by Egenia Salza Prina Ricotti
In september 1957 Ing. Bellanti, discovered in the Sperlonga?s grotto some very important hellenistic groups, and this aroused a great sensation in the archaeological world. Ing Bellanti was in train to build a road between Terracina and Gaeta when he noticed that in a grotto near the sea there were roman walls and then he sent some registered letters informing the Soprintendenza of the fact and requiring them to do something about it. But in a region full of Roman ruins like Latium the Soprintendenza is always receiving news of the kind and often it has not much money or people to enterprise a campaign, thus it is often obliged to ignore them, but at the end Bellanti sure that this excavation was really important, set a time limit for it, informing the Soprintendenza that if by the end of a certain day nobody had came, he himself would opening the excavations. Nobody came and he began to work in the round basin that occupied the centre of the grotto. Each day, writing down in a note book what had emerged from the excavations, he took away twenty cm layer of soil and each day he marked down on a map he had drawn the place and the depth where every fragment had been found. Many of them were fragments of statues and he succeeded in identifying the presence of different groups (two of them were the most important but there also were minor ones). Thus on his map he draw s the fragments of the different groups with different signs. He used circles for what later on was recognized as the Scilla?s one, and triangle for what he called the ?giant?s? group; square for all the others.
All this went on till the moment in which on the basin?s bottom a gigantic leg, Polyphemus? one, was not found. Then Bellanti ordered the workmen to lift it up and put it in the lateral grotto. The new of this discovery and the quality of the sculpture produced a great sensation and, as lots of people rushed there to see it, the new was in all the newpapers. Immediately the Soprintendenza took away the excavations from Bellanti hands who, very correctly, gave to the inspector in charge all his documentation.
In the meantime, as the beauty of the sculptures that had been found was exceptional, many scholars began to study them and many tried to find where the different groups stood. What interested everybody was the giant?s big leg which was differently interpreted.
Dr Jacopi thought that the leg belonged to Lacoon, the unhappy priest who tried to convince the Troyans not to haul Ulysses? wooden horse in the town, and thus, to silence him, was devoured with his two sons by a sea serpent. Sure of his identification he reconstructed the scene on the basis set at the centre of the basin where there still were some serpent-like coils, and there he fixed Polyphemus with two Ulysses companions identified as Lacoon?s sons on its shoulders, a kind of a capsized pyramid sustained by Lacoon?s tip of his toes.
This solution was immediately rejected by everybody. In the meantime Prof Andreae had studied the sculptures and had identified the group of the Scylla attacking Ulysses ship and, as on the basis in the centre of the basin there were the serpents coils of the monster, there the group was reconstructed. The other pieces of sculpture included the gigantic leg was by him recognized as the scene of the blinding of Polyphemus, and as Conticello had told him that the leg had been found in the small lateral grotto, and as on the floor of this still existed the traces of its paving, which at the centre included the signs left by two big flagstones which together measured 6 x 2, 70, there he reconstructed all the group.
Upon this time I came back from Lybia, unknown to everybody and knowing nobody except Conticello, then inspector of Sperlonga And as he knew I was interested in Roman maritime villas he offered to me to study Sperlonga?s one, but directly after I went there, he pushed me in the grotto saying that, if I could find where the group of Polyphemus stood, we could publish it together. As I told before, I didn?t know anyone and I ignored that Conticello was already engaged to publish Sperlonga with Andreae, whom, he told me, was a German archaeologist analizing the sculptures, who had proposed to reconstruct the group in the small lateral grotto.
However I didn?t like the solution of the lateral grotto. Did really Polyphemus and all the group fit in it? For me it could not. But of course I couldn?t affirm anything basing it only on my doubts. I had to find proofs, and, first of all, I decided to find how tall had been this Polyphemus? statue. As nobody wanted to tell me much, I decided to solve the problem by my own means. After all I always had Polyphemus? leg and I could use it to measure the monster. A study of the normal proportion of Greek statues convinced me that Polyphemus might have been very close to five meters, and if this was so he could never have stood in the small grotto. Either sitting or laying down it could hardly be contained in it. Moreover he had been placed by Andreae on this hipothetical basis of 6 x 2,70 m and, after all, he wasn?t alone there; also Ulysses and his three companions had to be there with him. Then this crowded group would occupy nearly all the lateral grotto and leave only 30 cm on each sides to rejoin an elegant room set at the end of the grotto. Why on earth did they make this room it if it was not possible to use it?
