By Roger J. A. Wilson
A badly damaged Roman marble base now in Valletta, Malta, was first published in 1647 and then in 1787. It has been neglected since, mainly because there have been doubts about whether or not it is a genuine antiquity. This study argues for its authenticity, and contextualizes the relief sculpture that decorates three of its sides. The front carries a depiction of Sicilia, the personification of the Roman province of Sicily to which the Maltese Islands belonged. The image is set in context within the small group of known personifications of Sicilia elsewhere. Identical side panels each show a man with what is interpreted here as a turtle balanced on his knee, an apparently unique depiction of these creatures in Roman sculpture. It is suggested that turtles, now scarce in the Mediterranean, were once plentiful in the waters off both Malta and Sicily. In a secondary period, perhaps in the late eighteenth century, the base was badly mutilated during its conversion for use as a fountain. Whether it ever functioned as such is uncertain.
Keywords: Malta; Roman relief sculpture; personification; Sicilia; triskeles; turtles; reuse; early modern fountain
In 1647 Giovanni Francesco Abela published a marble base featuring a female head with three legs shown behind it (Fig. 1), which had been found a few years earlier at Saint Paul’s Bay (Abela 1647, 210-211).1 Abela correctly understood that the three legs (the triskeles) were a reference to Sicily, but he interpreted the head as a representation of Proserpina and thought that a full-scale statue of the goddess stood on the base. Even though the base belonged to him, and it was displayed in the garden of his house at Marsa, Abela depicted the leg above the head turned to the right as the viewer sees it, whereas in actual fact it is directed to the left. This must be due to an error by his illustrator, who had to make the copperplate engraving in reverse in preparation for a paper printing the correct way round (as always), but who neglected to do so. Just over a century later, the base was published again by the French painter Jean Houel in the fourth volume of his magnificent Voyage pittoresque des Isles de Sicile, de Malte et de Lipari (Houel 1787, 94, and pl. CCLVI: here Fig. 2). He interpreted the bust as male and as representing Mount Etna; like Abela he recognized the three legs as the symbol of Sicily, an allusion to the island’s ‘trois promontoires de Lilybée, de Pelore, & de Pachino’. Unlike Abela, he also noted the depiction of a figure on both sides of the base, and he shows one of them (in shadow) separately, set immediately to the right of the base itself. He describes it as depicting ‘un homme habillé, qui retient avec effort un gros poisson sur ses genoux’ (Houel 1787, 94). Since then the base has been largely forgotten. In 2000 I wrongly surmised that it ‘may now be lost’ (Wilson 2000, 44); but five years later it showed up again on the front cover of a book by Anthony Bonanno (2005) in a ‘group photo’ mimicking as closely as possible the arrangement of antiquities seen in Houel’s plate. Bonanno, who described the base as ‘showing Trinacria on one side, and the other of a man pouring water’, thought, however, that it was ‘of dubious antiquity’ (2005, 4).
The base (Fig. 3a) is made of fine-grained white marble with only occasional crystalline specks. It stood 79 cm tall, the height still preserved on its rear side; the front face by contrast is damaged. It is square in shape, measuring 63 x 62.5 cm at the top; it is 66.2 cm wide at the bottom.
The figured panel on the front has simple, plain mouldings at top and bottom, each consisting of a flat band and then a sloping one inwards towards the panel. These went round all four sides of the base, although they are damaged at the back. In the centre a large head, 27 cm high, is carved in low relief, now gravely disfigured. Thin wavy lines denote hair (rather than snakes) and determine, together with the three legs behind, that the bust represents a personification of the province of Sicily, Sikelia in Greek, Sicilia in Latin. Alterations in a secondary period chiseled out the eyebrows, both eyes and the nose, and the mouth was obliterated by a circular hole c. 6.5 cm in diameter. Its presence and other indications (see below) indicate that at some stage the base was prepared for use as a fountain. Of the three legs the two side ones point in different directions. This as we shall see often occurs in depictions of Sicilia and is done for aesthetic reasons, to present a pleasingly balanced composition. The head is shown as though it was detached and set within a separate bust, a detail recorded by Abela but not by Houel.
