Curiosities from the Museum of Giovanni Carafa (1778)

These fantastic depictions of various Roman antiquities are sourced from Alcuni monumenti del Museo Carrafa (1778), a wonderful catalogue of objects once found in the private museum of 18th-century antiquities collector Giovanni Carafa, the Duke of Noja (now called Noicattaro, a town near Bari in southern Italy ). Born in 1715, Carafa studied grammar and literature but soon developed an interest in scientific subjects, mainly mathematics. Around 1738 he was appointed lecturer of Optics and Mathematics at the University of Naples, and there he continued to explore his interests in the natural sciences, especially geology and mineralogy. He soon began collecting archaeological and numismatic pieces concerning southern Italy and established a small museum (which would become part of the collection of Museo di Capodimonte in 1771). He is perhaps most famous today for having created a topographical map of the city of Naples and its neighbourhoods, the first of its kind.

For each image presented in his Alcuni monumenti del Museo Carrafa Carafa wrote a small commentary, telling the reader more about the objects they depict and his ideas on what they signify. We’ve used these summaries to do likewise for each of the images we’ve selected — and a massive grazie mille to Giorgia Coghi for her help in translating from the Italian into English.

The Hand of Sabazius

Carafa refers to this fantastic bronze hand as simply “Pantea” (all the gods), a name reflecting its allusion to many deities. He gives us a 360 degree view of the hand, picturing it from four sides. Apparently “a learned and erudite commentary” on the piece had once been written but was lost. We now know the hand to be a sacred symbol of the god Sabazius, a deity of fertility and vegetation worshipped by a religious cult of ancient Rome.




Carved Gem Stones

Ring shaped gem depicting a hybrid figure, a mix of a butterfly and a male youth, a fusion which apparently symbolises “the spirit’s act of giving form to the human body”. The Greek word “psyche” means both butterfly and soul/spirit, and the goddess Psyche (representing the soul) was often depicted as a butterfly: hence Dante commenting that humans were “born to form the angelic butterfly”.



Carved Agate Corniola (a red stone) once belonging to the famed Roman antiquarian Francesco Ficoroni. It depicts Prometheus as a sculptor, fashioning the human form from clay and various other materials borrowed from animals. Carafa explains how the the forehead and breast come from the horse (“a generous and daring animal, but capable of irruption and of government”) and, rather vaguely, “from a ram another part, because of other reasons.”



Another carving in Agate Corniola, this time depicting the figures of Hercules and Bacchus, who make libations (ritual scattering of wine), while above them flies a goddess armed with a helmet, shield, and lance. Carafa identifies this airbone figure to be Atë, the Greek goddess of mischief, delusion, ruin, and folly.



Carving in Sardonyx Agate (a red banded stone), depicting a man (who is, according to Carafa, “dedicated to magical studies”) sitting on a column, while to his right stands a skeleton, holding in each of his hands a patera, a bowl used for pouring libations.



Carved gem stone, thought to hail from ancient Naples. It depicts the Siren, but not as she is typically represented. Carafa believes the pitcher, that she bears on her head, relates to the Sebeto, a narrow river in Naples, and that the torch, that she holds in her left hand, relates to the volcanos which surround the city.


Animal Head Jugs

Painted clay pots that were used in bacchanalian sacrifices. Carafa says he’s also observed in carved gems representations of similar pots but emerging from the head of a man.



Lamps, Amulets, and Bricks

Top: “Lucerna” (oil lamp) in the shape of a crown, intersected by a handle with a faux-knot in the middle, by which it can be held, and on one end the “mouth”, or “ear” in which one puts the wick. It is painted in the Etruscan manner, with the usual black glaze on the reddish clay. Bottom: Pottery cockroaches, that were used as amulets to hang around the neck. Carafa dates them to the time of “Gnostics and Valentinian”, who altered the “ancient Egyptian doctrine” by mixing with other “new superstitions”.



Top: Clay lamps with reliefs, but without painting. The one on the left described the rape of Europa; to the right Chiron teaching Apollo to play the lyre. The piece resting on the ground (shown from two angles) depicts a monkey-like figure, which Carafa identifies as trying to read a book, the wick’s hole where the feet should be. Bottom: In the centre is a little pot in the shape of a foot, which Carafa says was “consecrated to the Isíac religion” and which functioned as “a vow against gout, offered to Serapis”. To either side are two views of a pot (which Carafa believes to be lamp) with “turtleback” shape, “beautifully painted with the figure of an old satyr lying, almost asleep, and of some animals”.



Top: Sealed, or branded, bricks, according to customs of several factories. Having been dug up in Naples, Carafa believes the one branded, left to right, “IMP. CAES. HADRIANI AVG” to have served some building at the behest of Caesar, or at least in his honour. Bottom: to the left a small pot with the imprinted name “HPAKɅEIOY ɅYKON”: that is, Licone, son of Heraclius. The middle fragment bears the Greek women’s name “MAPΣIA ΠAPAMOvn”, whom Carafa believes was the owner of the land where the clay was dug up or the owner of the factory; as is the case with the other specimen’s name “ΔAMOKPATHΣ” – with a stamp or a sign of the lily — the fragment coming from Sicily.