Obviously I was also told that the giant?s leg had been found in the lateral grotto, but I had already discarded the idea. In the mean time I got very interested by the three observation points that had been made in the grotto and that were certainly had been studied to offer to the visitors places where to sit and enjoy the beauty of the sculptures. It was evident that the position of these places had been studied so that all the groups would have been well in view.
The principal point of view stood on the little island existing in the rectangular fishpond. It was a water triclinium which functioned as the one described by Pliny the younger in his letter describing his Tuscany villa (V, 6, 36-37), a historical triclinium because it was there that Tiberius was dining when he was nearly killed by the landslide of the grottos mouth, an event which has been described to us by both Suetonius and Tacitus.
The other two points of view were to group of masonry seats set on the two sides of the grotto. From these positions Andreae?s reconstruction could be seen well and entirely only from the group of masonry seats set on the other side of the grotto. Also from the water triclinium a part of it would be missed by the observers, and nothing could be seen by the visitors who would seat on the group of masonry seats set on he same side of the lateral grotto, but I was pretty sure that the group must have been set in such a way that it would be seen by all the three point of observations. In consequence the Polyphemus scene must have been in a central position. But where?
I began to study the situation and first of all I did an accurate survey of all the grotto tracing its map, and my attention was immediately catched by some interesting elements. What more that anything else awake my curiosity was a strange and not founded little wall, which very often was suspended in the void. It was such a fragile element that on its back a dam had been built to protect it by any kind o weight falling on it from the high part of the grotto. However it was clear that with its unstable structure the only function that the little wall could have had was to serve as a background to some scene.
The little wall looked down over some rocks which sloped down toward the grotto?s floor. It started from the grotto?s left side and went straight for 2.70 m after which it presented two niches or better two hollows whose shapes did not correspond to any stylistic, architectonic or even decorative shape known by me, however they were so well studied and thought that they make me exclude the possibility to ascribe their design to a sheer casualty.
An accurate inspection of the little wall made me notice that the two strange hollows could be perfectly explained if we looked at them as corresponding to the right leg and arm of the Polyphemus and after I took some measures and made some experiments I was persuaded that I was right. Set there Polyphemus stood nearly lying. The foot of his left leg rested on a marble block cut in such a way that - as was proved when I had people bring me down from the Museum the gypsum mould of the giant?s leg - it fit perfectly to a rock on which. to ensure the stability of the sculpture, a little step had been cut corresponding with the shape of the cut existing in the marble block. The central part of Polyphemus leaned on a sturdy arch under which a mountain spring flowed toward the basin, while his shoulder were held by a big conglomerate block, and, hanging over him there was Ulysses ready to held his head when the companions would put the flaming pole in his only eye. On the left side of the scene I discovered the cement bed on which the marble basis of the two Ulysses companions with the flaming pole stood. The one nearer the rocks had a foot risen to lean it on the first of them. For the scared companion who stood near the right side of the grotto at the end of the little wall a big conglomerate block had been built for his basis.
Then I was perfectly sure of what I had found and in 1969 I announced my discovery delivering a lecture to the Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia. As Prof Antonio Maria Colini, then president of the Accademy told me, my discovery was the kind that did not admit any change and nobody could ever move Polyphemus from where I put him. As a matter of fact nobody succeeded, but someone tried.
- E. SALZA PRINA RICOTTI - Il gruppo di Polifemo a Sperlonga - Problemi di sistemazione. in Rend. Pont. Acc. Rom. di Arch., Vol. XLII, 1968-1970, pp.118-134, plates 1-3, figg. 5-9.
- E. SALZA PRINA RICOTTI ? L'importanza del pesce nella vita, nel costume e nell'industria del mondo antico in RPAA Vol. LXXI, 1998-1999 pp.111-165
- E. SALZA PRINA RICOTTI, Sistemazione paesaggistica del fronte a mare e giardini nelle ville marittime di epoca romana in "Giornate di studio in occasione del 250? anniversario degli Scavi di Stabia" . 137-169.
- E. SALZA PRINA RICOTTI - Le Grotte di Polifemo, in Palladio N?37, Gennaio - Giugno 2006, pp 1-29 figg 1-19