The Ortolani collection was formed by a prominent European family in the 1940s-1960s, and was later brought to Uraguay and Brazil. The multi-category collection included many prominent ancient sculptures, including the Barberini Hercules and a Roman marble comic actor, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Eros with a Scallop Shell presented here has been in the Ortolani family collection since mid-last century until it was acquired by the current owner.
Eros, the God of love, was a favorite subject in Greek and Roman art. As seen here, the son of Aphrodite was characteristically depicted as a pudgy young boy with wings, emphasizing his soft physical form typical for a boy his age. His long wavy locks feather from his face, curling at their ends, and are secured in a topknot, allowing the youth to continue his mischevious pursuits.
This splendid statue of Eros (Cupid or Amor to the Romans) is a unique depiction of the god, here holding a basin in the form of a scallop shell against his body. The style is loosely based on the sculptural type of Eros unstringing his bow, a now-lost 4th century B.C. bronze attributed to Lysippos, the court sculptor of Alexander the Great, which originally stood in a major sanctuary of Eros at Thespiai. However, it differs greatly from Exceptional Sale Eros in terms of the pose. Lysippos’ Eros, known from numerous Roman copies, is hunched forward, with his torso somewhat folded, while the god presented here stands upright, with his weight on his now-missing straight right leg, the left slightly advanced and bent at the knee, with the now-missing lower leg pulled back. This pose more closely recalls the Polykleitan canon, with a distinct contrapposto s-curve to the torso, although he lacks the developed musculature of the sculptor’s most famous creations, the Diadumenos and the Doryphoros.
In ancient art, Eros is commonly depicted holding a host of different attributes, including a bow, torch, mirror, fan, or butterfly, but examples of him holding a shell are comparatively rare and not seen before the 4th century B.C. His mother Aphrodite was born of the sea and is portrayed holding a shell, so it is through her that Eros gained his aquatic associations (see for example Eros riding a dolphin on a Greek bronze mirror cover, no. 172 in A. Hermary, “Eros,” in LIMC, vol. III, or riding on a hippocamp on a Roman nicolo ring stone, no. 415 in N. Blanc and F. Gury, “Eros/Amor, Cupido” in LIMC, vol. III). A marble statue of Aphrodite found at Lucera, circa 1st century A.D., has as its support an Eros standing on a dolphin, holding a basin in a manner similar to the present example (see no. 294 in L. Todisco, et al., Introduzione all’artigianato della Puglia antica dall’eta colonial all’eta romana).
The Exceptional sale Eros is one of only a very few free-standing statues of Eros holding a shell and is the best preserved. Its closest comparable is the example now at the Hermitage Museum, found by the famous antiquarian Gavin Hamilton between 1769 and 1779, dating to the 1st century A.D. It is hypothesized that it either decorated one of the Roman Imperial villas or belonged to the votive sculptures of Diana’s sanctuary at Lake Nemi (pp. 36-38, A. Kruglov, “Eros with a Shell, an Ancient Fountain Statue” Reports of the State Hermitage Museum LXVI). The Hermitage sculpture differs from the present example in terms of the posture and the position of the shell basin against the body. For another example, a fragmentary torso with a shell now in Taranto, also dating to the 1st century B.C., see no. V.4 in R. Belli Pasqua, Catalogo del Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Taranto, vol. IV). It closely resembles the Hermitage sculpture in terms of the forward curve of the torso and the position of the shell.
The Exceptional sale Eros with his scallop shell was probably part of a fountain, commissioned by a wealthy Roman to decorate his villa or gardens. Indeed, sculptures of Eros were plentiful at places such as Pompeii or Herculaneum, where villas incorporated bronze and marble sculptures with a colonnaded peristyle, fountains, and frescoes. They reflected a “blending of Roman and Greek ideas and concepts” (P. Roberts, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, p. 148) and was the forum for showcasing the owner’s wealth and culture. With the development of aqueducts under the Emperor Augustus, the use of pressurized piped water for private houses revolutionized garden design. “Piped water allowed the development of fountains, which became a major feature of the new gardens. The ornamental use of water – the ultimate control of nature – became a vital part of the conspicuous display of wealth and status. When most ordinary citizens still used wells and cisterns, the ability to maintain fountains was a badge of pride…” (P. Roberts, op. cit, p. 154). One can easily imagine water flowing from above into Eros’ scallop shell and spilling out into a surrounding pool.