The Punishment of Dirce

One of the most unique sculptures in the National Archeological Museum of Naples is The Punishment of Dirce, which is one of the largest sculptures found in Greco-Roman antiquity.  The sculpture is also known as "The Farnese Bull" because it was excavated in Rome in 1545 by the Farnese family and originally was placed in the Palazzo Farnese.

This work is fascinating both because of its large scale, it is over 12 feet high (3.65 meters) and the length and width are each more than 9 1/2 feet (2.89 meters), and elaborate construction as the entire sculptural group was carved from one block of marble.  I was lucky enough to see this in person in Naples last month and have been looking forward to writing about it and sharing my photos with my blog readers.

The Punishment of Dirce (also known as The Farnese Bull)
National Archeological Museum of Naples
view from the front 

The subject of this artwork is the horrifying punishment being doled out to Dirce by the sons of Antiope who she had mistreated.  The twins Amphion and Zethos are tying her to a bull who will drag and trample her to death.  There is a lot of tension in the moment when she is still alive and struggling against her fate.

The work was excavated in the mid 16th century by a team directed by Pope Paul III, originally from the influential  and wealthy Farnese family.  Like the Laocoön, this was unearthed when the artist Michelangelo lived in Rome.  It was placed in the gardens of the Farnese palazzo, the family commissioned Michelangelo to design a fountain for it. 

The Punishment of Dirce, view from the side
National Archeological Museum of Naples

This is a true sculpture in the round, there isn't any specific point for the viewer to stand and observe the work as the scene changes from every angle as you walk around it.  This was found in the Baths of the Roman Emperor Caracalla (who reigned from 211-217 AD).  The complex of those baths was so large that multiple enormous structures were found there.  As Eve D'Ambra writes in her book Roman Art:

     "The defining experience of a Roman bath was luxury, whether in one of the grand baths    
     built by the emperors or one of the numerous smaller establishments tucked along city 
     streets.  The baths built by the emperors Nero, Titus (r. AD 79-81), Trajan, Caracalla (r. AD 
     211-17, and Diocletian (r. AD 284-305) in Rome were palaces for the people with an 
     architecture of grand effects: vast vaulted and domed spaces, coffered ceilings with gilt 
     ornament, statuary in niches, marble tubs and silver basins and fittings."*

The monumental scale and craftsmanship of this sculpture would certainly fit in with the idea of luxury and grand effects.

The Punishment of Dirce, rear view
National Archeological Museum of Naples

Also like the Laocoön and other ancient sculpture unearthed in the 16th century in Rome, it is not known for certain whether or not this was an original Greek sculpture or a later Roman copy.  Regardless we can see several stylistic hallmarks of Ancient Greek Hellenism: a feeling of drama and theatricality, a new sense of naturalism and a dynamic composition from multiple angles.  Within the work there are a variety of contrasts- smooth vs. rough surfaces, the anxiety of Dirce vs. the grim determination of the twins and the shapes formed from both the positive and negative spaces.

The National Archeological Museum of Naples was one of my favorite museums on my visit to Italy and The Punishment of Dirce stood out as one of the highlights of this museum.

*D'Ambra, Eve. Roman Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1998) p. 75.

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