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Plate 1.34: Bronze Head of Sulis Minerva Found at Bath
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 1.34. Commentary by Elizabeth J. Hornbeck.
Plate: Plate 1.34 shows in profile a gilded bronze head that was discovered in Bath (Aquae Sulis) in 1727. The date of 1730 appears in the lower right corner below the name of the engraver, George Vertue (1684-1756). In the lower left corner is the name of the delineator, A. Gordon (probably Alexander Gordon (c. 1692-1754), who became Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1735). The engraved caption indicates that the object was buried for sixteen centuries, implying a Roman provenance; but this inscription does not suggest the identity or even the gender of the figure represented. The plate shows that the head was crudely broken off at the neck; it also shows two of the rivet holes along the top of the head, which would have been used to attach a tall Corinthian helmet (now missing). Apart from the inscription, there is no visual indication of the material; it appears as much like stone as like bronze.
Object: The gilded bronze Head of Sulis Minerva, unearthed in 1727 during the construction of a new sewer below Stall Street in Bath, most likely dates from the late first century and belonged to the cult statue of the goddess in the Roman temple that stood next to the sacred spring. Today the head is displayed at the Bath Museum; after its discovery it was displayed in the town hall, and it has never left Bath. It is approximately life size, and has six layers of gilding, according to the Roman Baths Museum.
Identification of the sculpture is based on context: it was found at the site of the Temple of Sulis Minerva, and probably belonged to the cult statue that was worshipped there. The earliest textual reference to this temple and its patron deity is by the third-century Latin author Solinus. The Temple of Sulis Minerva was built soon after the Roman Empire successfully subdued Britain (Provincia Britannia) during the first century. Even before the arrival of the Romans, the thermal springs found here were considered to be sacred and to have healing powers. The Iron Age ancient Britons (Celts) worshipped the deity Sulis here, and the Romans subsequently equated Sulis with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and of healing. Thus Sulis Minerva is a syncretic deity who could be worshipped by both the native populace and the Roman colonists at the site which the Romans called Aquae Sulis. In addition to this temple, the Romans constructed bathing facilities fed by the thermal springs. The central bathing establishment at Aquae Sulis was constructed in the late first century and continued in use into the fifth century. The temple and associated structures were destroyed “arguably around AD 450 and certainly before AD 500” (Gerrard 2007, 160).
Transcription: CAPUT hoc, ex ӕre inauratum, antiquo opere summoque artificio conflatum, Urbis inter rudera multis iam seculis excisӕ sepultum, AQUIS SOLIS in agro Somersetensi XVI tandem sub solo ped. effossum A.D. [M]DCC XXVII. Ӕternitati consecravit Soc. Antiquar. Londinensis.
Translation: This is a gilded bronze head, which was forged with ancient craftsmanship and the greatest skill. [It was] buried among the ruins of Aquae Sulis in Somerset, which had been destroyed for many years. [It was] underground for sixteen centuries and was finally excavated in 1727. The Society of Antiquaries, London preserved it for posterity.
Commentary by Elizabeth J. Hornbeck: This impressive gilded bronze head created great excitement among antiquaries when it was unearthed on 12 July 1727 during the construction of a new sewer below Stall Street in Bath. Antiquarian interest in Bath reflected the long-standing awareness of Bath as a Roman settlement, despite Geoffrey of Monmouth having created for it, in the twelfth century, a mythical British founder called King Bladud. Aquae Sulis was mentioned both in Solinus’s Collectanea rerum memorabilium and in the Antonine Itinerary, a Roman catalogue of roads and towns. In his third-century Collectanea, Solinus mentions a hot springs in Britain presided over by Minerva, “in whose temple burns a perpetual fire” (Cunliffe 1966, 199).
In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth firmly believed that Solinus was writing about Bath, as do modern scholars (Cunliffe 1969, 7). His claim that the Temple of Minerva lay under the Norman cathedral was perpetuated in the writings of later antiquarian travelers William Camden (1551-1623), Dr. Thomas Guidott (1638-1706), and William Stukeley (1687-1765) (Cunliffe 1984, 8). The actual position of the temple—close to the find spot of the gilded bronze head—was not determined until archaeological excavations undertaken in 1790, which were confirmed a century later during further excavation and rebuilding work in 1867-69 (Cunliffe 1969, 8).
