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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Memento Mori in the Boscoreale Treasure

One of the subjects touched on in the Great Courses lecture series, "The Black Death," was the rise of what was termed Memento Mori in art during and after the great mortality with paintings filled with skeletons.  But the somber reminder to remember we are mortal has been practiced throughout classical antiquity.  The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus born around 460 BCE, is said to have practiced the frequenting of tombs to remind himself of mankind's mortality.  The later Stoics, including Seneca, discussed the topic of death frequently.  The Stoic Epictetus admonished his students that when kissing their child, brother, or friend, they should remind themselves that they are mortal, curbing their pleasure, as do "those who stand behind men in their triumphs and remind them that they are mortal."

Ironically, such artwork was found in a villa in Boscoreale after it was destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 CE.  This skyphos or silver drinking cup is part of the celebrated Bosocoreale treasure, a large collection of exquisite silver and gold Roman objects discovered in the ruins of the ancient Villa della Pisanella at Boscoreale, near Pompeii.  This villa rustica covered 1000 square metres with a clearly defined residential sector and farm buildings. The villa was discovered in 1876, but it was only until April 13, 1895 that the remains of a vaulted box containing the treasure was discovered in the wine-pressing room of the villa. A number of the items discovered in the box were inscribed with the name Maxima, thought to be the daughter of L. Caecilius lucundus, a banker from Pompeii, who inherited the wealth of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in Campania.  The majority of the treasure is now in the collections of The Louvre.



Images: Memento Mori represented in the Boscoreale Treasure: Under garlands of roses: four scenes accompanied by epicurean maxims. The skeletons represent the remains of renowned authors: Euripedes, Sophocles, Menander, Moschino, and philosophers: Zénon, Epicurus, Monime of Athens, Demetrius of Phalere accompanied by explicit sentences, end of 1st century BCE- 1st century CE, gilt silver, in the collection of The Louvre. Image courtesy of The Louvre and photographer Hervé Lewandowski.

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