Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.44

Annamaria Comella, Il santuario di Punta della Vipera. I, I materiali votivi. Corpus delle Stipi Votive in Italia XIII; Regio VII, 6.   Rome:  Giorgio Bretschneider, 2001.  Pp. 155; pls. 42.  ISBN 88-7689-208-7.  €180.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jean MacIntosh Turfa, University of Pennsylvania Museum (jturfa@sas.upenn,edu)

For almost a millennium, the Central Italian landscape was sprinkled with sanctuaries that differed in gods, buildings and relative affluence -- yet all shared in common types of offerings and in the integration of all levels of society into the rituals of their cults.1 Over the past century, Classicists and archaeologists have endeavored to understand the social and religious background and meaning of the material finds. The Punta della Vipera votive complex furnishes yet another set of data for statistical analysis as we try to make sense of the Late Republican phenomenon of the so-called healing sanctuaries, and their Archaic Etruscan origins.

The coast of southern Etruria was studded with port-towns linked to the great cities of Caere, Vulci and Tarquinia; like the settlements of Pyrgi and Graviscae, many maintained extramural sanctuaries. The fates of the shrines rose and fell with their respective cities as they began to develop under an influx of foreign riches during the later Orientalizing period. This was followed by the support of local townsmen and merchants alike in the 6th-5th centuries, then renewed building -- or restoration -- in the 4th century following the depredations of Dionysius of Syracuse, and finally, a renewal of local cults during the phase of Late Republican colonization by Rome. Excavations at Pyrgi and Graviscae have provided unexpected glimpses of the cosmopolitan life of the early sanctuaries; Tarquinian Graviscae held evidence of early 6th-century Greek cult-rooms and dedications by famous and far-ranging foreigners, while Caeretan Pyrgi produced the gold plaques attesting close ties with Carthage and eager syncretism with Punic cult (Astarte). Also in the sphere of Caere, but most closely aligned with a nearby town/oppidum at La Castellina del Marangone, is the extra-urban sanctuary site of Punta della Vipera, or Santa Marinella, in the Comune of Civitavecchia.

Both architectural and votive evidence reflect the fortunes of this area over several centuries. By the time the first structures were erected, ca. 530 BC, the countryside around the Mignone River (originally the border between Caere and Tarquinia) and the southern slopes of the Tolfa range were dotted with small, "pseudo-urban" settlements that had formed in the 7th century. In the 5th century, these added city walls, and, by the 4th century, population changes halved the number of towns from about a dozen to six, of which the site of La Castellina, about 1.5 km from the sanctuary, is the nearest and best documented.2 The establishment of the colonia maritima of Castrum Novum in 264 BC marked the end of these agrarian communities but saw another renewal of the Vipera sanctuary with the influx of Latin worshipers. This volume in the series of the Corpus delle Stipi Votive in Italia publishes the votive offerings from the excavations of 1964-1967. Brief reviews of the publication of the excavations are given in the introduction (19-20) and final chapters (125-130); the cult is discussed at the end (131-148).3

The sanctuary, like others throughout Etruria and Latium, began with a masonry temenos wall and a Tuscan temple of nearly canonical plan (8 m. square, with broad porch), well dated by imported Greek pottery and Etruscan architectural terracottas to the period 540-520 BC. The terracotta revetments illustrate refurbishing after the attacks of Dionysius in 384 (a room and courtyard seem to have been added to the temple as well) and again after the founding of the Roman colony in 264; a fashionable terracotta pediment was installed in the 2nd century, and repairs continued into the 1st century before a private villa superceded the shrine, marking the drastic change in land ownership in southern Etruria. Unfortunately, the temple and other cult structures are preserved only in segments of foundations or robber trenches; the terracotta votives were found scattered over the site, some concentrated around the western temenos wall.

The sanctuary also furnishes rare evidence of an archaic sacrificial pit (C. uses the term bothros) and a 4th-century stone altar, sometimes described as a mundus, since it has a funnel-like channel for fluids to run into the ground. A well had been filled with cullings from the archaic offerings, including pottery and a now-famous inscribed lead plaque. This Etruscan miniature inscription of over 80 words is one of the longest extant, although it is only partially legible; the text includes Etruscan formulaic terms like cver, "offering" and mulveni[ce], "has dedicated," characteristic of sanctuary offerings. It also features numerals that read MMMCCC or 3300, evocative of the extravagances of curse-tablets, although other terms recur in famous ritual documents like the Zagreb mummy binding. It is unfortunate that the catalogue entry (132 no. 1, pls. 36-37) does not include a transliteration of the inscription. C. dates the plaque to the last quarter of the 6th century, although earlier publications had left open a range into the beginning of the 5th century.4

