Etruscan Bronze Protome of a Pegasus
Period: first half of the 6th century B.C.
Dimensions: H: 14 cm
American private Collection, 1980-1990.
The superbly modeled horse is intact and in an excellent state of preservation. The surface of the bronze, deep brown in color, is partially covered in an attractive green patina. The piece is impressive both for its weight and for its dimensions, as well as solidity: the neck, the head and the feet of the horse are solid bronze while the rest of the angular forequarters are hollow, yet the walls are quite thick and solid. The shape of this part, with its flat base along with some circular holes pierced through the sides, clearly identify this protome as having been mounted on a support of some perishable material (probably wood, to which it was fixed by nails or rivets), which has sadly left no trace. This piece was probably a finial that adorned the end of a horizontal beam, like, for example, the armrest or another part of a chair or throne; its larger than average size makes its use as an applique for ornamenting the end of a bronze rod less likely.
Stylistically, the bronze smith translated the anatomical elements that characterize the forequarters of a horse in a very simple, clear, almost naive, fashion. The rectangle of the body, the rounded neck and truncated cone of the muzzle; the legs rendered as thin stalks bent at the knees with a bulge to indicate the hooves; whilst the wings, their tips curled into volutes, were deliberately pushed together so that they touch just behind the mane!
The shapes and lines are indicated only on the surface of the piece through the use of incisions. The edges and hollows are created with little modeling and sculptural nuance. The extensise anatomical details are precise: points for the nostrils, a line for the mouth, almond-shaped eyes, slightly hollowed cheeks, rounded ears, bi-level mane with incisions marking the hairs. The form and movement of the wings reprise the same types that artists used to represent large birds, such as eagles and swans. Their vertical separation and incised lines even differentiate the various types of feathers according to their anatomical placement.
Comparable ancient objects, especially those of an equally important size, are very few in number and appear in Greece, and, more frequently, in central Italy (the Etruscan world). One thinks in particular a protome of a winged horse found in Athens as well as the heads of horses that ornament the tripods or handles of vessels from the Hellenistic world. Some Etruscan examples, which are typologically the closest, represent seated lions (the Bernardini Tomb of Palestrina in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome), horses’ heads (a wooden throne covered in bronze from the Barberini Tomb displayed in the Vatican Museum and appliques from the British Museum in London) and heads of griffins (London, British Museum).
In Greek mythology, the winged horse par excellence was Pegasus (in ancient Greek ???????, Pegasus in Latin), one of the two children of Medusa, the only mortal of the three Gorgons, and Poseidon, the god of the sea; Chrysaor was his brother. Friend of the Muses and the creator of springs, Pegasus played an important role in the myth of Bellerophon, the hero who killed the Chimera (a monster with the body of a lion and goat and a tail in the shape of a serpent). After the hero’s death, the winged horse went up to Olympus, becoming the steed of Zeus, who charged him with transporting his lightning and thunder. To thank Pegasus for his services, the king of gods transformed him into a constellation and placed him in the sky!
In western contexts (Italy and Etruria in particular), winged horses were most often connected with the funerary sphere. For example, the famous Micali Painter (black figure), active at Vulci towards the end of the 6th century, used “Pegasoi” on his amphorae and hydriai that were meant to accompany the deceased in the tomb: their wings suggest that these fantastic animals had a function as creatures of passage, allowing the deceased to undertake their final journey from the world of the living to the afterlife.
On the Greek appliques:
LAMB W., Greek and Roman Bronzes, London, 1929, pl. 38a.
STIBBE K., The Son of Hephaistos, Aspects of the Archaic Greek Bronze Industry, Rome, 2002, pp. 127-136.
On the Etruscan examples:
HAYNES S., Etruscan Bronzes, London, 1985, n.13, p. 249; n. 25-27, p. 254-255 (protomes of griffi ns and horses).
LLEWELLYN BROWN W., The Etruscan Lion, Oxford, 1960, pl. X, a 1-2, p. 21 (finial of the rod from Palestrina, perhaps imported from the Caucasus).
CANCIANI F. – VON HASE F.W., La tomba Bernardini di Palestrina, Rome, 1979, p. 56, n. 67; p. 57, n. 69.