The Tomb of Cecilia Metella

About this Object

The Tomb of Cecilia Metella on the Via Appia in Rome was probably built around 30-20 BC. This prominent location, on one of the most important roads connecting Rome to the south of Italy, became a site for monumental tombs of the ancient Roman elite. The inscription on the tomb, also visible on this hardstone picture, reads as follows: CAECILIAE / Q. CRETICI F. / METELLAE CRASSI, or "To Caecilia Metella, daughter of Quintus Creticus, [and wife] of Crassus". She was the daughter of Quintus Creticus, an important political figure, and the wife of Marcus Licinius Crassus. It is generally agreed that the tomb was likely commissioned by her son. Although little else is known about her, the scale and significance of her tomb suggest she was an established member of the social elite.

The site of this tomb was carefully chosen for its prime location with many passers-by and also its high elevation which ensured the building could be viewed from afar. Due to this advantageous position, the site was much desired by nobility and church alike. In the 1300s, Pope Bonifacio VIII donated it to his family, the Caetani. They strategically used it as a fortress from which they levied a tax on merchants who passed along the road, creating a toll road.

One of the most celebrated Roman archaeological sites, the tomb is also known as the Capo di Bove because of the frieze of stylised ox skulls (called bucrania), running beneath the battlements.

This panel is based on a painting by Ferdinando Partini, who, between 1794-1797, was instructed to prepare six views of the monuments of Rome by Luigi Siries (director of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence). These were commissioned for a pietre dure room, to be installed in the Palazzo Pitti for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando III.

With the exception of the first panel, under Siries direction, the designs for the other five landscape views, including the composition, architecture, coat-of-arms and frieze decorating the tomb, were largely taken from etchings by Giambattista Piranesi of 1762. Compare the finished pietre dure panel to Piranesi's etching (courtesy of Yale University) in the viewer below. The first two paintings Partini delivered were the View of the Pantheon (1794) and the Tomb of Cecilia Metella (1795). Two others followed, the View of the Temple of Peace (1796) and the Arch of Janus (1798).

Four of the paintings were completed in pietre dure – the View of the Pantheon and the Tomb of Cecilia Metella were both completed by the autumn of 1797. However, the arrival of Napoleon’s troops in Florence in 1799 halted production on the rest of the series, which was left incomplete. Both of these panels were seized by Napoleon’s troops from the Palazzo Pitti where they were displayed and taken back to France. After the fall of Napoleon’s empire in 1815, they were returned to the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

In 1857, the Tomb of Cecilia Metella was presented as a gift by Leopold II to Pope Pius IX during a papal visit to the Palazzo Pitti. This later came up for sale and was subsequently acquired by Sir Arthur Gilbert. In 1857, a copy of this one was commissioned to be presented at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. It missed this deadline and was instead presented at a later exhibition, probably the 1867 Paris Exhibition instead. This second version is now kept in the Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

Sir Arthur Gilbert and his wife Rosalinde, fascinated by the evolution of pietre dure and purposefully acquired 16th-century masterpieces as well as 20th-century creations, and formed one of the world's great decorative art collections, including silver, mosaics, enamelled portrait miniatures and gold boxes. He donated his extraordinary collection to Britain in 1996. Text courtesy of the V&A .


Making and Materials

The hardstone jasper is found in a vast array of colours, with various patterns and natural markings such as speckles or stripes. This plaque, which is composed almost entirely of jaspers, is an excellent example of the versatility of this stone. Some jaspers used are from different parts of what was once the Holy Roman Empire, precisely from its western borders (South Baden) and from the Kozakov mountains in the East. Sunlight is shown by using bright and darker jaspers and flints on the tomb, while the peasants’ costumes include vibrant lapis lazuli.

The sky is made of a very thin panel of transparent calcite stone, referred to by ancient stone workshops as ‘alabaster’. The name ‘alabaster’ is commonly used, yet deceptively confusing for its definition differs depending on the field of study and attributed to a group of look-alike stones. For geologists, alabaster is a type of fine-grained massive gypsum. Archaeologists and stone workshops use ‘alabaster’ for both this type of gypsum and a type of fine-grained banded calcite. To complicate further, the calcite type – the material used on this panel – was described by ancient workshops as ‘Egyptian Alabaster’ or ‘Oriental Alabaster’ for its evident provenance from Egypt. On the other hand, modern workshops sometimes call it ‘onyx-marble’ for its banded appearance, which is similar to onyx and marble, even though they are completely distinct.

Click on the V&A's video below to see how pietre dure panels are constructed:

See how a pietre dure panel would have been made for a 17th century mosaic cabinet. Please note, this video has no sound.

The video is courtesy of the V&A and was created as part of a project to provide a slow-looking journey around today's item, which is available here.