A portrait of Julian the Apostate and his wife Helena – or is it?

There’s an image which circulates online, purporting to be a depiction of Julian the Apostate and his empress, Helena.  Here it is:

The item is from Wikipedia (where else?), and adorns the page dedicated to Helena.  From there it has spread to many sites, book covers, etc.

But is it genuine?  Indeed what is it?  Where is it held?

The Wikimedia page (where I have corrected the description) tells us that it was uploaded in 2011, and gives http://www.cachecoins.org/juliancarving.jpg as a source.  That website still exists, but the url is dead.  Nor does a Google Images search reveal much.

Luckily for me, I searched using Google Lens, on my Android phone.  This led me to a fascinating article by Prof. Sir John Boardman, “A pursuit of art in miniature: The Fourth Duke of Marlborough’s collection of gems”, in: Apollo – The International Magazine for Collectors (2008), 57-61, online at the Beazley Archive in Oxford here.  On page 60, we find a real colour photograph, given as figure 16:

With the legend:

16. Two Divine or Imperial Heads, electrotype copy of Figure 15, showing its now lost 16th-century silver-gilt mount. Beazley Archive, University of Oxford.

The text tells us that this is a reproduction, a cast, made using the electrotype process, of a genuinely ancient item, a gem, specifically a cameo, which was once in the collection of the Duke of Marlborough and is now in the British Museum.  Figure 15 gives a photograph, with the legend:

15. Two Divine or Imperial Heads, sardonyx cameo, 1st century AD. 22 x 15 cm. British Museum, London.

Dr. B. explains:

The gems are often the better for their elaborate mounts, renaissance or later in date. Not all museums have retained them unless they are as interested in jewellery as in engraving. … The mounts themselves can sometimes be as historically important as their contents. The great cameo in the British Museum (Fig. 15) with two divine or imperial heads boasted a metal mount of some complexity, of 16th-century date. I show it also in Story-Maskelyne’s electrotype (Fig. 16) because the original gilt silver had been replaced with a copy by the time it reached the museum, and it had lost the two inscriptions in the wreaths. A metal back had been added in the 18th century recording its possession by a mysterious ‘Marquis de Fuentes’ – this also survives only in a cast.

Few will know what electrotype casts were.  This is a way of getting a metal cast of an object, invented in the 19th century.  Here’s how it works.

You take an impression of the object using soft material, such as clay, and then suspend the impression in a solution of a copper electrolyte.  Passing a current through the solution causes copper to be deposited on the clay mould, thereby creating a copper copy of the original.  The process was used for printing drawings engraved on metal well into the twentieth century.

The electrotype cast exists because the 7th Duke of Marlborough arranged for Prof. Nevile Story-Maskelyne to catalogue his collection of ancient gems.  Dr S.-M. made electrotype casts of all the cameos, and these now reside in the Beazley Archive at the university of Oxford.  No doubt the image used in the Apollo article comes from there.

Our image, then, is not a real colour photograph at all. It looks like a black-and-white image, perhaps from a book, which has been given a fake colour.  The colourist was unaware of the real colours of the object.

We learn from Dr Boardman that the original cameo itself today is in the British Museum.  And so it is, inventory number 1899,0722.1, and – how wonderful is the British Museum – it is online with full description here.  The description reads:

Three-layered sardonyx cameo engraved with confronted portrait-busts of two members of the imperial family as Jupiter Ammon and Juno-Isis; the female resembles the princesses of the imperial house of Gaius (Caligula) or Claudius. 37-50 (circa) .

Wikipedia has this splendid photograph of it here:

That is a really lovely object.  It can be seen in room G70, apparently, so do look out for it if you can visit.  But there is no connection to Julian the Apostate.


A silver “votive plaque” of the 2-3rd century AD, attributed to “Mithras”

A twitter post drew my attention to an interesting item held in the British Museum since 1899.  Their catalogue page is here.  It is described as a “silver votive plaque with a figure of the god Mithras”.  Here are the pictures:

British Museum 1899,1201.3

And a zoomed in version:

Viewed up close, this is not Mithras.  Nothing about him reflects Mithraic iconography.  He is not even wearing a phrygian cap.  To me the figure looks like Attis; but I am unclear what the items that he is holding are – a dish and some sort of ball or fruit?  There seems to be an altar by his right foot, with a bird of some sort moving in front of it.  His stomach appears to be bare, which is definitely part of the iconography of Attis.

