The Lansdowne Relief

The Lansdowne Relief is a dark grey limestone architectural frieze that once decorated the wall of an interior room at the Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli, near Rome. The Relief’s sculptural decoration shows three ‘marine’ myths: Odysseus sailing past the island of the Sirens, the wine -god Dionysos bringing the gift of wine, in the form of a grape-vine, across the sea to Greece; and the Argonauts in their ship encountering the man-slaughtering Stymphalian Birds.

The scenes are carved in rectangular panels separated by small niches in which may once have stood free-standing statuettes. In a small frieze above, Erotes or pygmies are hunting animals in a marshy landscape, while the lower edge of the Relief is bordered by a procession of sea-horses and other fantastic creatures. Eros-like figures emerge from flower calyces in the vertical panels bordering the ends of the Relief.

The Relief was discovered in 1769 in an area of Hadrian’s villa known as the Pantanello (Little Bog) by Gavin Hamilton, who sold it to the first Marquis of Lansdowne for the collection of sculpture and antiquities he was forming in Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square, London. Here the Relief was eventually to occupy a central position in the sculpture gallery, forming the mantel-shelf of an elegant chimneypiece.

The Relief both extends and complements the Fitzwilliam's existing collection of Roman sculpture, which includes three other items from Tivoli: two pilaster capitals and a bust of Hadrian's lover, Antinous, also once in the Lansdowne collection. In the future there will be more research into the technology and original location of the Relief; a wide-ranging programme of outreach and educational events is also being planned.

Acquisition date: 2012

Object Number: GR.1.2012

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