Bath was known to have had a rich Roman history, owing not only to Solinus but also to extensive inscriptions and carvings that were included in the medieval city wall (possibly begun in the Roman period) (Cunliffe 1969, 5); these had been documented by antiquarian visitors like John Leland (c. 1503-1552), who visited Bath between 1536 and 1542; Samuel Gale (1682-1754), who visited Bath in 1705; and Stukeley, who visited the city in 1723. However, no archaeological excavations had ever taken place in Bath, and the discovery of this important sculptural fragment conjured up all manner of speculation about the Roman past. In 1728, Gale sent a drawing of the bust to Sir John Clerk (1676-1755), who replied that the head was male and speculated that it represented “a court favorite or officer among the Romans in Britain; for heads, bustos, and statues, were so common, that every family possessed some hundreds of them both in metal and stone” (Nichols 1781, 146). Stukeley supposed the head to represent “the Genius of the city, buried there for luck sake” (Stukeley 1776, 146). It is worth noting that deities who protected cities in antiquity were invariably female, so Stukeley must have, on some level, believed the head to be that of a woman.
Recognizing the significance of the find—which remains one of only three works in bronze recovered from Roman Britain—the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) sought to document it almost immediately. The SAL voted to order the engraving on three separate occasions, over a period of more than two years, before Vertue finally executed the order. The first vote was taken on 8 November 1727, when the Society ordered “a Profile and full face of the Head dug up lately at Bath.” Two weeks later, on 22 November 1727, “The president brought several draughts of the Head lately found at Bath” (SAL Minutes I.215). Seven preparatory drawings of the head survive in the Society’s archives (SAL MS 197H). Three are drawn in red chalk; one of these shows the left side of the head in profile, and the other two show frontal views of the face. The other four drawings are done in charcoal; they show the left side in profile, the right side in profile, a three-quarter view of the right side, and a frontal view of the face. None of these drawings includes a signature, and they could be the work of one or two artists, one of whom, A. Gordon, is credited in Plate 1.34. Vertue’s engraving could be based on either of the two left profiles, but the engraving shows two rivet holes along the top edge of the head, while none of the seven preparatory drawings shows the holes.
Vertue began work on the engraving soon after it was balloted and ordered for the third time on 19 February 1730 (SAL Minutes I.244) and distributed copies of the finished print to members on 26 November 1730 (I.252). He may have worked partly from a cast of the head, since the order calls for the use of “Such Drawing or Caste as the Lord Colerane, Mr R Gale, & Mr Vertue shall approve of” (I.244) Rather than the two engravings approved in 1727, only one—the profile—was ultimately executed.
Stylistically, the Head of Sulis Minerva appears typical of Graeco-Roman sculpture of the first century. The face and hair are highly stylized, with symmetrical features; the face lacks expression or emotion. Cunliffe describes the face as “dull but competently modelled” (1969, 34). Altogether seemingly bland, her appearance is idealized and heroic, which is appropriate for an all-powerful, superhuman deity. A notable feature of both the drawings and the engraving is the use of “silent restoration”—i.e., the head is represented as being in better condition that it actually was. The Roman Baths Museum’s website describes the head’s modern condition:
None of the eighteenth-century descriptions of the head comments on the corrosion or the rectangular cut, both of which are plainly visible today. The corrosion and the rectangular hole are most noticeable on the lower right side of the face, which could account for Vertue’s decision to use the left profile for the Society’s project—though Vertue might not even have been aware of the corrosion, since he was probably working from the idealized drawings and not the object itself. The jagged line at the bottom, showing where the bust was broken at the neck, adds a touch of documentary realism, however.
[T]he head has a number of imperfections. There is corrosion which has affected it in parts where it lay in the ground for over a thousand years. There is also a strange rectangular cut beneath the chin. It is thought this may result from a flaw in the original casting process in which a bubble on the surface may have been cut out and filled with an inserted plate. When gilded over it would not have been visible. This plate has subsequently fallen out as a result of corrosion whilst in the ground. (Roman Baths Museum)
Correspondence between antiquaries further demonstrates the high level of interest in the head. On 23 April 1729, Maurice Johnson (1688-1755) wrote to Samuel Gale: “I hope the Antiquarian Society have determined upon engraving the Bath-head of Apollo, which I cannot but imagine is part of the very image of that deity, represented upon that coin of Constantine so very frequently found in England, naked, et radiato capite, with this inscription, SOLI INVICTO COMITI” (Nichols 1781, 146). Johnson may have seen the drawings presented at the SAL meeting on 22 November 1727. He seems to have concurred with Clerk on the matter of the statue’s gender, and he seems certain about its identity being Apollo.
