Ludovisi Gaul

My ARCHAEO-Crush for February is one of the most famous marble sculptures at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome and it is related to the January ARCHAEO-Crush.

LUDOVISI GAUL

Type: artefact (sculpture)
Civilisation: Ancient Rome
Date: 2nd century C.E.

ARCHAEO-Crush: This statue, which represents a Gaul and his wife, is part of the sculptural that includes the Dying Gaul and a third statue at the Louvre. As mentioned in my ARCHAEO-Crush for January, these statues are Roman marble copies of earlier Greek bronzes (now lost). Here, the Gaul is not mortally wounded during a battle; he is depicted after a battle won by Attalus I. (We remember that during the 3rd century B.C. the king of Pergamon defeated Celtic people who had settled in Galatia (modern Turkey), a victory commemorated by the original bronze sculptures). Instead of being captured by the enemy, the Gaul choses to kill his wife and commit suicide–another name for this sculpture is Ludovisi Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife (also occasionally referred to as the ‘Galatian Suicide’). The man is depicted holding the figure of a dying woman in his left hand and, with his right, plunging a dagger under his his collar bone. His nudity (in no way hidden by his chlamys), his moustache and his bushy hair help identify the man as a Galatian, while the elaborately dressed woman can be identified as the wife of a Celtic chief.

This sculpture struck me because of its subject and the unusual position of the man’s body. Once we know the historical context of the original Greek bronzes and the later Roman marbles, the figures can be identified and the theme and symbolism understood.While the composition can be admired from multiple points of view, this appears to be a very awkward way of committing suicide.  The man’s weight is on his left leg and his body is twisted towards the right, with the right leg trailing behind. He holds a dagger in his right hand, but plunges the tip of the weapon on his left side, below the collar bone. The resulting movement of muscles is spectacularly depicted by the sculptor–this is an amazing rendering of musculature and anatomy.  However, is it even possible to pierce one’s heart while holding a dagger in one’s right hand, a collapsed woman in the left and looking behind one’s self?  Perhaps it is the Gaul’s last and defiant look at the enemy before the fatal moment, when he lets go of his wife and plunges the dagger in his heart with both hands?

Bucket list status: I saw this sculpture during my one and only visit to the Palazzo Altemps in 2014.

Additional information: If you are in Rome and you like ancient sculpture, take time to visit the Palazzo Altemps. You will find there one of the oldest private collections of ancient sculpture still extant today–that of the Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps. Today the Palazzo is part of the Museo Nazionale Romano . The palace, which dates to the Renaissance, is located just north of the Piazza Navona and it’s a hidden gem.

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