Friday, May 21, 2021

Dolphins in Greco-Roman Art

Dolphins have a rich background in Greek and Roman mythology. Not only are they frequently the companions of Venus serving as symbols of romance and reminders of the  myth that Venus was born from the sea, but in the Homeric Hymns, they play a key role when Dionysus (Roman Bacchus) was kidnapped by pirates. The god of wine turned himself into a lion to punish the kidnappers and, terrified, they jumped overboard whereupon Dionysus turned them into dolphins.  The also describe instances where the god Apollo transformed into a dolphin to guide a ship into harbor.  nother myth tells that Apollo’s son, Eikadios, was shipwrecked and carried to shore by a dolphin. This is one of many myths about dolphins rescuing drowming men, or bringing bodies back to shore for burial.

The Roman author Statius tells us in his 1st century CE work, "Achilleid" that the sea-nymph Thetis rode a chariot through the sea that was pulled by two dolphins. Philostratus’ ‘Imagines’ also describes a scene in which the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus falls in love with the sea-nymph Galatea while she is riding four dolphins.

"Many dolphin stories can also be found in Greek and Roman folklore from small coastal towns, observes Emily Tilley, University of Leicester,  "In the first century A.D. Pliny the Elder recorded in his ‘Natural History’ the story of a young Roman boy who befriended a dolphin. Every day when the boy needed to cross the bay to get to school, he would call on his dolphin friend to carry him across the water. A second century A.D. story tells the tale of an elderly couple who rescued a young, injured dolphin and trained it to catch fish for them."

Statue of Venus (the Mazarin Venus), Roman, 2nd century CE, now on view at the Getty Villa in Gallery 106 Basilica. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

Early Imperial Portrait Roman 27 BCE-68 CE from the Farnese Collection in Naples that I photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibit" at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle Washington.

Roman mosaic frieze depicting dolphins from Halicarnassus 4th century CE that I photographed at The British Museum.

Ovoid ceramic rhyton depicting a dolphin Pseira Crete Late Minoan 1B that I photographed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Frescoes of Marine Life including a dolphin found on a wall along the via La Portuense in the river port of San Paolo that I photographed at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome 125-150 CE

Mosaic pavement depicting a dolphin that I photographed in the Piazzale delle Corporazioni in Ostia Antica 1st century BCE-4th century CE.

Basilica of Neptune, Rome (Dolphin Frieze) Detail of Dolphins, a shell, and an upright trident from the frieze course of the entablature of the Basilica of Neptune, Rome, Hadrianic. (Hadrian r. 117-138 CE). The motif was popular for public buildings in Rome of the late first century (and the maritime theme is not necessarily associated with the function of the structure, such as a bath building). Image courtesy of Roger Ulrich (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Detail of mosaic on the podium wall in the water sanctuary showing marine fauna, including a dolphin and urchins, Roman Ruins of Milreu, a luxurious rural villa transformed into a prosperous farm in the 3rd century, Portugal, courtesy of Carole Raddato.

Roman mosaic depicting the mask of Oceanus with lobster claws protruding from the head and dolphins and fish escaping from his beard, 2nd - 3rd century CE, found in 1959 at the Plaza de la Corredera, Salón de los Mosaicos (Hall of Mosaics) Alcazar of the Christian Monarchs, Cordoba, courtesy of Carole Raddato.

The Oceanus Mosaic from Bad Vilbel, it originally belonged to a Roman thermal bath facility, end of 2nd century AD, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Germany. The mosaic was found in 1849 during construction work of the Southern Railway Station in the remains of a Roman thermal spa. This bath complex was probably part of an estate (Villa rustica). Image courtesy of Carole Raddato.

Thalassa (spirit of the sea) with crab-claw horns, holding a ship's oar and a dolphin, late 5th century AD, found in the village of Yakto near Daphne, Hatay Archaeology Museum, Antakya, Turkey courtesy of Carole Raddato (perspective adjusted)

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