Kallos Gallery

A Roman Africano marble labrum

A Roman Africano marble labrum

Circa 1st Century BC – 1st Century AD

55.9 cm diameter
14 cm high

A Roman Africano marble labrum

Circa 1st Century BC – 1st Century AD

55.9 cm diameter
14 cm high

 

The Labrum was a circular basin to contain water and could be made of terracotta, bronze or silver, white or coloured marble. It was usually used in the private or public bath complex, terme, to provide some cold water in the caldarium (hot room). The Latin texts explain that such basins were also used in private residences, sometimes in the atrium, where it was placed to collect rainwater, or in the garden in the courtyards, where it could be transformed into an ornamental fountain. It is also known that labra were erected in public areas, containing holy water for the purification or initiation rites in sanctuaries and temples.

 

This labrum features fifty-seven deeply carved petals radiating from the centre on its exterior walls. Annarena Ambrogi, in her study of ancient labra (Labra di età Romana in marmi bianchi e colorati), has identified eight main forms of profile for the basin. This example is in accordance with type VIII, which is called ‘luxurious’ due to the opulence of the form. There is a hole in the centre, the omphalos, which clearly indicates that this labrum was used as a fountain.

 

Labra have been found in the houses and villas of the ancient towns situated around the Bay of Naples and destroyed by Vesuvius. Sometimes there were several basins in the garden arranged in a symmetrical composition of pairs (pendants): House of the Vettii in Pompeii is especially famous for such arrangements. The pleasant sound of water jets was certainly noticed and desirable (as the poet Sextus Propertius expressed: ‘lightly bubbling liquid through the city’, Elegies II, 11-15).

 

The finely-carved form of this labrum is enhanced by the multi-colour stone, and the wet surface would have made the natural colours of marble even brighter, producing a very decorative effect. It is the epitome of what the Romans considered luxury design and indeed the Roman philosopher and moralist Seneca when describing ‘the trophies of Luxury’ (On Benefits VII, 9) refers to the ‘contrast of colours which is admired’.

 

On visiting the house belonging to the famous general and statesman of the Roman Republic, Scipio Africanus, Seneca notes its austerity and complains about the decline of traditional Roman values and the new excesses in taste of his own time: ‘We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; if our marbles from Alexandria are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone, if their borders are not faced over on all sides with difficult patterns, arranged in many colours like paintings; if our vaulted ceilings are not buried in glass; if our swimming-pools are not lined with Thasian marble…’ (Epistles 68, 4-12).

 

Africano marble is often associated with the marmor luculleum, which, according to Pliny the Elder (Natural History 36.49), was introduced to Rome by the consul Lucius Lucullus in the Republican period. As a geological formation, africano contains lumps of white, grey and pink marble, in which crystals vary from very small to very large. The lumps are imbedded in a grey, dark green, or grayish matrix, the latter is harder than the marble itself. Because of such a structural composition, working the stone is very difficult and required the use of special techniques; for this reason the stone was rarely used in the sculpture in the round. The quarries of africano marble were at Teos in Asia Minor (modern Turkey; since subsumed by Lake Kara Göl) and would have been under the direct control of the imperial administration. There was high demand for this stone in Rome, where it was employed in sculpture (supports) and architecture (columns, panels). Today it can still be seen in the wall-decoration of the Pantheon from the Hadrianic period.

 

Ambrogi has catalogued about two hundred examples in her monograph on ancient Roman labra in both white and coloured marbles. However there are only four recorded pieces made of africano marble, none of the same quality and elaborate shape as the present example.

 

LITERATURE

Ambrogi, Labra di età Romana in Marmi Bianchi e Colorati, Rome, 2005.

De Nuccio & L. Ungaro, I Marmi Colorati della Roma Imperiale, Venice, 2002.

PROVENANCE

Sotheby’s, New York, Antiquities, 25 June 1992, lot 139.

American private collection.

 

 

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