dead were only roughly sketched. In some instances the heirs did not care to pay a sculptor for a finishing touch (see another example at Musei Capitolini). The holding of an upside-down torch was a symbol of death which from the traditional Pagan culture spread to the followers of Mithra and to the early Christians: this symbol can be seen also in many funerary monuments of the Modern Age.
(left) Funerary altar (late Ist century AD); (right) side with a relief portraying Jupiter
This small funerary altar was erected by Marcia Helpis to Marcus Anicetus, her husband. It depicts a couple attending their funerary banquet which is served by a young slave. This scene can be observed in other parts of the Roman Empire, e.g. in Lebanon at Beirut and Tripoli and in Germany. The decoration of the altar is completed by reliefs showing Jupiter, Juno and Mercury/Hermes, the latter had the task of escorting the souls of the dead to Hades (see a famous depiction of the god performing his role in the Euphronios Crater).
The relief shows at the centre a man in prayer in the typical posture of the Early Christians (see a painting in the catacombs) and at the two ends a Good Sheperd and a sheperd attending his flock. These shepherds can be seen also in late Pagan sarcophagi, e.g. at Porto. The iconography of the Good Shepherd in particular could derive from that of Hermes/Mercury Kriophoros (ram-bearer). The relief shows at a smaller scale and in a rather chaotic manner a number of episodes from the Two Testaments (you may wish to see the Two Testaments Sarcophagus with similar scenes).
In 1992 the already partially demolished church where the Tabula Veliterna and the painted terracotta reliefs were found in 1784 was acquired by the City of Velletri. In 2016 at the end of archaeological excavations the structure of a VIth century BC temple was unearthed beneath the church, which had been built by making use of some ancient columns.
Visit the monuments of Velletri.