Last spotted at Villa Ludovisi in 1885, a Roman praetorian’s monument pops up again at Casino Aurora

An illustrated essay by Corey Brennan

For an 1800 pound monument, it sure has made the rounds. Starting in the early sixteenth century, a long series of humanists in Rome took the time to note a substantial funerary altar that honored—with a full-length portrait in high relief and elegant inscription—Quintus Vetius Ingenuus, a veteran of the “Third Cohort” of Rome’s praetorian guard. Vetius (or perhaps properly ‘Vettius’)  served as a praetorian almost certainly in the third century CE. Eventually, his altar ended up in the famed Ludovisi collection of sculptures, only to disappear more than 130 years ago. Since then it has wholly frustrated scholarly curiosity and scrutiny.

The first extant report of the Vetius monument shows up in the manuscript known as the Anonymus Neapolitanus, with no real indication of its location. In the 1550s, Stephanus Pighius (1520-1604) spotted it in Rome, on the property of Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Medici, the future Pope Pius IV (1499-1559-1565). The Portuguese humanist Achilles Statius (1525-1581) soon confirms the sighting, placing it “in casa di papa Pio IV”.

The sculptor and architect Giovanni Antonio Dosio (1533-1611) made a sketch of the marble, sometime in the years 1560-1565. Jean-Jacques Boissard (1528-1602) offers a more detailed rendition of the relief and its inscription, adding that Cardinal Medici transported the altar from Tivoli to adorn his home in Rome.

Sketch of Vetius monument by Giovanni Antonio Dosio (1533-1611), made ca. 1560-1565. From Ch. Hülsen, Das Skizzenbuch des Giovanni Dosio im Staatlichen Kupferstichkabinett zu Berlin (1933) 51 Taf. 143. The transcription of the inscription is reasonably accurate; note also Dosio’s attempt to render the reliefs of the sacrificial vessels on the left and right hand sides of the marble.

However by 1590 there is a change of location within the city. For in that year, the Spanish Dominican scholar Alphonsus Ciacconius records the funerary piece at the Palazzo Maffei. Cardinal Marcantonio Maffei (1521-1570-1583) had constructed that huge palace on today’s Via della Pigna, roughly equidistant from the Pantheon and Largo Argentina. He presumably had bought the Vetius altar from the estate of Pius IV.

Sketch of Vetius monument (now in Stockholm) by J.J. Boissard. Reproduced in B. Palma (ed.), I Marmi Ludovisi 1.4 (1983) p. 21 fig. 23, with note “oggi disperso”. Bossiard evidently had difficulty in making out the honorand’s name (‘Quintio’ for ‘Q. Vetio’), as well as the dedicator’s status (‘praes.’ for the ‘eres’, i.e., ‘heres’ on the stone). Vetius here is also clean-shaven.

In 1621 and 1622 the young Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, freshly appointed by his uncle Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi (1554-1621-1623), worked quickly to establish a towering cultural profile in Rome. That marked a decisive point for the monument’s fate. For the Cardinal purchased the Palazzo Maffei, as well as a Maffei vineyard on the Pincio to form part of his new, sumptuous intra-urban Villa Ludovisi. Presumably in one of those two ways, Cardinal Ludovisi got his hands on the Vetius altar for his property.

Published version of J.-J. Boissard’s sketch of the Vetius monument, in his Antiquitates Romanae IV (originally 6 vols., 1597-1602). Note that, in addition to replicating errors of transcription (see above), the orientation of the figure is now reversed.

And so a string of 17th and 18th century antiquarians—Ptolemaeus, Gudius, F. A. Zaccaria, Gaetano Marini—report the monument’s existence “in the Ludovisi gardens”. In 1876 the editors of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum duly published the altar’s inscription in its first fascicle for the city of Rome (VI 2514).

