Naples – The Farnese Bull

This immortal work of art is worthy of all the praise that can be bestowed upon it, for the grandeur of its conception and the marvelous skill of its execution have never been excelled and probably have never been equaled. It is the work of the renowned Rhodian sculptors, Apollonius and Tauriscus, and was found in 1546 in the Baths of Caracalla at Rome in a sadly mutilated condition.

In order to appreciate the immortal genius that is so brilliantly displayed in this colossal group, we must understand not only the nature of the effect which the sculptor sought to produce, but also the forces which brought the statue into being and contributed to this result. In Grecian art, sculpture and mythology, of which poetry was the highest and most artistic expression, went hand in hand, and long before the myth which the work represents was incorporated into stone, it had been immortalized by a celebrated tragedy of Euripides. The scene before us is full of terror and daring, and though wrought in the cool, snowy marble, is yet quivering with intensest passion and frenzied malice.

As you may see, two powerful youths are battling with an enraged bull ; the forms of these young men, especially of the one in front of the bull which can be plainly seen, are characterized by remarkable strength and agility. Notice how the muscles of the calf of the right leg are expanded and how they swell to whipcords down by the ankle. Over the horns of the mad bull this young fellow has placed a rope noose which the other brother is drawing tight and by means of which he assists in holding the furious beast, which is plunging desperately and striking the air with its hoofs. Their purpose is to bind to the horns of this terrible animal the helpless yet beautiful form of the woman whom you see in danger of being trampled by the bull. Only a moment they have to complete their diabolical task, for the combined strength of these two young giants cannot hold back this cyclone of fury; any minute it may break away and their vengeance be foiled. It is the supreme moment, when the struggles of the bull have reached their uttermost, when the strength of the men is put to its farthest limit, when the agonizing supplications of the beautiful woman are heartrending, and when the pity of the mother, standing in the background, breaks through all restraint and beseeches her two sons to be merciful, that the sculptors have caught and imprisoned for us in the gleaming stone. In order to appreciate the horrible fascination of the work which produces such a powerful impression upon all beholders, we must answer several questions which spring to the lips as soon as we see the group.

What is the cause of the hatred of these young men toward that lovely woman? What could impel them to such brutality? The story is quickly told, and it is a familiar one in ancient Greek literature. When Antiope, who is represented by the female figure standing in the background with the long spear resting in her left hand and against her shoulder, had given birth to Amphion and Zethus, she was driven away from her father’s house and had to abandon her sons. The boys were given over into the care of an old shepherd who brought them up without their having any knowledge of their mother. Antiope, deprived of her children, also suffered terrible wrongs at the hands of her relative Dirce. One day, wandering on Mt. Cythaeron, in wild bacchanalian revel, Dirce met the two young shepherds, who at once became fascinated with her. Thinking her power over them complete and appreciating their great strength, she bids them bind Antiope to a mad bull that she may be dragged to a cruel death. In company with Dirce, they seek Antiope, but recognize their mother before it is too late. Then they consign Dirce to the fate she had prepared for another. To further illustrate the myth, notice the work on the base of the statue. A small boy adorned with a wreath, a figure regarded by some as the mountain god Cythaeron, decked with Bacchic ivy, is placed beneath the left foot of Amphion, and beneath his right foot springs the lithe and graceful form of a shepherd dog, and leaning against the trunk of a tree are a thyrsus or wand and other symbols, while on the right side of the base are carved the figures of a sheep and goat. But all these minor details are far surpassed in interest and power by the principal figures and their action. Nothing in the whole realm of art can surpass the artistic refinement of its execution, the exquisite folds of the drapery, the strength yet graceful symmetry of the forms, and the vivid and overwhelming sense of life and agony which pervades it all. No wonder the famous group exercises such a majestic and overpowering influence upon the minds of men; and remember also that it is the work of two artists and the whole group was sculptured out of a single block of marble. The parts restored are the head of the bull, the figure of Antiope (except the feet), the head and arms of Dirce, and portions of Amphion and Zethus. For boldness, life and masterful energy, blended with grace and beauty, this piece of statuary stands unrivaled and alone.

Gazing at these remarkable productions of ancient genius, we can but recall many a fair legend of those distant days, which causes the fancy to kindle and the heart to glow ; but still we shall never be satisfied unless we can look upon the life these worthies lived, and enter into their homes and walk the streets that their feet have trod. Such a thing seems simply impossible, for the centuries cannot be rolled back upon themselves, even if the sun might be made to stand still. And yet, the impossible has been achieved, and the first century, with its streets, its homes, its art, fresh as though painted with this morning’s sunshine, waits our coming. Cities buried for almost two thousand years are flooded with the light of today, and all their treasures lie open for our inspection. We do not realize how many of these buried cities there are, all of them being once populous centers and powerful towns, having their armies and their navies, before which, for a time, even the power of Rome stood baffled. Among these were Cumae, the oldest Greek settlement in Italy ; Puteoli, of great commercial fame; Capua, the strongest southern fortress of Rome ; Baiae, often called the Vanity Fair of the first century ; and still others, many of which have been altogether forgotten, and some are beneath the present site of Naples. As we are eager to see one of these disinterred cities, let us leave Naples for a while and visit Herculaneum.

When we were looking from Naples to Vesuvius the site of Herculaneum lay to our extreme right along the shore of the bay. We shall go to that point now. As the map shows by the red lines connected with the number 52, we shall be looking toward the sea, or toward the southwest.