The plaque was bequeathed to the museum by Sir Arthur Wollaston Franks  in 1899.

The item is apparently catalogued in “Walters, H B, Catalogue of the Silver Plate (Greek, Etruscan And Roman) in the British Museum, London, BMP, 1921”, according to the excellent British Museum site – easily the best website of its kind known to me – and this turns out to be online at Archive.org here.  The catalogue entry is on p.59, where we read:

229. Tablet, similar. Form as the preceding. On the broad end of the leaf is a figure in relief of Mithras to the front, holding a patera in r. hand and a pine-cone in l. ; he has thick straight hair falling each side of the face, sleeved chiton and another garment over it, chlamys falling over the chest in front and caught up on the l. arm, and high boots. At his r. side is a cock to l., and behind it a small altar on which a fire burns. On the leaf are rows of raised dots.

Ht. 26 cm. Similarly acquired. Brit. Mus. Guide to Exhibition of Greek and Roman Life, p. 54, fig. 45.

The preceding two items clarify this description somewhat; they are from the same source, and are also silver votive tablets, showing Sol – definitely -, and what we are told is Luna, although why is not clear.  Both plaques have raised dots along the edge.

But the note to the “Sol” plaque adds the words: “With this were found other votive discs, now melted down.”  Of course these items come from Ottoman Turkey.  One is reminded of the way in which some of the gold found at Troy by Schliemann was stolen, and sold to a goldsmith, who melted them down and made some random Turkish-style jewellery from the metal.  So it looks as if Sir A. W. Franks purchased the items from local peasants who had uncovered them.  Whether they belong together we cannot tell.

I don’t know much about the collector, so I do not know if some travelogue exists somewhere, that explains how he acquired them.  We must just be grateful that he rescued them from the inevitable fate of precious metal in barbarous countries, and that we can look at them today.



Antinoupolis at the British Museum – a project

I was delighted to discover that the British Museum has initiated a project to catalogue its holdings from Antinoupolis in Egypt.  It seems that in 1913-14, John de Monins Johnson excavated at the site; but did not publish his work.  All that appeared in print was literary and documentary texts on papyrus!  The link above takes you to a bunch of objects that the BM holds; and they intend to sort the matter out and publish his papers, etc.

Truly this is a solid and worthwhile enterprise – but then I expect no less from the British Museum, an organisation that has consistently understood what the internet age means for museums and outperformed expectations.

One item on their site caught my eye:

EA1648. Limestone(?) monumental inscription broken away at the right-hand side and bearing seven lines of Greek. The text honours Flavius Maecius Severus Dionysodorus, Platonic philosopher, in a dedication by the Senate of Antinoopolis.

Here it is:


The British Museum link gives a transcribed text, and a translation:

For Good Fortune.
Flavius Maecius Sev[erus]
Dionysodorus, one of those
maintained by the Museum, exempt from taxes,
Platonic philosopher and
bouleutes (is honoured by)
the Boulê of the new Hellenes of Antinoupolis.

The city was founded in 130 AD.  The item was purchased on site, not excavated.  If it relates to the Platonic philosopher Severus – quoted by Eusebius, Porphyry and Proclus – then it must be late 2nd century.  This I learn again from the exemplary British Museum page.

An interesting item, on an interesting web site.


A curious bibliography: Angelo Uggeri and his “Journées pittoresques”, “Ichnografia”, “Icnografia degli Edifizj” etc

The most accessible early account, of the discovery of an ancient house in the grounds of the Villa Negroni in Rome, is by Camillo Massimo in 1836.  But for his source, Massimo refers to a mysterious volume which is online, but nearly impossible to find.

Massimo writes:

Una esatta descrizione di quattro delle suddette Camere, coi colori di tutt’ i loro ornamenti , e cen i menomi lor dettagli minutamente indicati si trova inserita nel 3. Volume dell’ Icnografia degli Edifizi di Roma antica, pag. 55. e aeg. opera dell’ Abb. Uggeri, il quale nelle Tavole XIV . XV , XVl, e XVII, diede pure le incisioni a contorno delle Pitture di quelle quattro Stanze; e nel Volume II. Tav. XXIV. fig, 1, riprodusse in piccolo la pianta dell’ intero Palazzina con le sue dimensioni, e con l‘ indice delle pitture in esso rimanenti, la descrizione delle quali si  trova anche nel citato Manifesto stampato in quell’occasione in un foglietto volante divenuto assai raro, e nella seconda Edizione della Roma antica di Ridolfino Venuti coll’ aggiunte di Stefano Piale Par. 1. cap. V, pag. 125.