In 1880 Theodor Schreiber, as part of his exhaustive catalogue of sculptures in the Villa Ludovisi, described in detail the relief sculpture of Vetius in its semi-circular niche, clothed in generic military garb. Schreiber notes the thick woolen cloak (the sagum) fastened at the right shoulder with a large pin, a long-sleeved tunic underneath that reaches not quite to the knee, and laced-up boots. In the figure’s lowered right hand—the left is hidden under the cloak—Schreiber notes what seems to be a scroll (a military diploma?) or staff. Though he deemed the overall execution as “mediocre”, Schreiber does consider the rendering of the bearded head as an attempt to render a “distinct portrait” of the praetorian. The left and right sides of the monument show sacrificial emblems in low relief, respectively the water-pitcher known as the urceus, and the broad shallow bowl called the patera.

Text of the Vetius monument in CIL VI 2514

The dedicator of the monument, as its more or less elegantly carved inscription tells us, was one Felicius Marcus, a long-serving military man (he terms himself evokatus, and thus had seen at least 16 years of service) from the province of Germania Inferior. That province took in territory on the western bank of the Rhine that includes today’s Luxembourg, as well as parts of Germany, Holland, and Belgium. Vetius had made Felicius, who proudly announces on the stone his Roman citizenship, his heir. The form of the dedication is reasonably conventional, which allowed Manfred Clauss to date the monument to the years “200-250 CE” (Epigraphica 35 [1973] 92, cf. 78).

Detail of Villa Ludovisi map in T. Schreiber (1880), showing location of the ‘Hermitage’ (letter “n”, at extreme left) and the Vetius monument (note tiny marks directly to the right of the Hermitage caption). The Casino Aurora (here marked as ‘Belvedere’) lies not quite 100 meters to the east.

The location of the Villa Ludovisi’s ‘Hermitage’—the largo where today the Via di Porta Pinciana meets Via Ludovisi—as it appeared in July 2016. The building under wraps is the Hotel Eden (built 1889 on ex-Boncompagni Ludovisi property).

Most fortunately, the photography campaign of 1885 that captured the gardens of the Cardinal’s Villa Ludovisi just before their development offers an exquisite view of the monument, then prominently on display. It was placed in the extreme southwest point of the Villa, before a tiny rustic retreat known as the Romitorio (=Hermitage), to form the focal point of an open-air tableau that included also a large and impressive Roman-era marble vase, a Corinthian capital, and a sarcophagus.

The approach to the Villa Ludovisi’s ‘Hermitage’, as seen in 1885, in photography campaign of Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1845-1913). The left-hand side of the Vetius monument is (barely) visible at right. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

The approach to the Villa Ludovisi’s ‘Hermitage’, as seen in 1885 (detail), in photography campaign of Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1845-1913). The left-hand side of the Vetius monument is visible in the center, between the second tree and the vase. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Outside the Villa Ludovisi’s ‘Hermitage’, as seen in 1885, in photography campaign of Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1845-1913). The Vetius monument is plainly visible at center left, between vase and column. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Outside the Villa Ludovisi’s ‘Hermitage’, as seen in 1885, in photography campaign of Prince Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1845-1913). The Vetius monument is plainly visible at center, between vase and column and above sarcophagus. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

On the dissolution of the Villa Ludovisi, scholars lost track of the altar’s location. And so today published discussions of the Ludovisi sculptures—including the careful and comprehensive three volume study edited by Beatrice Palma (I marmi Ludovisi, Museo Nazionale Romano 1.4-6 [Rome: De Luca, 1983-1986])—invariably register the monument as “lost”. Ditto for specialized studies of tomb monuments (such as Dieter Boschung‘s invaluable 1987 Antike Grabaltäre aus den Nekropolen Roms).

Well, here’s some good news. The Vetius tomb monument is very much extant, and today displayed prominently in the garden directly off the SE wing of the Casino Aurora. It has evidently been there for some time; for instance, a photo inventory of the Casino grounds from ca. 1995 (for which I thank Tatiana Caltabellotta from the Amministrazione Boncompagni Ludovisi) shows it placed precisely where it sits today. It would take some doing to figure out how the altar eluded detection in the meticulous survey that resulted in the Palma volumes of the mid-1980s—and in a sense, it hardly matters. What seems certain is that the monument hasn’t traveled more than a couple of hundred yards in almost the last 400 years.

The Vetius monument (CIL VI 2514) today. This and all photographs below: T. Corey Brennan, courtesy of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

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