Statues of the Collezione Farnese

A quick look at a number of ancient, marble statues belonging to a collection once owned by Elisabetta Farnese.

Arianna Sacco

The National Archaeological Museum in Naples contains one of the world’s finest collections of ancient statuary. In this article, I want to take a closer look at a number of them that are part of the so-called Collezione Farnese.

This collection of statues actually includes pieces from mostly in or around Rome and was collected starting by Alessandro Farnese (who later became Pope and adopted the name of Paolo III). Eventually this collection ended up in the hands of Elisabetta Farnese, and then passed to her son Carl de Bourbon, who was King of Naples from 1735 to 1759 and King of Spain (as Carl III) from 1759 to 1788. The collection was moved to the museum by both him and his son Ferdinand I de Bourbon.

The Tyrannicides. Photo: Arianna Sacco.

Let’s start with the group of the Tyrannicides. These two statues represent Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who in 514 BC killed Hipparchus, son of the tyrant Peisistratos, paving the way to the first democratic government in Athens. This group is actually a Roman copy of a version of the group that stood in the Athenian Agora (the first had been stolen by the Persians in 480 BC and so replaced by a new one, which survives only in Roman copies).

The Venus Callipyge. Photo: Arianna Sacco.

The second one is actually my favourite, because in my opinion it expresses in the best way the concept of femininity, vanity, and seduction. It’s the Venus Callipyge, which means “Venus of the beautiful buttocks”, so called because she turns around to watch satisfied how good her rear parts look. The statue, in marble, is actually a copy of the first century BC of an original in bronze dated to the beginning of the Hellenistic era, and the head is not original, but a reconstruction done in the modern era (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries).

The Hercules Farnese. Photo: Arianna Sacco.

Another famous statue, again in marble, is the so-called Farnese Hercules. It shows a fatigued Hercules leaning on his club, which is covered by the skin of the Nemean lion; he also holds the apples of the Hesperides behind his back. This statue is actually a larger copy of the third century AD, discovered in different parts and gradually reassembled, from a lost original in bronze by Lysippos (or by somebody belonging to his circle) of the fourth century BC.

The last statue is the Farnese bull. It shows the punishment of Dirce, first wife of the King of Thebes Lykos, by the sons of Antiope, Amphion and Zethus. This marble statue is actually the biggest sculpture from Antiquity ever found, and is dated to the second century BC (based on comments from Pliny the Elder), but some have recently suggested that it belongs to the third century AD.

The Farnese Bull. Photo: Arianna Sacco.

Now, a few words on the myth represented in this statue of the Farnese Bull. Antiope, niece of Lycus and daughter of the Boeotian river god Asopus (or, according to other sources, of the king Nycteus of Thebes or of Lycurgus), got impregnated by Zeus, who had assumed the shape of a satyr. Ashamed, she sought refuge at King Epopeus of Sicyon and eventually married him, but was forcefully brought back to Thebes by Lycus.

On her way back she delivered the twins Amphion and Zethus, but was forced to leave them to die of expose on Mount Cithaeron. Afterwards, Antiope had to go through a very cruel treatment by Dirce, until the moment she decided to go back to where she had given birth to her sons and found them there. The children, who had been rescued and brought up by shepherds, didn’t believe that she was their mother until the shepherds corroborated her story. Dirce had reached them, too, and ordered the execution of Antiope. But the twins came to their mother’s rescue punished Dirce by tying her to the horns of a wild bull.

While some departments of the museum are closed from time to time, the rooms with the statues are nearly always open. If you happen to be in Naples, you owe it to yourself to pay the museum a visit and look at some of these statues yourself.