The Lansdowne Relief
What is it? What does it depict?
Several interesting features make the Relief an important acquisition for the Museum. Most apparent is that it is made from an unusual dark grey limestone which provides a striking contrast to the lighter sculptures that surround it in the Museum. The Relief is dated to approximately AD 100-150 and was excavated from the site of the Emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, about 30km east of Rome. Hadrian was a significant patron of the arts and Tivoli is not only one of the largest, best known and best preserved sites to have survived from Roman Italy, but is seen as a key site for our understanding of the art and culture of the early imperial period.
The Relief is beautifully decorated with scenes from Greek mythology, all of which are connected to the sea. From left to right (from the viewer’s perspective) we see Odysseus and the sirens; the wine god Dionysos conveying the gift of wine, in the form of a spreading grape vine, across the sea to Greece; and the Argonauts with the man-eating Stymphalian birds. Smaller friezes show scenes of hunting in the marshes, real and fantastic sea creatures, and figures emerging from garlands, flowers and leaves. Possible traces of red pigment suggest the sculpture may originally have been enhanced with colour adding to the exotic effect, while small white or coloured marble statuettes may have stood in the now empty niches.