Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.15

Patrizio Pensabene, Le Terrecotte del Museo Nazionale Romano II. Materiali dai Depositi Votivi di Palestrina: Collezioni "Kircheriana" e Palestrina. Studia archeologica 112.   Roma:  Bretschneider, 2001.  Pp. 449 + plates.  ISBN 88-8265-164-9.  L.450,000.  

Reviewed by Celia E. Schultz, Yale University (
Word count: 1902 words

This volume is the second in the series Le Terrecotte del Museo Nazionale Romano, following Patrizio Pensabene's 1999 Gocciolatoi e protomi da sime, reviewed in this journal by Nancy A. Winter (BMCR 2000.09.15). The present volume offers a look at some previously unpublished, or poorly published, items. Most interesting is Pensabene's [hereafter P.] good discussion of Praeneste's place within the political and religious milieux of central Italy as documented by changes in votive practice from the sixth through the third centuries BCE. This useful volume includes a separate catalog for each of the three collections under consideration (Kircheriana, Palestrina, and the Praenestine items now in the Villa Giulia). Of complaints or wishes, I have only two. First, the reader is left to desire the kind of detailed reconstruction of votive deposits and of the sanctuaries to which they pertain found in volumes of the Corpus delle Stipi Votive in Italia. Of course, this is not the fault of P., but rather reflects the scope of the series itself. Second, for the price of this book, there should be far fewer typographical errors.1

The first chapter addresses the complicated matter of the formation and provenance of the collections under consideration. The majority of Praenestine items now housed in the Museo Nazionale Romano come from two separate, poorly documented collections, the Palestrina and the Kircheriana, the provenances of the which are known only in the vaguest terms. While at least eight different sites at Palestrina have yielded votive deposits, the provenance of pieces from the museum's Palestrina collection -- actually a portion of a larger collection, the rest of which has been merged with the Barberini collection of Praenestine antiquities at the Museo di Villa Giulia (included in the appendix to this volume) -- is listed in the Museo Nazionale Romano's archives as simply "Palestrina."2 We are on even shakier ground with the items acquired by the Museo Nazionale Romano from the Museo Kircheriano, which is the only provenance of record for these items. Beyond this, we must rely on the knowledge that the Museo Kircheriano acquired a large number of items from Palestrina in the late 1800s, and that the Kircher collection has many obvious similarities with items uncovered in more recent excavations at Palestrina, particularly from Piazza Ungheria, now generally agreed to be the site of the Praenestine sanctuary of Hercules. In fact, the relationship between items yielded by Piazza Ungheria and the items under consideration in this volume is so close that P. reasonably concludes (p. 56) that the bulk of the Praenestine material now in Rome came from the Piazza Ungheria deposit. The typological make-up of the Museo Nazionale Romano collections is precisely what one would expect to see in early central Italian votive deposits: fragments of statues, intact statuettes, votive heads, anatomical votives, and figurines of domestic animals. The exception to this is a number of applique/s, plaques, and statuettes from the Villa Giulia collection (Catalog III) that clearly come from one or more funereal contexts.

Chapter Two summarizes much recent work on the identification, dating, and location of various Praenestine cults, including that of Fortuna Primigenia between the arx and the city below and Hercules at Piazza Ungheria, as well as numerous other tentatively identified cult sites around the city, such as near the church of S. Lucia (Juno?), outside the Porta Sole (Feronia?), Colle Martino (Mater Matuta?), the church of S. Giovanni (Fortuna? Mater Matuta?), and the church of S. Agapito (Juppiter Tonans?). The extraurban location of the sanctuary of Hercules at Praeneste has direct parallels at Tivoli and Rome (the Ara Maxima) and underlines the god's importance in the central Italian commercial sphere. A further parallel with Roman topography (the Forum Boarium) may exist if the identification of a sanctuary of Mater Matuta near Piazza Ungheria is accurate. The many topographical parallels P. highlights in this discussion make clear that cultic associations at Praeneste reflect cultic associations in other urban centers throughout the region.