Search as you will: you will not locate this volume.  You may think “icnografia” is an odd word, and make it “iconografia” but you will be no further forward.  As I remarked a couple of days ago, Lanciani quotes the title as “Iconografia degli Edifizi di Roma antica“, but this too does not help.

After a great deal of searching into the night, I have finally solved the mystery.

It seems that Angelo Uggeri was, to be frank, a complete idiot.  He self-published his works.  And he decided that giving them title pages was unnecessary.  Yes, that’s right.  You can find a volume online, and look through it, and still have no idea what the thing is titled.  Sometimes he shyly had a page which indicated his authorship – in a cursive, hard-to-read handwriting, not printed.

The volumes that I have found, all of them, belong to a series:

Journées pittoresques des édifices de Rome ancienne / Giornate pittoresche degli edifizi antiche de circondari di Roma

The text in these is in two columns, one French, one Italian.  A search for “Journées pittoresques” will return results.  But Uggeri’s maddening habit of leaving out titles means that you will not be that sure of what you have found.  A search in the French National Library site, Gallica, will return only three titles.

Curiously it was the Europeana portal that saved me.  This search gives a list of 10 volumes, all at the BNF, with no distinction of volume number or title.  They all have the same cover.  Many have the same endpapers.  You actually have to look through them to find out what’s in there.

But, blessedly, pasted onto the endpapers of one, I found this slip:


There are two series, each with volume numbers.  In fact some of the “volumes” are also divided into two, one containing the plates, and the other with the text.  I had to download almost the entire collection to find what I wanted.  For my own sanity, and yours if you pass this way, here are the volumes that you need for the Villa Negroni.  I give the link to the BNF for the volume, and attach a PDF of the relevant pages.

The scans are not very high resolution, it must be said.  The volume 2 floor plan is too small to read the scale, for instance.  Let us hope that a German library like Arachne scan some volumes.

From all this we learn that the actual title of volume 2, insofar as there was one, was “Ichnografia”! But I suggest we always refer to Journées pittoresques and specify the series, Rome.

The other two sources given by Massimo deserve a mention, while we are discussing bibliographical mazes.

The “manifesto” is actually a printed flyer, by Camillo Buti, proposing the publication of the frescoes of the house, and including a couple of samples, and a floor plan.  This is the very earliest account.  It is indeed extremely rare, and, as far as I can tell, not online.  But I learn from an article by H. Joyce[1] that “Copies of the Buti Manifesto are in the British Library, Department of Manuscripts, Add. Ms 35378, fols. 316-17, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, Department of Paintings, Tatham Album, p. D. 1479 – ’98. /2”.  Doubtless other copies are around.

The “Roma antica of Ridolfino Venuti with the additions of Stefano Piale” is another vague title.  Volume 2 of the first edition is here at Arachne.  The actual title is “Accurata, e succinta descrizione topografica delle antichità di Roma”, printed in 1763 – too early.  Volume 1 of the third edition (1824) of the Stefano Piale re-edition is at Google Books here; volume 2 here.  The text referred to is in vol.1, chapter 5, p.169 f.  But it contains nothing of special interest.  (Update: 2nd ed., 1803, vol.1, p.125 is here).

One final item is mentioned by Joyce.  It too is not online, and indeed sounds very inaccessible:

The architect Camillo Buti was quickly called in to make a plan of the house. Buti published the plan in 1778, along with a brief description of the rooms, in his Manifesto announcing the publication of the first two in a series of engravings of the house’s paintings.(5) An early annotated version of the plan drawn by someone present in the early stages of the excavation (the excavation is shown and described as incomplete) is now in the Townley collection of “Drawings from Various Antiquities” in the British Museum.(6)

6.  Although the Townley plan is incomplete, it includes information about the house’s decoration not given in any published source. I am grateful to Donald Bailey of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities for locating this drawing and supplying me with a copy.

The invaluable Joyce article – which I obtained today – makes plain that the Townley plan is of the highest importance.  It alone tells us, for instance, that the entrance door to the villa had a window above the door.  The “blank wall” facing the door in fact had three niches for statues in it – “Ingresso principale nella casa dipinto con Architetture e nichie di relievo dipinte dentro.”  And so on.

Fortunately the Townley papers are in the British Museum, and a Google search shows that the museum has a research project to catalogue them and place them online.  Well done, the British Museum.

