The Princeton University Art Museum recently acquired an Etruscan Praenestine cista with engravings of the Dioscuri and the Judgment of Paris. Praenestine cistae are lidded cylindrical boxes found in graves of the 4th–3rd centuries B.C. around the ancient city of Praeneste (present-day Palestrina), about thirty-five kilometers east of Rome. Excavations at Praeneste in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were aimed primarily at the recovery of these cistae and their contents, which may include bronze mirrors, silver, bronze, or ivory vessels, jewelry, pins, tweezers, and other toiletries. The cistae are made of hammered bronze and have a low, domed lid surmounted by a solid cast handle, usually in the form of two figures. The feet also are cast and normally take the form of lion paws. Most cistae feature engraved decoration, with subjects derived from Greek and Etruscan mythology.
The most famous Praenestine cista is the Cista Ficoroni, now in the Museo di Villa Giulia in Rome, named after the collector Francesco de’ Ficoroni (1664–1747). Although the piece was found at Praeneste, its dedicatory inscription indicates Rome as the place of production. Accordingly, cistae sometimes have been taken as examples of middle Republican Roman art. The Ficoroni inscription is the only evidence for this theory, however, while there is ample evidence for a local production at Praeneste by Etruscan artisans.
The Princeton cista is repaired but in remarkably good condition. The handle is in the form of two nude figures, a satyr and a nymph. Like the engraved figures on the body, they have a somewhat androgynous character, an ambiguity resolved by the tail of the satyr and the differing genitalia. The vessel’s feet feature reliefs of kneeling winged spirits, apparently female, holding downturned torches, a symbol of mourning. Four marine creatures are engraved on the lid: two hippocamps (seahorses), a dolphin, and a ketos, a type of Greek sea-monster with a wolfish head. The principal engraved frieze on the cylindrical body is framed by bands of palmettes alternating with lotus blossoms. A clear “front” is defined by a pair of fluted Ionic columns, similar to those carved from native rock in the more elaborate Etruscan tombs of the period. Between the columns two nude males flank a nude, winged female, an Etruscan death demon known as a Lasa. The youths likely represent the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, ideals of youthful male vigor. The rest of the frieze comprises eight standing figures, five male and three female. The females are nude and stand in a group: one holds a wreath, another a cloth, and the third a spear. The woman with a wreath touches the shoulder of a seminude youth holding a spear. He is surely Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, and the woman is Aphrodite, whom the prince selected as the fairest of the goddesses in the Judgment of Paris. The second goddess, then, should be Hera, and the one with a spear must be Athena, who in Greek art would never be depicted nude. Watching the Judgment from the left are four young men who may be athletes or perhaps Trojan companions of Paris; the artist has provided a minimal amount of information to allow ancient and modern viewers to identify the subject. The overall effect is of elegance and grandeur, evincing a desire on the part of the owner’s family to perpetuate his or her spirit in a felicitous afterlife.
J. Michael Padgett, Curator of Ancient Art
Italy, Etruscan, vicinity of Palestrina, ca. 300 B.C.: Praenestine Cista with engravings of the Dioscuri and the Judgment of Paris. Cast and hammered bronze, h. 41.3 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund, Carl Otto von Kienbusch Jr., Memorial Collection Fund, and Hugh Leander Adams, Mary Trumbull Adams, and Hugh Trumbull Adams Princeton Art Fund (2011-154 a–b).