MetCollects Episode 6 / 2019


MetCollects is an online feature that highlights works of art new to the Museum's collection through the fresh eyes of photographers and the enthusiastic voices of leading scholars and artists. Discover a new work each month.

Galatea by Max Klinger. 1906

This puteal (wellhead) is an outstanding example of Roman figural relief sculpture of the second century A.D. It once covered a well in Ostia, the port town of ancient Rome. The ancient Roman sculptor has transformed a utilitarian object into a luxurious work of art. Carved from a single block of marble, the drum is decorated with two cautionary tales from Greek mythology that relate to water. The sculptor seamlessly combined the story of Narcissus and Echo with the tale of the handsome hero Hylas being abducted by nymphs in the land of Mysia (western Turkey) as he was fetching water for the Argonauts on their quest to find the Golden Fleece.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses (III.513-58), Narcissus is cursed by a spurned lover to love himself as he has been loved without obtaining his beloved. Out on a hunt, Narcissus seeks to slake a thirst and while he drinks he is smitten by the beautiful form he sees. Here the image of Narcissus captivated by his reflection in the moving waters of the spring is particularly dramatic, with his long locks of hair flowing in the rushing water. Echo sits behind him hopelessly in love. The Argonautica (I.1221-39) by Apollonios of Rhodes describes the nymphs being disturbed at their dance by Hylas who is pulled into the water by a love-struck nymph after he draws water from the spring into his bronze jug. The composition may stem from a famous lost Hellenistic painting. The tale reoccurs in Roman Imperial wall painting where, as here, several nymphs are typically involved.

The wellhead was celebrated at the time of its discovery as one of the most beautiful Roman sculptures of its kind. It was excavated near the Bavacciano Tower of Ostia during the spring of 1797 in one of the last private excavations on papal lands under the direction of the Irish painter and antiquarian Robert Fagan (1761–1816). Fagan secured an export license from the Vatican to send it to England in 1801. Its publication by an Italian scholar in 1805 announced its existence to the scholarly world, but subsequently its location became unknown to scholars. Acquired by the 8th Earl of Wemyss before 1853, it resided at Gosford House in Scotland for generations before its acquisition by The Met. Remarkably well preserved, with limited restorations made soon after its discovery, it is among the finest of some seventy relief-decorated Roman marble wellheads known today and the only one whose iconography relates so directly to water.

Seán Hemingway
John A. and Carole O. Moran Curator in Charge
Greek and Roman Art



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