Can we believe Munthe’s stories about finding fragments of antiquities in the soil of San Michele and in the sea down below? Or how he was led by Mephistopheles in a dream to look on the mainland?
If we consider that the average age of the artefacts is two thousand years, and that each artefact in the collection has its own history, exciting and firing the imagination but unknown to us, then one story can be as trustworthy as another.
But to get exact information we shouldn’t listen to Munthe. Modern research shows that parts of the collection originally come from Rome, Latium, Etruria and Campania.
Only one receipt remains and that shows that Munthe bought a sarcophagus from an antique dealer in Rome. The motif that is described on the receipt does not match the motif on the great marble sarcophagus at San Michele.
The receipt shows that Munthe bought works of art, but we can’t identify the object, a true Munthe story!
The sarcophagus can be dated to the Second Century AD. It is a frieze in relief.with sea beings, nereids and tritons, who tumble in the waves and enjoy themselves. It is now serving as a container for papyrus plants.
The Medusa mask that Munthe found on the sea floor is demonstrably from Rome. It is one of many Medusa masks that adorned the Temple of Venus and Roma, built by Hadrian in 307 AD.
Eight masks have been long known. A mask of the same proportions as the others has recently been identified in Rome, perhaps it is the ninth.
From Rome also comes the unusual grave relief incorporated into the exterior of the chapel. This shows a mother and her little son in natural size. The fragment is probably the left side of a family portrait where the father was standing on the other side of the child.
The figures are dressed in traditional Roman style, the mother in a long tunic that almost covers her feet, with a rectangular mantle, a palla, wrapped around the body.
As a free-born woman she has drawn a corner of the mantle so that it covers her neck and the top of her head.
The little boy is dressed in a short tunic and wears a cylinder ring, with an amulet (bulla) on a string around his neck. The hairstyle of the woman and child and the folds in their clothing date the relief to between 13 BC and 5 AD.
Munthe writes that he found a portrayal of the Emperor Augustus in his garden. He also mentions one of Nero.
Perhaps the bust of Augustus is the same as that of Tiberius, which was stolen by a tourist.
Where the bust of Nero is today is unknown. On the other hand, there is a fine little head of Commodus as a youth. Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina Minor, and was emperor 180-192 AD.
Busts of members of the imperial family were made to celebrate important events. The original was copied and the replicas were sent around the empire.
This sensitive portrayal belongs to a series created around 177 AD when Commodus was officially named as his father’s co-emperor. Some of the busts show damage that may have been caused by blows. Details such as noses and ears were often broken off when an unpopular person was deposed or died.
One other object comes from Rome, found near the family’s property Castello di Lunghezza outside Rome. It is a fragment of a statue that depicts the virgin goddess Diana as the Goddess of the Hunt.
She is dressed in a short tunic and has a quiver over her right shoulder. She ought to be carrying a bow and arrows. The fluttering is held together with a band just under the chest.
The statue, which is a Roman copy of an original attributed to the Greek sculptor Leochares, can be dated to the first century AD. On the other hand, the origin of a little offer altar of white marble dedicated to Diana in her special function as Trivia, the goddess of Death and the Underworld, is unknown. On the front of the triangular altar is the inscription DOMITIA VOLUPTAS TRIBIABUS D D, which can be translated ”Domitia Voluptas has given this gift to Trivia”.
During some digging in the Villa San Michele garden in 1954 a statue of marble was found, depicting Hercules with a lion skin.
The hero is holding the Golden Apples of the Hesperides in his left hand, with the lion skin over his arm.
The head is missing, as well as parts of the right arm and leg. The sculpture, which can be dated 1-50 AD, is based on a model known since the third century BC. The sculpture doesn’t show the hero as a typical strong man, but rather as a powerfully built short man, perhaps it has been made by a local sculptor.
On the other hand the War God Mars, as he is depicted on a relief fragment of unknown origin, is classically well-proportioned. The large fragment is inserted into the wall in the sculpture loggia.
A young warrior stands relaxed in an expression of composed power and rests with his mantle over his shoulders, and with his armour on his left side. Little Amor playfully clings to his father’s lance.
The fragment can be dated to the first century AD The motif with Mars and Venus was very popular in Roman art and many couples choose to portray themselves as these gods. That Venus was considered to be the ancestral mother of Julius Caesar was not without importance.
Much of the collection is made up of smaller fragments from sarcophagus reliefs. Among these are many exquisite pieces with motifs that were common during the Imperial period.
The columns, capitals and bases, and inscriptions are also part of the extensive antiquities collection, and here there are thousands of multi-coloured tiles of marble, alabaster, porphyry and other polished stones, which now form the floor decoration of the sculpture hall.
Several marble benches with antique underframes are preserved in the villa. Some of these have been made in the shape of griffins, others with lion paws, shapes which appear in Egypt and Mesopotamia before 2000 BC. These were common as chair and table legs during the Augustan period.
Other fragments have been reused and are now table-tops on the large capitals. In San Michele there are also samples of all kinds of stones, which were highly valued during the antique period.
What about authenticity, does the collection contain original art, are they copies, or actually forgeries?
An inventory in 1977 by the Naples regional Ministry of Culture confirms that the objects in the collection in most cases can be dated to the Roman Imperial period.
Ph.D in Art Conservation