By 1730, when the engraving was made, there was still debate over whether the head represented a male or a female figure. When Vertue made the engraving, his inscription identified it simply as “a gilded bronze head.” Among the prominent antiquaries who weighed in on this question, Gale is the most likely to have studied the head in person, or he may have had drawings sent to him from Bath. Clerk based his view on drawings that Gale sent to him, and Stukeley also learned about the head from Gale, probably from a paper Gale read at the SAL sometime between 1727 and 1730. Clerk replied on 1 August 1728: “I return you many thanks for the draught you sent me. I take it to be the head of a man, and not of a woman, for the Nasus Quadratus, a beauty in men much commended, and followed by statuaries, especially the Grecian, is here very remarkable. The forehead is likewise too short for a female deity, where the Perfectissimum Naturae was always observed” (Nichols 1781, 146). Clerk’s evaluation of the figure’s gender, based on connoisseurship, is primarily speculative; little was really known about Greco-Roman aesthetics at the time.
In his “Tour through Several Parts of England,” Gale identifies the head as that of Minerva, despite opinions to the contrary expressed by both Clerk and Johnson. He writes, “And lately, anno 1727, as the workmen were digging to lay a new drain about the middle of the town, they dug up a fine head, in cast brass,1 and washed over with gold, of the goddess Pallas [Athena], and is now to be seen preserved by the worthy magistrates in their town-house, as a most venerable antiquity” (Nichols 1781, 19). Gale added this account in 1730 when revising his manuscript “Tour” of 1705, but since the text remained unpublished until 1780, it is not clear to what extent contemporaries were aware of his opinion that it was indeed Minerva: the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena.
Stukeley, the first secretary of the SAL, had visited Bath in 1723, four years before the head was discovered. In Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum he describes his visit and, following Geoffrey of Monmouth, mistakenly asserts that the Roman temple of Minerva, “patroness of the Baths,” once stood where the medieval cathedral currently stands (Stukeley 1776, 146). It was not until excavations in 1790 that the temple’s actual location was confirmed to be adjacent to the find spot of the bronze head. Stukeley included a footnote about the head in the second edition of Itinerarium Curiosum (published posthumously in 1776). Probably referring to a paper of Gale’s that remains untraced, Stukeley writes: “A most noble busto in brass found at the bath, anno 1727. Mr. Gale says it is not easy to know whether it be a man’s or a woman’s: I suppose it is the Genius of the city, buried there for luck sake. Such another found in the middle of Paris, very deep, with a mural crown on; and such a one had ours, the holes being visible where it was fastened” (1776, 146).
Although Stukeley was aware that a Roman temple of Minerva, “patroness of the Baths,” had stood in the city, he did not connect the gilt bronze head with Minerva. Stukeley’s note on the head suggests that Gale’s identification of the head as Minerva was still unsettled when he read his paper for the SAL. Stukeley believed the missing headgear to have been a mural crown, i.e., a crown representing the walls or towers of a city; these were common in ancient representations of patron goddesses of cities. As mentioned earlier, deities who protected cities in antiquity were invariably female. Stukeley’s supposition that the head had been deliberately buried to bring luck, rather than having been created for religious worship, reflects the fact that archaeological excavation and interpretation were still quite new in Britain in 1727.
Arguments that the gilded bronze head belonged to Apollo were supported by antiquarian descriptions of the many Roman inscriptions and carvings found in the city wall. Apollo figured prominently among these Roman relics. Perhaps as early as 1705 Gale asserted that the Romans “attribute[d] the heat and medicinal qualities of the baths to the Sun, or Apollo, who was esteemed and worshipped by them as the God of Physic” (Nichols 1781, 18). He went on to describe a relief in the wall: “And I have in the wall of the city observed, on the inside westwards, a conspicuous bass-relief of Apollo laureated, and a flame coming out of his mouth; thereby plainly intimating the fire and genial heat with which these waters are so intensely endowed, to proceed entirely from the influences of this deity; another bass-relief I have also seen here, representing the sun, irradiated, pleno vultu [full face]” (Nichols 1781, 18).