P.'s most interesting, and most controversial, discussion comes in the third chapter. Drawing on the evidence of votive offerings, P. reconstructs, at least in general terms, the religious history of Praeneste and the links between the city's cults and those of other urban centers in Etruria and Latium. It is generally agreed that the most important cult sites in republican Praeneste were those of Fortuna and Hercules, and to these Pensabene would add a third sanctuary of an unidentified female deity near the church of S. Lucia that has yielded a significant group of votives. The typological make-up of this deposit, mostly anatomical votives and female statuettes, points to a therapeutic cult with a predominately female clientele. P. contrasts the nature of this deposit with the typology of the Hercules deposit that, P. says, does not permit the identification of specific characteristics of cult practice that might have contributed to the god's popularity. This is a very interesting point, and one wonders what the significance of the difference between the deposits is (setting aside the possibility that our understanding is greatly skewed by accidents of preservation). P. does not speculate. It seems to me that, at the most basic level, the spheres of influence of some deities were more specialized than others.

P.'s primary interest is in the votive heads yielded by various deposits around Palestrina. The Praenestine heads recall portraits of divinities common in Magna Graecia, as well as Siciliote funerary heads, though they clearly belong to the Etrusco-Latial-Campanian tradition of representations of worshippers. The presence of votive heads is thought to be evidence for worshippers of lower economic status than individuals who donate full-scale statues.3 P. ties the timing of the sudden proliferation of heads in the fifth and fourth centuries to the development of monumental sanctuaries in the late sixth and early fifth centuries and to the contemporary shift, documented throughout Latium and Etruria, away from monarchic government toward more republican forms. Livy tells us (2.19.2) that Praeneste left the Latin League in 499, and this, coupled with the sudden appearance of less expensive votives, suggests to P. the rise of a popular, democratic, anti-Roman class in Praeneste. All this is, of course, learned speculation.

P. finds additional evidence for the rise of the popular class in the fact that Hercules, the popular god par excellence, was the chief deity of the city in the early and mid-republican periods. This is also a time when Praeneste was in close contact with Etruria and when Praeneste controlled the lines of communication through the Sacco valley to Campania. In contrast, the votive evidence for the cult of Fortuna really flourishes only in the third and second centuries, when Praeneste and the cult were drawn into Rome's orbit and when Italian merchants spread into eastern markets. The number of terracotta votives drops off over the course of the second century, perhaps a reflection of the rise of latifundia and other circumstances that caused excessive hardship on small businessmen and the rural population.

Chapters Four through Seven take up each of the major categories of terracotta votives (votive heads and architectural adornments, statues and statuettes, anatomical representations, and animal figurines) and trace the development of their production at Praeneste from the fifth through the third centuries. The few architectural terracottas considered here demonstrate the development of monumental religious structures in late sixth century Praeneste as elsewhere in central Italy and suggest that the sanctuary of Hercules itself underwent major renovation in the fifth century. Votive heads from the fifth and fourth centuries are of a distinctive Praenestine type that was clearly influenced by votive types from Veii. Praenestine heads are generally small in size with elongated faces and protruding eyes with upper and lower lids articulated. Coiffures vary, and P. makes a case (p.84-85) for one particular style being reserved for military men. The earliest Praenestine votive heads do not wear any sort of covering, though this changes over time as Roman control (and the Latin rite) expands throughout Italy. Also concomitant with Roman expansion is the increasing standardization of iconographic types in all genres (urns, sarcophagi, and terracotta votives) as the centers of production are consolidated. By the late second century, local production of terracotta votive offerings is largely diminished, if not ended altogether, in many towns.

The development of Praenestine statuary mirrors that of votive heads. Items from the fifth century attest Praeneste's close ties to Etruria, particularly Veii. Statuettes dated from the fourth to the second century all have veiled heads. Numerous kourotrophic statuettes have been found; the identity of the goddess portrayed is subject to much debate. An interesting subset of this group comprises a number of statuettes of seated pairs. Sometimes the figures are two women (Demeter and Kore?) with a child between them -- a type found otherwise only at Veii. Other seated pairs are mixed, male and female, with a child between them. This last type derives from known prototypes, but the Praenestine examples have a distinctive local form, particularly with regard to the type of throne on which the figures are seated.

