Sunday, April 12, 2020

A treasure from Vesuvius: Cleopatra Selene rises from the ashes of the Villa della Pisanella

The Villa della Pisanella was excavated by landowners beginning in 1876.  In 1894 excavations brought to light a villa rustica covering 1000 sqm with clearly defined residential sector and farm buildings with baths, warehouses for the manufacture and storage of wine and oil. Everything was still in place and arrangement of the objects were exactly as they would normally have been: furnishings, bronze bathtubs decorated with masks in the shape of lion heads seemed to be ready for use. In a large chest there were fifty keys and silver tableware; in the kitchen the skeleton of a dog on a chain; in the stable the bones of several tethered horses, one of which had managed to wriggle out and escape. In the pressing-room (torcularium) the first three human skeletons came to light, including that of a woman, probably the mistress of the house, who wore splendid gold earrings with topaz jewels.  In 1895 on the floor of the wine cellar a dead man was found in the midst of the so-called Boscoreale Treasure consisting of 102 of wonderful exquisite items: silver tableware, bracelets, earrings, rings, a double gold chain. The last owner of the silver was probably a woman named Maxima, a name written on many of the vessels. A thousand gold coins were still in the remains of a leather bag. The treasure had been found in the torcularium which at the time of the eruption was probably one of the safest rooms in the villa and probably the owner gave the order to a trusted man to hide it for better times.
"Conspicuously mounted on the cornucopia is a gilded crescent moon set on a pine cone. Around it are piled pomegranates and bunches of grapes. Engraved on the horn are images of Helios (the sun), in the form of a youth dressed in a short cloak, with the hairstyle of Alexander the Great, the head surrounded by rays ... The symbols on the cornucopia can indeed be read as references to the Ptolemaic royal house and specifically to Cleopatra Selene, represented in the crescent moon, and to her twin brother, Alexander Helios, whose eventual fate after the conquest of Egypt is unknown. The viper seems to be linked with the pantheress and the intervening symbols of fecunditity rather than the suicide of Cleopatra VII. The elephant scalp could refer to Cleopatra Selene's status as ruler , with Juba II, of Mauretania.The visual correspondence with the veiled head from Cherchel encourages this identification, and many of the symbols used on the dish also appear on the coinage of Juba II. " - Walker, Susan; Higgs, Peter (2001). Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691088358 , pp 312-313;

Image: Cleopatra Selene on a silver cup with gilded crescent moon from the Villa de la Pisanella in Boscoreale now in The Louvre, Paris, France, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.
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