The right-hand side of the base consists of a figured panel (36 cm x 45 cm) on the left, and a plain, uncarved part to the right (Fig. 3b). A naked man (Houel says he is clothed) stands in profile facing left with his right foot planted on a rather irregular rock. The creature which he rests on his right knee was described by Houel as a large fish, but even though tuna can sometimes grow to a length of 2 m or more, they have two prominent dorsal fins (and lesser fins on the underside) which are missing here. Bonanno (2005, 4) thought the man was pouring water, presumably from an amphora, but there are then unexplained details – on the lower side of the alleged container, and at the entrance to what is taken to be its neck – which in my view make this interpretation unlikely. The creature being held ‘with difficulty’ (‘avec effort’), as Houel says, is, I would suggest, a turtle (Fig. 3c). Its size is appropriate, the smooth rounded back is suitable as a depiction of its carapace, and although details are damaged, I take the projection near the front of the underside as the turtle’s front left flipper, while its rear flipper is being grasped by the man with his left hand. On the left at the end of the shell there projects a clear oval shape in relief that I take to be a depiction of the turtle’s head. The raised relief here which continues on past the turtle to the surviving edge of the base may indicate that he was shown holding an object, perhaps the club by which the unfortunate creature was to be battered to death. An identical scene in an almost identically sized panel is shown on the left-hand side (Fig. 3d), but here damage has been extensive and few individual details of the original surface survive. The man’s left foot rests firmly on a flat rock, and his back (right) foot is shown with the heel raised.
On the top of the base, towards the rear, are two L-shaped projections (at the back, to left and right, in Fig. 3e), which must originally have extended around all four sides. All of the flat surface that this border originally surrounded (except for a small surviving fragment at the rear) has been hacked away in a secondary period when the base was converted for intended use as a fountain. The coarse pick marks of this work are clearly visible, fashioning an inclined surface which suggests that water was intended to fall on it from above and be channeled towards the new vertical channel, which is 8 cm wide at the top, at the back of the base (at top centre in Fig. 3e).
That opening marks the top of a vertical cut in the rear of the base, shallow at first in the upper part (8 cm wide and 9 cm from back to front), but progressively greater as it descends (up to 31 cm, back to front). Water was presumably intended to be carried in a metal pipe here, connecting with another in the horizontal cut through the middle of the base which would have carried water to the circular hole at the front. Here water was planned to spout into a collecting basin below.
Roman or post-Roman
Despite Bonanno’s scepticism, I firmly believe that this is a genuine piece of Roman sculpture, albeit of modest quality. There is no reason to doubt Abela’s claim that it was found in the 1630s or 1640s, and surely no local sculptor would have had a motive for carving a marble block in, say, the early seventeenth century, on which he chose, or was asked, to carve the emblem of the Roman province of Sicily. Few atthe time except appassionati of Greek and Roman coins would have known of the iconography. In particular it would have held no relevance for Malta and its citizens after the end of Byzantine rule. Although the islands continued to be part of the kingdom of Sicily until 1530, the triskeles was no longer employed in Sicilian iconography after the end of antiquity. Short-lived revivals of the symbol appeared first in 1814 and 1848, and then in Sicilian independence movements during the 1940s. It was only adopted as the centrepiece of the Sicilian flag and on all communications from the Regione Siciliana as recently as 2000. The presence of the base in Malta only makes sense if it were carved when the Maltese archipelago formed part of provincia Sicilia, a period when the emblem of the three legs was used as an eloquent and distinctive symbol of Sicilian identity.
Identity of the bust
As noted above, the bust on the principal face, on the basis of a handful of comparanda in mosaic and sculpture, can be identified as a personification of Sicilia, and so is (pace Houel) female. A full discussion of the history of the iconography of the triskeles itself, and of the female head with triskeles behind, can be found elsewhere (Wilson 1994, 2000, 2003, 2009; cf. also 1997 and Salcedo Garcés 1994), but it is important to clarify here the distinction between the triskeles symbol on the one hand (sometimes called also the Trinacria, an ancient name for Sicily), and the personification of the province on the other.
