This monumental sarcophagus with the Dionysian Procession (lenòs type, shaped like a bathtub), dates back to 230 AD and was completed for a man and wife. It is characterized by elaborate decorations of high sculptural quality featuring scenes related to the myth and the cult of Dionysus, also called Bacchus. He was the playful god of fertility, nature and drink, who is credited with the creation of wine and the art of viticulture and later considered a patron of the arts and the god of the Greek stage.
This sarcophagus was found in 1903 near the Catacombs of San Callisto, broken into 250 fragments. Using the documents in the Vatican Archive, the restoration of this object began in May 1904 under the guidance of Alberto Galli. It was intended to be put on display in the Vatican Museums. Walter Amelung, a famous German archaeologist, described in his writings the great work done on this sarcophagus by Galli, who was assisted by his son Guido, and was able to recompose all 250 fragments. Walter Amelung’s article about this restoration was published for the Pontifical Academy in 1910, accompanied by five photographs that show the sarcophagus in its first exhibition location in the Octagonal Courtyard, in front of the Venus Felix. The sarcophagus remained in the Octagonal Courtyard until the mid-1930’s when it was moved to the Pine Cone Courtyard, and where it remained until the 1960’s, before being moved again to the storage rooms and eventually into the Courtyard of the Zitella.
The best preserved sections of this large sarcophagus (length 2.85 cm; width 1.30 cm; height 1.31cm) are the lateral curvilinear sides, while the horizontal fronts are almost completely lost. The recent restoration has provided an opportunity to examine the dynamics that had caused such severe damage to the piece. It was discovered that the sarcophagus had been destroyed in order to obtain smaller fragments which could be then used to make lime. This object originates from an area next to the Hypogeum of Vibia on the Old Appian Way, within the complex known as the Cemetery of Balbina, where a lime kiln was built after the area was repurposed from its previous use as a cemetery. On the surface of the sarcophagus are obvious marks from chisels and mallets that broke the marble into pieces. These incisions can be seen on the long sides, the curved sides, and on the base; the marks show that the dismantling of the sarcophagus was interrupted – perhaps because the lime kiln was abandoned – and some fragments still retain traces of the fire from the furnace.
The conservation of this work was particularly complex and delicate because of the employed methods of reconstruction, and the composition of the work itself. Antonio Galli performed the restoration with an abundant use of brick and stucco to close the wide gaps, and also used several metal pins (which in the end became rusty) to anchor the fragments together. However, after more than a century, the sarcophagus appeared quite dirty and many of the fragments became almost completely detached, with the risk of further damage. As a result, the restoration involved a complex series of operations performed by the Marble Restoration Lab of the Vatican Museums and the Scientific Research Lab. The Kavaklik Company was also involved in the restoration in accord with the methodologies of our laboratories, with constant monitoring by the curators of the Classical Antiquities Department.
Many thanks to the California Chaper for their support of this project, executed by the Vatican Museums. This meant the complete dismantling of the many fragments, and followed by cleaning using various methodologies, including laser ablation. Some of the fragments were scanned in 3D by the Unocad Company, in order to create the prototypes in synthetic material that could reproduce the composition of the various pieces. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens in restoration, this attempt was not suitable for the majority of the fragments and their composition. Thus, the re-assembly was performed by traditional methodologies: anchoring of the various fragments with steel pins easily reversible, and the use of resins only in cases of particular fragility, integrating with mortar and caulking where aesthetically necessary. The result of this restoration is excellent: the splendid sarcophagus – despite its incompleteness – was transferred from the Courtyard of Zitella to the Gregorian Profane Museum, especially to preserve its fragile surfaces. It remains as a testiment to our California Patrons as donors and the expertise of the Vatican Museums in their great work as conservationists. (Patrons of the Arts, November 2015)