Roman Sculpture Revealed By Statue Code At Powis Castle, Wales

By Caroline Lewis | 18 March 2005
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Shows a marble statue of a boy with a smile and long hair holding a dive out in front of him.

Boy holding dove, by Cavaceppi (18th century). Courtesy National Trust.

The National Trust has deciphered a Da Vinci-like code behind the doors of Powis Castle, which reveals that not all the statues in its collection are what they seem.

Experts were called in to read clues hidden in the cherubic faces and flowing locks of the 18th century statuary before the medieval castle re-opens to the public on March 21, along with other NT properties which have been closed over winter.

“We have long suspected their true origins,” said Margaret Gray, Powis Castle House Manager. “However, this investigation, which is part of a wider conservation project, has allowed a closer look to reveal the definitive results for the first time.”

Visitors can relax – unlike the Da Vinci Code, the language of the Powis Castle sculptures doesn’t have any connection to murder or clandestine sects. The interesting implication on inspecting the marble sculptures, is that even back in the 18th century the fashionable set and their art dealers were trying to make their contemporary ornaments look antique.

Shows a photo of Powis Castle, a huge grand red building with turrets and formal walled garden in front.

Powis Castle's statuary was purchased by the Earls of Powis and Lord Clive while they were on the Grand Tour. Courtesy National Trust.

The Earls of Powis and Robert Clive (Clive of India) purchased statues while on the Grand Tour. The resulting collection, on show at Powis Castle, provides a fascinating record of the classical tastes of 18th century England.

However, researcher Andreas Kropp from the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford (working for Cliveden Conservation), discovered that the statuary consists not only of ancient sculpture, but also 18th century neo-classical ‘tributes’.

“The smiling expression of one boy was peculiar,” he explained, “because the overwhelming majority of Roman figures of children were used as funerary monuments.”

The ‘statue code’ unlocks clues about the true age of several works at the castle. Neo-classical sculpture was often aged with acid or broken up and rebuilt to make it look Roman, but researchers have been able to identify the true age of six works despite some of their makers’ best efforts.

Shows a statue of a man in a toga, holding a scroll in one hand.

Roman man by Cavaceppi (18th century). Courtesy National Trust.

Two – a young boy holding a bird and a man in a toga – are important 18th century pieces by Cavaceppi, renowned for his tireless production of neo-classical works about which the English were so passionate.

An exceptional statue of Greek fertility goddess, Demeter, is genuine Roman, dating from the first century AD.

A rare representation of a cat, crouching over a snake, is one of the star attractions at Powis Castle. Although it’s an unusual subject for the Romans, it does date from the first or second century BC. It’s thought that Lord Clive bought it while in Rome in 1774, for his cat-loving wife.

“In another piece there is a very strange ensemble of ancient pieces,” said Andreas. “Eros has an ancient body, a modern neck and the head of a girl which has been subtly changed to look like the face of Eros – which makes this a very exciting ‘discovery’.”

Shows a statue of a naked young boy with a feminine head and long hair.

Youth holding dove (part Roman, part 18th century). Courtesy National Trust.

There are a few main questions to ask if you want to crack the statue code yourself. First, are the feet parallel? Roman sculptors wouldn’t do that – they placed feet apart, at an angle.

Is there a ‘knowing’ smile? Again, this wasn’t something the Romans did, but a romantic trait that 18th century collectors liked to see. Is the hairstyle long and flowing? Caesar wasn’t known for hair like that and neither are Roman sculptures, but long locks were fashionable in the 18th century (they’re just giving themselves away, aren’t they?).

Other signs to look out for are a suspiciously even aged look and a mix of styles (a la mixed-gender Eros).

There are plenty of locations where the statue code can be put to use – the National Trust owns many properties where 18th century fashion still reigns. Try Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire; Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire; Petworth House, West Sussex; or Saltram, Devon.

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