The anatomical votives include the usual types: feet, hands, ears, eyes, breasts, sexual organs of both sexes, and polyvisceral plaques. More rare are several noses, a mouth, and several representations of teeth. P. suggests that the spread of anatomicals throughout Italy from the sixth to the early second century is tied to the spread of the cult of Asklepios. This interpretation, which is enjoying a sort of vogue these days,4 disregards the evidence for an indigenous Etruscan and north Italic tradition of bronze anatomical votives documented as far back as the early sixth century, and of a Sicilian tradition that can be traced to the eighth century.5 In terms of animal figurines, the high proportion of bovine and ovine representations indicates the importance of stock animals and transhumance in the Praenestine economy.

P.'s final chapter considers those items within the collection whose provenance is most likely funereal, based on occasional notation in museum records, iconography, and close similarities with funereal pieces from Rome and, especially, from Tarentum. Nearly all these pieces are part of the Barberini collection now at the Villa Giulia. They include statues of winged erotes and nikai, plaques and applique/s adorned with Dionysiac motifs, and terracotta coverings for wooden or leather ciste and rhyta. P. identifies these items as probably belonging to the graves of upper class individuals, the same who were responsible for bringing to Praeneste the skilled artisans of Magna Graecia.

The bulk of the P.'s volume is take up by three extensive catalogs (one for each collection). P.'s summary descriptions and discussions are clear. The images are generally helpful, though upon occasion more visual detail is desirable. For instance, one wishes that the signs of disease P. sees on the phallus at Cat. I.273 were more readily identifiable from the available photograph. The organization of the volume into three separate catalogs makes comparison of similar items from different collections somewhat cumbersome.

Certain infelicities of organization and editing aside, this volume makes a significant contribution to our understanding of life in early and mid-republican Praeneste and, by extension, to our vision of central Italy in that period. I hope that soon the discussion of the items at the Museo Nazionale Romano and the Villa Giulia will be integrated with that of other items from ancient Praeneste housed elsewhere and with those still to come out of the ground.


1.   Numbers give the editor great difficulty: for example, the total number of items in the collezione Kircheriana is listed as 289 on p. 17 and as 298 on p. 41 (the latter number equals the number of items in the catalog for that collection); the totals listed for the collezione Palestrina on those same pages (382 and 368, respectively; there are 382 items in the catalog) do not match either, nor can the difference between them be accounted for by including a number of lost items listed on p. 385, or the additional items of uncertain provenance added to this group (p. 17). Other numerical problems are bibliographic, such as the dating of J. Champeaux's Recherches sur le culte de la Fortune à Rome to 1882 instead of 1982 (p.105, n. 3). Not only numbers but also letters cause trouble -- sometimes too many ("...trovare a Palestrina nel V secolo tipi di teste uguali a Veio e a a Falerii [p. 21]"), sometimes too few ("schemi icografici [p.88]"), and sometimes the wrong one (" l'origine della tradizione... [p. 69 n. 27]").
2.   Occasionally, a more detailed provenance is preserved in the original publication of an individual item in Notizie degli Scavi.
3.   Such as those at Lavinium (Pratica di Mare). See Enea nel Lazio, p. 223-264, catalog numbers D199, 201, 202, 204, 206-209, 216, 218, 219, 224-230, 232-234, 239, 241-244, 251, 254, 256, 259-262.
4.   It has also been put forward recently by O. de Cazanove in E. Bispham and C. Smith's Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy: Evidence and Experience, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 2000.
5.   A much fuller discussion of this topic is forthcoming in J. M. Turfa's article on anatomical votives in the Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum (ThesCRA).

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:12, Friday, 03 April 2009