The modest number of fragmentary votive objects are catalogued by material and type, in standard order of the categories defined for this series -- and all studies of Italian votive terracottas -- by Comella herself. When examining the individual pieces, be sure to consult the "Specchietto Riassuntivo" at the end for dating (119-122); and, for well known types such as heads, figurines, statues, see the discussion at the beginning of each category. While anatomical models of human organs often lack stylistic characteristics that could support dating, C.'s familiarity with Etruscan and Italic types allows her to suggest the most precise dating/parallels possible.

Three fragmentary vases were inscribed to Menrva; they range from late 6th-century bucchero to a 3rd-century amphora. Notable is the disc-shaped lead sors; it is difficult to read in the photo and no transcription is given -- see A. La Regina and M. Torelli, Archeologia Classica 20 (1968) 221-229. (There appears to be a single word on each side: mevelces and zarvaa or zariaa[?].) The Vipera token is one of the oldest of its type/shape, according to C.'s concise discussion of sortes (132-136), and signals an oracular character to the cult of chthonic Menrva at Vipera. The offering of anatomical votives recalls (143-144) other cults of this goddess that demonstrate kourotrophic and healing powers, as at Veii-Portonaccio, Lavinium or Rome-"Minerva Medica." The offering of tools such as loom weights (105-107, 144) attests Menrva's patronage of craftsmen, in a tradition with prehistoric (Villanovan) roots.

The votive terracottas are very battered, but C.'s knowledge of the field is so masterful that her identifications, comparanda and stylistic dating of sculptural types are highly accurate. Catalogue entries are very brief, but easy to compare with other catalogues in the format of this Corpus; the photos are remarkably clear. The earliest types are figurines of Classical Greek inspiration and male and female votive heads of the 4th century; while the actual pieces could have been molded decades (or longer) after their respective stylistic types were created, C. notes that there are no examples of more than a single generation of mold types -- thus no repeated copying and remolding of objects. Wide range and low volume may imply that votives were brought from urban workshops rather than produced or provided on-site or that the period of their deposition was relatively brief, but, citing the small quantity of data, and lack of sealed deposits, C. refuses to speculate.

Heads, figurines and statues (probably) continued to be donated through the 3rd century, while new types, less easily dated, were phased in, including swaddled infants (3rd-2nd c) and anatomical models. There are only two possible examples of duplicates or variations on the same type -- in contrast to sites like Tessennano, where many examples from the same production series were found.5 Regional and political affinities are suggested in the comparanda, which show that heads and figurines of the 4th century were made in Caeretan workshops. The later types of the 3rd-2nd centuries were obtained from a wider set of sources, associated with the well known sanctuaries of Caere-Vignaccia, Tarquinia, and Rome, the source of the type known as capite velato, as practiced in Roman ritual.

Body parts allow the artist less stylistic latitude and can still be dated only from the end of the 4th into the 2nd century BC. At Vipera, the types include the wide range associated with the major sanctuaries: facial masks, ears, arms, legs, hands, feet, male and female external genitals, uteri, polyvisceral plaques and hearts. This reflects a remarkable variety of cures -- or worshipers -- since each organ is represented by only one or a handful of examples. One model type, G11 (83-84, pl. 33,a) has often been identified as a bladder, but it closely resembles models found at Rome and Veii that must represent testicles; the Vipera version does have a different base or backdrop, however. Although they appear extremely stylized, sometimes described as cones or phallic markers, C.'s category G12 are, as she notes (84, pl. 33,b), intended to represent human hearts.6

One category remains problematical to all of us, C.'s G10 (82-84), identified as intestines. I now am convinced that this low-relief, oval model with undulating contours and central, teardrop-shaped organ, is in fact a deflated uterus, perhaps depicted as if just emptied of its fetus and still contracting back to normal shape. As C. notes, I originally identified the type as intestines, based on an example in the British Museum, but later amended the classification.7 The extra organ could be a vestigial uterus as on "normal" uterus models, or it could be a bladder or other appendage. Some examples seem to show the cervix (pl. 32, e); while the path of the intestines rendered on polyvisceral plaques can be traced, the folds on these smaller plaques are simply decorative and symmetrical.