It is interesting to note that Gale himself eventually identified the head as that of Minerva, despite his own observations of Apollo’s importance to Bath. Modern archaeology leaves little doubt that the head most likely belonged to the cult statue of Sulis Minerva or another statue of the goddess, as it was discovered within the temple precinct. She would have worn a tall Corinthian helmet, not a mural crown as speculated by Stukeley.
Sixty years later, in 1791, some antiquaries still identified the bronze head as belonging to Apollo. Sir Henry Charles Englefield, in his “Account of Antiquities discovered at Bath 1790,” read on 3 March 1791, described new excavations around the Roman temple, including the now-famous Gorgon’s Head pediment. He wrote: “This probably was a temple of the Corinthian order, dedicated to the deities who presided over the springs of Bath; and which an altar formerly dug up here, tells us were Apollo and Minerva. The ornaments in the pediment of the temple seem to refer to the latter divinity; while the fine bronze head formerly dug up near this spot, and now preserved in the town-hall, seems evidently to have belonged to a statue of the former” (Englefield 1792, 326-27).
Englefield wrote this in 1791, sometime after the posthumous publication of Gale’s “Tour through Several Parts of England” in which Gale identified the head as belonging to Minerva. Both the discovery of the bronze head in 1727 and excavations leading to the discovery of the temple of Minerva (its altar, façade, and location) in 1790 resulted from the extensive rebuilding of the city of Bath in order to improve its infrastructure for the ever-expanding numbers of fashionable visitors to the city. An important fragment of a solid fluted shaft was found in 1879, allowing for a reconstruction of the temple’s plan (Cunliffe 1969, 11). Antiquarian and archaeological interest in Bath’s Roman remains continued in the twentieth century. According to Barry Cunliffe, who directed excavations in Bath from the 1960s through the 1980s, there is no doubt that Sulis Minerva was the presiding deity at this site. He says that “of the thirteen dedicatory inscriptions known, ten are to Sulis or Sulis Minerva” (1969, 4). The prevailing opinion now is that this gilded bronze head definitely belonged to a statue of Minerva, probably the main cult statue.
The significance of the find for eighteenth-century antiquaries was quite different, however, as illustrated by Vertue’s print. The bust provided evidence that Greco-Roman bronze statuary—a rarity even on the classic ground of the Grand Tour—could be numbered among the “Brittish Antiquitys” to which the SAL dedicated its labors (quoted in Evans 1956, 58; see also, for example, Plates 1.1 and 1.8). At the same time, the appearance of the bust in the print (as in the drawings) is reminiscent of marble, creating a kinship between the head and the famous marble sculptures that inspired neoclassical accounts of ancient art. The resulting speculations on Roman religion, culture, and aesthetics by Gale, Stukeley, Clerk, and others reflect both the uniqueness of the find and the forms in which it circulated through antiquarian visual culture.
: “Brass” and “bronze” were used interchangeably in the eighteenth century.
Bath Museum. 2018. “Key Objects in the Collection, Minerva’s Head.” Bath Museum Website. https://www.romanbaths.co.uk/key-objects-collection.
Cunliffe, Barry. 1966. “The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath.” Antiquity 40: 199-204.
------. 1969. Roman Bath. London: Society of Antiquaries.
------. 1984. Roman Bath Discovered. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
Englefield, Henry Charles. 1792. “Account of Antiquities discovered at Bath 1790.” Archaeologia 10: 325-33.
Evans, Joan. 1956. A History of the Society of Antiquaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerrard, James. 2007. “The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath and the End of Roman Britain.” The Antiquaries Journal 87: 148-64.
Nichols, John, ed. 1781. Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica. No. II. Part. I. Containing Reliquiae Galeanae; or Miscellaneous Pieces by the Late Brothers Roger and Samuel Gale. London: J. Nichols.
Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.
Stukeley, William. 1776. Itinerarium Curiosum. 2d ed. London: Baker and Leigh.1