Ancient statue of Charioteer from the private collection of Sixstus V

Statua di auriga con testa non pertinente; marmo; la testa: metà I sec. d.C. da originale della metà V sec. a.C.; Musei Vaticani; Museo Pio-Clementino; Sala della Biga; Inv. 2344

Inventory Number: 2344

This sculpture is on display in the scenic Biga Hall close to the entrance of the Gallery of the Candelabras. It depicts a charioteer as evidenced by the figure’s specific clothing, which includes a short tunic banded with leather up to chest height. This sort of bodice had the function of protecting the body from shock during chariot races. Sharp movements common in races could result in rib fractures and other serious injuries. A curved sickle was traditionally caught between the leather bands and the reins, which were also wrapped around the torso. The sickle served to cut the reins if the carts were to overturned, preventing the charioteer from being dragged along. Originally, the dress would have been painted in one of circus’s team colors: red (russata), white (albata), green (prasina) or blue (veneta).
This statue was sold to the papal collection in 1785 by Mr. Thomas Jenkins. The original location of the statue was the villa Peretti Montallto, the magnificent private residence of Cardinal Felice Peretti, who later became Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590). Cardinal Peretti built this elaborate villa between the Viminale and the Esquiline hills, near the ancient Baths of Diocletian. The Vatican Museums have on display many of the sculptures that originally formed part of this important collection of Cardinal Peretti, including the colossal marble statue of the Dacian Prince, which was recently restored thanks to the generosity of the Patrons of the Arts of the Colorado Chapter. Throughout its long history, this statue has undergone several restorations. The head, though ancient, did not originally belong to the statue and was added at the time the sculpture entered the Pope’s collection. The legs and arms, which show the palm and the “mappa” (a cloth, used to give the starting sign during the races), date back to the late 18th century restoration. Through the study of documents, engravings and drawings from the 1600 century (contained in the Album Montalto 1623-1631), it is apparent that the statue looked different when it was located in Villa Peretti Montalto. It is possible that this ancient statue was provided with a palm, the ancient symobol of victory in the competition.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to trace the exact origin of the statue due to the fact that there are not many examples of this same iconography. Recently, some scholars have suggested that this sculpture forms part of a group of Hermam with portraits of charioteers found near the train station of Trastevere at the end of the 19th century. This area was anciently known as the area of the Horti of Ceasar, where originally was a small shrine dedicated to Hercules, the patron of athletes and the hero of competitions. While this theory is not certain, it is nice to think about the possibility that our statue comes from this shrine and originally served as a “ex-voto” offered by a Charioteer to Hercules in gratitude of the protection granted by the mythical hero on the occasion of the circus games. At the time of its location in the Biga Hall, the statue of the Auriga was placed on a funerary altar found in the mid-18th century near Pozzuoli in Campania. The altar is decorated at the corners by two heads of Ammon, whose horns are hung with garlands of fruit, below are represented two eagles with widely spread wings. On each side of the altar are typical funerary motifs from the second half of the 1st century AD: figures of small cupids, birds shown in their nest or in the process of capturing a butterfly, a pig, and a calf. The inscription indicates that this altar was dedi- cated by Numerius Naevius Moschus “augusta- lis”, (priest of the imperial cult) of Puteoli, the ancient name for Pozzuoli, to “his sweet child Numerius Naevius Vitulus and his dearest wife Naevia Saturnina”.