Sunday, April 4, 2021

Trimalchio's reminder of mortality

The Romans frequently linked images of banqueting and death in both literature and the visual arts. In Petronius' satirical novel, the Satyricon (60s CE), Trimalchio, the crass, nouveau-riche host of a dinner party, brings out a small silver skeleton between courses. The skeleton has flexible joints, and after posing it on the table in various ways, Trimalchio recites a poem to the effect that life is short and should be enjoyed before becoming a skeleton like the one he displays. He declares: “Alas for us poor mortals. Thus we shall all be, after Hades takes us away. Therefore, let us live while it goes well with us.” This bronze skeleton may have been used in the same manner. Although now missing several limbs, it too is jointed in a way that allows it to be posed or shaken so that it jumps and dances. Several similar skeletons are known, including one in silver found at Pompeii. - J. Paul Getty Museum

This remembrance of mortality actually spawned an art movement in the 17th century known as "vanitas"  where artists emphasized the emptiness and futility of earthly items by using still-life arrangements for moral instruction.  These arrangements included skulls, candles, hourglasses, watches, rotting fruit, wilting flowers, and fraying books to remind viewers just how precious and fleeting life is.

Image: Miniature bronze skeleton, 2 5/8 inches tall, Roman, 25 BCE - 100 CE, at the J. Paul Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California. Made of bronze, this miniature skeleton features round eye sockets and a wide, grinning mouth with large upper teeth. Pin holes in the clavicle bone show that the arms were separately attached and moveable. The same is true of the pelvis bone where the left femur is still attached. The other end of the femur also has a pin hole for the attachment of the tibia. Only the pin remains of the right leg. The neck and head are also attached by pins. Most of the right-side ribs and both arms of the skeleton are missing 

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