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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Girl playing astragaloi (knucklebones), from Caelian Hill in Rome, 150 CE, at the Altes Museum in Berlin

This Hellenistic sculpture is one of six Roman copies with a similar theme.  All versions depict a female sitting  on the floor with her legs drawn up, supporting herself with her left hand and just throwing two knuckles ( astragales ) with her right hand.   The subject is dressed in a thin chiton , which has slipped from the left shoulder to the elbow and exposes the left breast. This nudity is thought to have been incorporated by the sculptor to elevate the subject to an ideal, divine level.

A version of the sculpture in The Louvre depicts the subject as an adult.  But 17th century restorers substituted a shell for the astragaloi and dubbed the sculpture "Venus with the Shell."  This piece was originally in the collections of the Duke Camillo Borghese and held in the Villa Borghese but when the Duke married Pauline Bonaparte, his new brother-in-law, Napoleon, forced the Duke to sell the work to him. 

The more elegant and endearing sculpture of the young girl playing knuckebones, now in the Altes Museum, was found on the Caelian Hill in 1730. It passed from Cardinal Melchior de Polignac to Friedrich II then to the museum in Berlin.  This Antonine-era sculpture  appears to realistically depict a young girl with a distinctive face, suggesting it may have been created as a funerary statue of a deceased child. Another feature that supports this interpretation is the gaze of the child who is not looking at the game but with her gentle facial expression portrays a melancholic absence. The melon hairstyle she wears was particularly popular at the time the statue was created.

Other sculptures with this theme can be seen in the British Museum, the University of Göttingen (a cast), and the Albertinum in Dresden.


Image: Girl playing astragaloi (knucklebones), from Caelian Hill in Rome, 150 CE, at the Altes Museum in Berlin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.

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