The finds from Archaic La Castellina are revealing a rather cosmopolitan and commercial town, and the Archaic and 5th-century shrine at Punta della Vipera probably paralleled it in sophistication, as illustrated in the fragmentary architectural terracottas, and such finds as a jasper scarab (117, no. O1, pl. 36,a). The presence of models of internal organs is usually a hallmark of urban or city-linked sanctuaries, especially in the territories of Caere, Tarquinia, Vulci and Veii, and, in contrast to heads, eyes, hands or feet, they are rarely ever found in small or rural deposits (but see Tessennano, note 5). The renewal of the sanctuary with the 3rd-2nd century presence of Roman settlers must have been a major social development for this region, even if the artistic quality of the new terracotta votive types was not of the same aesthetic level evident in the offerings of the original, Etruscan patrons of the shrine. (This situation, too, is paralleled at Tessennano, as demonstrated by Söderlind's study, note 5; BMCR 2004.06.45). Once the rest of the "healing sanctuaries" are comparably published (major deposits excavated long ago, such as the Manganello shrine, are said to be currently under study by Italian scholars), these technical studies will produce statistical results to transcend the problems of context, chronology and social change that still hinder our understanding of the thousands of seemingly anonymous offerings, tokens of vows materialized.


1.   An overview of Etruscan and Italic votives and sanctuaries will appear in "I 2. Offrandes romaines," Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum, in press, with entries by Erika Simon, Annamaria Comella (heads, statues), Ingrid Edlund-Berry (other votive types) and Jean MacIntosh Turfa (anatomical models).
2.   A final publication of the commercial settlement of Castellina del Marangone is in press (I thank Jean Gran-Aymerich for references). See J. Gran-Aymerich and F. Prayon, "Les fouilles franco-allemandes sur le site étrusque de La Castellina, près Civitavecchia, Italie" CRAI 4 (Nov-Dec 1996) 1095-1129. Annual reports in: MEFRA 108 (1996) 491-495; 109 (1997) 486-495; 110 (1998) 528-541; 111 (1999) 530-543; 112 (2000) 487-486; and Römische Mitteilungen 106 (1999) 343-364. See website.
3.   Bibliography of Vipera site reports etc., pp. 19-20; a brief entry on the site is by S. Stopponi and G. Colonna in G. Colonna, ed., Santuari d'Etruria (Catalogue of Mostra, Arezzo, 1985; Milan 1985) 149-54 no. 8.1; final reports on the architecture are not yet published.
4.   For the full inscription, see M. Pallottino, Testimonia Linguae Etruscae (2nd ed., Florence 1968) no. 878; H. Rix et alii (ed.), Etruskische Texte. Editio minor, II: Texte (Tübingen 1991) Cr 4.10; Santuari d'Etruria 153-54 no. 8.1.C.1; M. Torelli and M. Pallottino, Archeologia Classica 18 1966: 286; also M. Torelli, Studi Etruschi 35 (1967) 348, pl. 41, for transcription.
5.   The rural sanctuary at Tessenano in Vulcian territory is in the process of thorough publication. Its finds were divided among the new Museo Nazionale in Tuscania, the Villa Giulia, and the Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm. The most recent publication is M. Söderlind, Late Etruscan Votive Heads from Tessennano. Production, Distribution, Sociohistorical Context (Studia Archaeologica 118, Rome, 2002). See also S. Costantini, Il deposito votivo del santuario campestre di Tessennano [Archaeologica 112] (Rome 1995). Note that C's reference in bibliography and p. 138 note 311 should be corrected from Söderlind 1994 to: S. Unge Sörling, "A Collection of Votive Terracottas from Tessennano (Vulci)," Medelhavsmuseet Bulletin 29 (1994) 47-54. I am grateful to Martin Söderlind, Suzanne Unge Sörling, Karin Slej and Cecilia Beer for additional information.
6.   A rare bronze model in a private collection and without provenance, is similar in shape to these, and has been found to carry a dedication to the goddess Mother Catha. See G. and L. Bonfante, The Etruscan Language. An Introduction (2nd ed., Manchester, 2002) 145-146 no. 23; it has also been identified as a balance-weight: A. Maggiani in Studi Etruschi 65-68 (2002) 166 no. 4.
7.   J.M. Turfa, "Anatomical Votives and Italian Medical Traditions," in Murlo and the Etruscans, eds. R.D. De Puma and J.P. Small (Madison, Wisconsin, 1994) 224-240; uterus p. 230; testicles pp. 226-227. The white color of the models does contrast with the red-painted, "full" and laboring uterus models but perhaps was intended to indicate a "now-empty" organ.

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010