Hellenistic Greek Marble Relief with the daughters of Zeus and Two Cupids
Greek · Hellenistic, 3rd – 2nd century B.C.
L: 133 cm
H: 63 cm
In the 18th century this relief depicting the Moirai was in the collection of the Nani Museum in Venice, which owned many pieces found in Greece. This piece was acquired by Jacopo Nani on the Greek island of Corfu, he sent a drawing of the relief in a letter to his brother, Bernardo, on March 28th 1761 (Padua, Biblioteca del Museo Civico).
This exceptionally well-preserved relief exhibits many details that point to Greek workmanship of the Hellenistic period such as the proportions of the figures, hairstyles, garments and the design of folds rendered with great precision. The most characteristic feature is the modeling of relief and spatial arrangement: the background around the female figures differs in depths which allows to distinguish clearly their parts and attributes, the spatial planes create the illusion of three-dimensionality.
At the left a chubby erote (Latin cupid) is directed by a paidotribe (trainer) of a similar young age. The trainer is draped in a himation (mantle) and holds a staff that identifies his function as supervisor of the erotes’ pugilistic encounter. At the right three young women, the Moirai, are depicted at slightly smaller scale than the erote and trainer. They are grouped around a central globe mounted on a low horizontal stand. The figure at the far right reads an unfolded scroll; the figure on the left is seated upon a stool, a diphros, while looking at a celestial globe and touching it with a slender pointer; the central figure with upraised arms is in the process of spinning a thread or cord. She wears a chiton (tunic) that is buttoned along the sleeve, and then belted and pulled up to form a graceful kolpos, an overfold of cloth draped from her waist. The woman in the center is dressed in a belted chiton with a kolpos, over which is worn a heavier himation that falls down around their waists and drapes down to their feet. Her companion on the right is clad in sleeved chiton and himation. The long hair of all the female figures is drawn up into a krobylos (gathering of hair into a bun shape) at the back of the head and secured by a thin fillet or cord extending around the head.
In Greek and Roman myth and religious belief the Moirai (Latin Parcae) were three goddesses who determined the destiny of humankind, particularly the length of a person’s life and their allotment of misery or suffering. Homer refers to Fate (moira) in the singular as an impersonal power and sometimes makes its functions interchangeable with the gods of Olympia. From the 8th century B.C. and the time of the poet Hesiod, the Moirai were known as the daughters of Zeus and Themis and personified as three old women spinning the threads of human destiny. They were named Clotho (Spinner), Lachesis (Allotter), and Atropos (Inflexible). Clotho spun the thread of human fate, Lachesis dispensed it, and Atropos cut the thread, thus determining the length of a person’s life and the moment of their death. On this relief the Moira named Clotho is identified by the spindle she holds up in her left hand; Lachesis holds a short staff in her right hand and points to the horoscope on a globe; Atropos holds open a scroll. The Romans identified the Parcae, originally personifications of childbirth, with the Greek Moirai. The Roman goddesses were named Nona, Decuma, and Morta. As the controllers of the life of every mortal and immortal from birth to death, the gods feared the Parcae and even Jupiter was subject to their power.
In his publication of this marble relief, Otto Brendel identifies it as likely coming from an architectural structure, rather than from the side of a sarcophagus, which adds to the relief’s interest and importance. Taking into account that the missing left side of this relief would have mirrored the arrangement of the scene depicted on the relief as preserved (e.g. the boxing erote likely engaged a similar erote opponent, now missing at the left), Brendel concludes that the whole relief must originally have been a continuous frieze, and is not from a sarcophagus, but may rather belong to a small sepulchral building, the complete extent of which can no longer be determined. In any case a funerary meaning is assumed for the figural arrangements, both for the boxing erote and for the group of the Moirai. Scenes of erotes in the palaestra (athletic grounds) become common on late Roman sarcophagi.
No restorations to the figures other than broken parts of the slab (one with the arm and shoulder of the erote; another at the lower right side), missing are some parts of the upper and lower border; surface is worn with few cracks, scratches and chips; two on the left female figure are filled with plaster.
Nani Museum, Venice, 1761 (created by two brothers, Bernardo (1712-1761) and Jacopo Nani (1725- 1797), the collection was dispersed in the 19th century and went to both private collections and museums, such as, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Museo Nazionale and the Capitoline Museums in Rome, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and several others);
Gioacchino Ferroni collection, prior to 1909;
Jandolo et Tavazzi – Galerie Sangiorgi, Rome, April 14th – 22nd 1909;
Vicomte Maurice du Dresnay collection, Château du Dreneuc, Frégeac, France, acquired in Rome in 1912;
Jacques & Janine Nabon collection, acquired on the French art market, 1970;
European private collection, Switzerland, 2015
Jandolo et Tavazzi – Galerie Sangiorgi, Catalogue de la Vente Aprás Décès Gioacchino Ferroni, Rome, 1909, p. 33, no. 277, pl. 52.
PERDIZET P., Antiquités Grecques de la collection du Vicomte du Dresnay, Château du Dreneuc á Fregeac, Loire-Inférieure, 1918, no. 19 (illustrated).
BRENDEL O., Symbolik der Kugel, in Römische Mitteilungen 57, 1936, pp. 76-80, pl. 10.
GUERRINI L., Il rilievo Chigi al Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Siena, in Archeologia Classica 41, 1989, p. 11 note 23.
FAVARETTO I., Raccolte di antichità a Venezia al tramonto della Serenissima: la collezione dei Nani di San Trovaso, in Xenia 21, 1991, p. 85, fig. 6.
FAVARETTO I., De Venise en France: Le commerce d’antiquités entre le XVIIe et leXIXe siècle, in LAURENS A.-F., POMIAN K., eds., L’Anticomanie: La collection d’antiquitès aux 18e et 19e siècles, Paris, 1992, pp. 79-80, fig. 3.
AMEDICK R., Die Sarkophage mit Darstellungen aus dem Menschenleben I, 4, Vita privata, Berlin, 1991, pp. 86, 91-92, 142, no. 122, pl. 77, 1.
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 6, Zürich, München, 1992, s.v. Moirai, pp. 642-643, no. 32.
Phoenix Ancient Art Catalogue 2016-32, Geneva-New York, 2016, no. 1
Spring Masters New York, Park Avenue Armory, New York, 6 – 9 May 2016, A4
Marble Mania, New York Gallery Exhibition, Summer 2017
On the Nani collection, see:
CAVALIER O., La collection Nani d’antiquités, in LAURENS A.-F., POMIAN K., eds., L’Anticomanie: La collection d’antiquitès aux 18e et 19e siècles, Paris, 1992, pp. 83-95.
FAVARETTO I., Arte antica e cultura antiquaria nelle collezioni venete al tempo della Serenissima, Roma, 1990, pp. 206-220.
FAVARETTO I., Raccolte di antichità a Venezia al tramonto della Serenissima: la collezione dei Nani di San Trovaso, in Xenia 21, 1991, pp. 77