Roundel representing Scylla
Period: 1st century B.C. - 1st century A.D.
Material: Gilded silver
Dimensions: Diam: 16.9 cm
Ex- Maître Jean Clostre collection, Geneva; Ex-private collection, London, acquired before 1962.
Complete and in excellent condition. Rivets, probably ancient, still in place on the border. Visible cracks and chips.
This roundel, or tondo, was hammered from a silver plaque and then decorated in repoussé from the inside to represent the figural scene. For the two-colored effect, some gilding was applied to the background (sky and sea), to the body of the sea monster and to Scylla’s skirt of acanthus leaves.
Circular in shape but perfectly flat, the tondo is bordered by a ring that was made separately and is adorned by two incised lines. The object is outstanding both for its weight and for its diameter (well above the average size), making this example one of the largest specimens attested.
The scene, which appears in high relief, represents a very ancient myth documented in Homer’s Odyssey (Odyssey, XII, 73ff .). The sea monster, with the head and torso of a pretty young woman and the lower body formed by two serpentine fishtails, with three dogs springing from her hips, is Scylla, the nymph turned into a hideous and terrifying monster by Circe (or by Amphitrite, according to the versions reported by mythologists). After her metamorphosis, the young woman lived in a cave on the Italian coast of the Strait of Messina. From there, she terrorized sailors, capturing them on their ships and devouring them alive. For Homer, Scylla was one of the many adversities which Odysseus, King of Ithaca, had to deal with on his way home, after the Trojan War; during this episode, the hero saw several of his companions perish in a terrifying manner, without being able to save them. In our example, Scylla is represented upright, grasping the rudder of a ship in her hands. Her serpentine volutes enclose two sailors, whose bodies are dislocated, while three dogs’ heads appear between the large leaves forming her skirt. The sky is rendered by regular dots, while the waves of the sea form a lively surface in low relief.
This scene, already attested in Attic red-figure pottery, was very popular in the western Greek colonies in the 4th century B.C. and in the Hellenistic period. Its meaning was often related to the funeral sphere, since Scylla appears either as an ornament for askoi or as a painted subject exclusively intended for tombs. The most famous representation of the Scylla myth came later than these images of minor art: it is the colossal group known through the copies of the Sperlonga grotto (in modern-day Campania, north of Naples), dated to the early 1st century A.D. (Tiberian period), but whose original representation probably dates back to the 2nd century B.C.
Structurally, these compositions were perfectly adapted to circular supports, since they were most often used to decorate mirror lids, or as disk-shaped elements, intended to be placed at the center of a phiale or on smaller knobs, interpreted as phalerae for a horse bit. Given its imposing size, one can imagine that our example had a decorative purpose for a piece of furniture, or a shield, etc.
The comparison with an imago clipeata (portrait surrounded by a circular frame) of the Toledo Museum of Art (Inv. 1007, 11), which represents Augustus, the first Roman emperor, enables us to date our tondo to the early Imperial period.
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), Vol. VII, Zurich Munich, 1994, s.v. Skylla, p. 1142, nos. 52ff.
MERTENS J.R. et al., Metropolitan Museum of Art: Greece and Rome, New York, 1987, pp. 80-81, no. 60.
REEDER E.D. (ed.), L’or des rois scythes, Paris, 2001, pp. 288ff., nos. 141-144 (phalerae for a horse bit).
For the imago clipeata of Toledo, see:
http://classes.toledomuseum.org:8080/emuseum/view/objects/ asitem/178/2/invnodesc;jsessionid=97B772BB8C156DE8B6B7782CFCD-3BC7B?t:state:fl ow=de1b28d4-88b8-438d-8a46-4f4a8b7c49c0