In brief, the triskeles is a symbol consisting of three legs emerging from a point or a circular disc at its centre. It first occurs on two pieces of Sicilian-made pottery from southern Sicily, one from near Palma di Montechiaro, the other from Bitalemi near Gela, both c. 600 BC (De Miro 1962, 129-133; Orlandini 1964). It is probably a sun symbol like the swastika; but it is not exclusive to Sicily, occurring for example as a shield device on Athenian pottery in the sixth and early fifth centuries BC, and later on the coinage of various cities in Asia Minor and elsewhere (Sapienza 2019, nos 27-54). It even appears in relief on a stone block in the agora at Adada in Pisidia (pers. obs.). Agathocles in the late fourth century BC was the first to have added the head of Medusa to the centre of the triskeles, putting it on his soldiers’ shields as well as on coin issues (Hoover 2012, nos 1365 and 1459; Sapienza 2019, 142-152) (Fig. 4a), but only in the Roman period did the triskeles come into its own as a symbol of the province, when the Medusa head was retained, and ears of wheat were often added as a clear reference to Sicilian agricultural fertility. That is the type which appears on municipal coinage in late Republican and Augustan Sicily (Burnett et al. 1992, nos 641, 644, 646-7 and 659; Sapienza 2019, nos 17-21), and later on the coinage of Clodius Macer, would-be Emperor in the troubled year of AD 68/69 (Sutherland 1984, 195) (Fig. 4a-c). It also features in other media, as on a high-quality cornelian (Boardman 1968, no. 42) (Fig. 4d).
The personification of Sicilia, by contrast, shows quite clearly a woman’s head, not that of the snake-infested Medusa. The earliest representation of Sikelia is on a coin of c. 340 BC, of uncertain mint (possibly Halaesa), showing a woman in profile to right, wearing earrings and a wreath of myrtle (Wilson 1994, 759, no. 1; Hoover 2012, no. 183). She has no distinguishing attributes but the coin legend ΣΙΚΕΛΙΑ, makes identification possible. The first Roman representation of Sicilia occurs on a Roman denarius of 71 BC, depicted as a kneeling figure about to be helped to her feet by a conquering co-general (Crawford 1974, no. 401/1). Again there are no distinctive attributes; again it is the coin legend, SICIL(ia), which indicates who she is. These early versions of Sicilia lack the accompanying three legs.
One of the first images of Sicilia to include the distinctive triskeles behind the head is on a now-lost fresco from Pompeii (and so before AD 79) (Helbig 1868, no. 1115; Ostrowski 1990, 201, no. 8) (Fig. 5). The drawing of it that has come down to us shows only two legs, not three, but a third may have been originally present but was already lost when the painting was discovered and recorded. Sicilia is depicted also with ears of wheat in her hair and she wears a small turreted mural crown – an attribute more appropriate to cities than to whole provinces. A mosaic from Belkis-Seleukia in Turkey, however, shows each of the ten surviving provinces (all of them named) wearing a mural crown, so Sicilia (which does not survive on that floor) is likely to have worn one too (Parlasca 1983; Kriseleit 2000, 45-51, no. 13). Sicily also wears a mural crown (and has the three legs also) on a lamp made by Loukios at Corinth in Greece (Broneer 1930, 194, no. 603) (Fig. 6). Why a Corinthian lampmaker, active c. AD 200, should decorate the discus of one of his lamps in this way is a mystery. Although Corinthian lamps are occasionally found in Sicily, the island does not seem to have been a large-scale export target for Corinthian lamp makers. Did Loukios hope for one when he created this image of Sikelia on one his products, thinking that it might become popular in Sicily? Yet no example of the Corinth Sikelia lamp has ever been found in Sicily itself.
More like the Malta example is one image in mosaic and two further examples in stone. The mosaic, in situ in the Terme della Trinacria at Ostia, of c. AD 120/130, shows a mournful Sicilia, identifiable by the triskeles behind her head (Becatti 1961, no. 275 with Tav. CXXXIV) (Fig. 7). Of the two stone examples, one occurs, rather surprisingly, on the aristocratic tomb of C. Utianus Rufus, at Polla in southern Campania, dating to the first half of the first century AD (Spinazzola 1910; Bracco 1959) (Fig. 8a). The image of Sicily with the three legs appears to the right of the funerary inscription, and, as though its significance may not have been entirely clear to its audience, the letters SIC(ilia) are inscribed around it (Fig. 8b). I take this to be a representation of Sicilia rather than simply the triskeles, because a full head of hair is shown without a trace of snakes; it is not therefore a depiction of the Medusa. If so, it may be the earliest representation of the personification with triskeles known. Why Utianus Rufus chose to have this depicted on his tomb, or what links if any he had with Sicily, is unknown.