UPDATE: The etchings published in 1778 by Camillo Buti are actually online at Aradne here: A. Campanella, Pitture antiche della Villa Negroni, 1778.  The monochrome etchings look far more Roman than the coloured versions.

  1. [1]H. Joyce, “The Ancient Frescoes from the Villa Negroni and Their Influence in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, The Art Bulletin 65 (1983), 423-440. JSTOR.

A diadem of Serapis and a Fayoum portrait

Two days ago the British Museum twitter account posted this item, which seemed to me worthy of wider circulation.  They posted a picture of an item in their collection, together with one of the Fayoum mummy portraits depicting it in actual use!

This mystery object is a diadem ornament worn by priests of the god Serapis in Roman Egypt

Gold diadem-ornament, from a diadem of the priests of Serapis.
Gold diadem-ornament, from a diadem of the priests of Serapis.  c.1-3 AD. 10mm high.
Portrait of bearded man (BM portrait 1994,0521.12)
Portrait of bearded man (BM portrait 1994,0521.12)

The juxtaposition is pure genius.

The link goes through to the British Musem site, where bibliography may be found.


British Museum catalogue now online and searchable (with pictures!)

Another item I spotted via AWOL is that the British Museum (upon whom be blessings) has made its database of what it holds available on the web.  You can search it here, and an advanced search is here.

Welcome to the British Museum collection database online. Search almost two million objects from the entire Museum collection.  

1,974,761 objects are available
609,419 of these have one or more images

The database is updated weekly. The range of the Museum’s collection includes: …

  • Objects from ancient Egypt and Sudan, from the Neolithic period (around 10,000 BC) until the twelfth century AD
  • Objects from Ancient Greece and Rome (including Roman Britain), from the beginning of the Greek Bronze Age (about 3,200 BC) to the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD
  • Work is continuing on the parts of the collection that have not been catalogued and new entries are continuously being added.

    They’ve also implemented some kind of webservice, so you can access it programmatically.  I haven’t looked at the latter — too much like what I’m doing at work at the moment.

    I tried using the search, and entered ‘Mithras’.  I got back quite a lot of interesting items; but these were drowned in dozens and dozens of coin images.  Quite how the coins were relevant I did not see, and I can see that these will drown out all the other content.  Gentlemen: you need to implement an option to exclude coins!

    Another useful feature would be a permalink for each item, and also a way to embed the photos (because most of us would not want to copy them).  The link “use digital image” is very good, very comprehensive, and allows the museum to sell reproductions to libraries etc, without obstructing the ordinary man who wouldn’t buy one in a million years.  Well done, whoever thought of this.

    Here’s one interesting item, which I think we might say gives pretty much everything you’d want.  The date of the item is 200 AD.  I wish I had the CIMRM here, so I could identify it. 

    Bronze tablet dedicated to Sextus Pompeius Maximus, chief priest of the cult of Mithras and president of a guild of ferrymen; given by fellow priests of Mithras. Above the text are a bust of Mithras with a sacrificial knife and a patera.


    Sexto Pompeio Sexti filio
    Maximo Sacerdoti Solis
    Invicti Mithrae Patri Patrum
    Quinquennali Corporis Treiectis Togatensium
    Sacerdotes Solis Invicti Mithrae
    Ob amorem et merita eius. Semper habet

    “Dedicated to Sextus Pompeius Maximus, son of Sextus, High Priest of the Sun God, Mithras, all powerful, and Father of Fathers, President of the Guild of Master Ferrymen. We, Priests of the all powerful Sun God, Mithras, do this on account of the high regard and affection we hold for him and his worthy deeds. He has this for ever.”

    Translating “invictus” as “all powerful” is interesting, isn’t it?  This chap was the high priest in his day.  Also note how the priests of Mithras do NOT call themselves “patres” but “sacerdotes”.

    The image is here, and I reproduce it below:

    Notice how Mithras is NOT depicted in a typical fashion, but rather face forwards with a radiate crown.  If you or I were devising such an image, we would have had a tauroctony, wouldn’t we?  Indeed without the inscription, would any of us recognise this as Mithras?  

    Possibly the workshop adapted an existing image type, of course.  But otherwise it is a salutary reminder that our assumptions on iconography can be widely mistaken.

    The other items are a bowl and a hatchet.  I wonder if these are part of the priest’s tools.  If so, we might ask what a priest of Mithras would use them for?  Do these suggest some form of sacrifices?