The other is a small depiction on a marble base from Ostia in the Vatican (Helbig 1963, 440, no. 557; Ostrowski 1990, 201, no. 7; Spinola 2004, 284-286, no. 98, inv. 2619) (Fig. 9), where Sicilia, a female bust with curly hair and the three legs behind, is accompanied by personifications of Africa and Annona (the corn supply), a demonstration of Sicily’s importance, along with Africa, as a corn producer. An early fourth century date has been suggested (L’Orange and van Gerkan 1939, 100); if correct it would be the latest representation of Sicilia known. All the other examples, however, belong to the first or second centuries AD (although the Corinth lamp may date to the first half of the third century), and it seems likely that the Malta base belongs to the same chronological time frame.
In some examples there is ambiguity. As mentioned, the panel on the tomb at Polla, interpreted by earlier commentators as Medusa, is more likely in the absence of snakes to be Sicilia, as indeed the accompanying letters SIC(ilia) imply. A very simple image on a mosaic at Ostia, perhaps Claudian, also lacks attributes beyond the three legs (Becatti 1961, no. 68 with Tav. CXXIII) (Fig. 10); but this does not look like the gracious female head of other personifications of the province, and despite the absence of snakes (or hair of any kind) it is probably a straightforward triskeles symbol. A pavement at Tindari of c. AD 200 certainly shows a triskeles because of the corn ears (cf. Fig. 18) even though the snakes of Medusa are not clearly depicted (Von Boeselager 1983, 115-117; Wilson 1990, 2, Fig. 2) (Fig. 11). Corn ears set as projections from the head in this very noticeable way do not form part of the iconography of Sicilia.
Interpretation of the side panels
That a depiction on each side panel apparently shows turtles being handled is intriguing. The ancient world did not distinguish between turtles (a marine creature with flippers) and tortoises (a land animal of course, with legs); the same word is used for both, chelone in Greek, testudo in Latin (Kitchell 2013, 186-188; also Lewis and Llewellyn-Jones 2018, 556-564). The turtle was sought after in antiquity above all for its shell, for use in furniture inlay in Rome and for sound boxes in musical instruments such as the lyre, but Pliny (HN 9.12.35-13.39; 32.14.35-38) informs us also that the flesh was eaten, and in addition gives us an astonishing range of its medicinal properties, including as a balm for snake and scorpion bites, and as a cure for dandruff and epilepsy. Turtles are rarely depicted in Greek visual culture (Kraay 1966, nos 335-336; Kitchell 2013, 188; Settis 1966, fig. 9) and never, as far as I am aware, in Roman sculpture, so the Malta base is exceptional. A creature at lower left in the damaged mosaic at Palestrina dominated by fish is described by Andreae (2002, 36, figs 7-8) as a ‘tartaruga marina’, i.e. a turtle, but it is depicted on land, not in water, and clearly has feet: it represents a tortoise, not a turtle (in Andreae 2003, 128, fig. 128, it is described as a ‘Schildkröte’, which means both ‘tortoise’ and ‘turtle’). On Roman archaeological sites, turtle carapace fragments have rarely been noted, although one has been identified in a first century AD context in Beirut, and four further examples in a fifth-century AD level, also at Beirut (Cakirlar et al. 2021).
Today the marine turtle is highly protected, so rare has it become through excessive hunting over the centuries. Three species are reported today as present in the Mediterranean, of which the loggerhead turtle, Caretta caretta, is the most common, yet its nesting sites in Italy, in particular Puglia, Calabria, Sardinia, as well as Sicily, number no more than forty. They occur more plentifully today in Greece, especially on beaches in Zakynthos, Kyparissia, Lakonikos, Rethymno, Chania, Messenia, and Koroni (https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/seaturtle, consulted 27.03.23). Less frequent are the green turtle, Chelonia mydas, and the leatherback turtle, Dermochelys coriacea. Kemp’s ridley turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) and the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) have received only extremely rare sightings in the Mediterranean in recent decades (Fig. 12). It was not always so: two centuries ago the waters off Sicily and no doubt off Malta too were replete with turtles. In a throw-away remark Admiral Smyth mentioned, while discussing the polypus in the waters off Salina in the Aeolian Islands, that they were at their most plentiful ‘generally during the time that the hawk’s-bill turtle are taken’ (1824, 274). One can understand why the latter was particularly hunted: the markings on the shell are particularly attractive. Whichever species of turtle the Malta base was depicting, painted additions in colour would have enlivened the composition and aided identification.
Why were turtles, if correctly identified, chosen to illustrate the Malta base? If the personification of Sicilia represents the land of the province of Sicily (including the Maltese Islands) and its fertility, perhaps the side panels complemented that by referring to the riches of the adjoining seas. In that case plentiful turtles present in its waters symbolize an abundance of marine life. If so the hunting of turtles at the appropriate season may have made a modest contribution to the Maltese economy in Roman times.
If the above interpretation of the base is correct, that Sicilia represents the fertility of the land and that turtles are symbolic of the richness of its waters, it is hard to parallel such a pairing in the iconography of Sicilia elsewhere. The tomb at Polla may be a candidate. A panel to the left of the inscription shows, apparently, a man sitting on a rock facing left, with his left leg outstretched and his right tucked back against the rock (Fig. 13). He appears to be wearing a closefitting pointed cap (pace Spinazzola 1910, 79 and Bracco 1959, 196, who mistake this for a satyr’s ear). In his left hand he holds two rods. Is he fishing? Fishermen are often depicted, on lamps and mosaics, for example, as wearing either a pointed hat, as on a mosaic under the church of Agios Demetrios at Kos (Kankeleit 2003, 278, fig. 14) (Fig. 14) or one with a brim to serve as a sunshade, as on an African lamp found in Agrigento (Griffo 1987, 177, fig. 152; cf. Bailey 1988, 46, Q 1715) (Fig. 15). Could this be a reference to fresh water and the abundance of springs that contributed so much to Sicilian fertility? Or did the two panels refer to quite different activities in the life of the deceased (the one denoting a spell in Sicily as governor, or ownership of a favourite villa there, the other a fondness for fishing as a pastime?). We simply do not know.
Nor do we understand the function of the Valletta base. Because the top is not in its original state, we do not know if it was designed to stand alone or to support something above, whether a column or a statue. If the latter, it is possible that the divinity represented was connected with the sea, in which case the depiction of turtles would have been wholly appropriate. Once again, however, in the absence of evidence, we lack any clarity as to why the representation of turtles on the Maltese base was ever conceived.
The secondary (projected?) use as a fountain
The base has had a chequered history since the seventeenth century. When Abela (to whom it belonged) died in 1655, his collection was left to the Jesuit fathers in Valletta. After their expulsion from Malta in 1768, the remnants of Abela’s collection were taken to the Grand Master’s Palace when Emmanuel de Rohan was Grand Master (1775-1797), and were placed in the ‘Biblioteca’, a room in the palace used to house antiquities as well as books before their transfer to a purpose-built Biblioteca building in the decade after Houel’s visit. The collection remained there until the early twentieth century, when the Valletta Museum was created, in Palazzo Xara in front of Saint John’s Cocathedral. The Museum has moved twice since, first in the 1920s to the Auberge d’Italie, and then after the Second World War II to the Auberge de Provence, where the marble base under discussion is housed in store today.
The changes made in a secondary period to make the base suitable for use as a fountain have been described above. We do not know when these drastic alterations were made, and there is no documentary evidence recording them. Perhaps the work of conversion was never finished; certainly the pick marks left by the conversions look very rough. I assume that the attempted conversion occurred after Houel had seen the base during the 1770s in its original state, and was presumably therefore carried out in the late eighteenth century or very early in the nineteenth, before attitudes changed gradually towards preserving antiquities rather than mutilating them. I think it highly unlikely that the base had already been altered before Houel saw it, and that he merely ignored the changes and presented the base as he imagined it in its original state. That is not Houel’s manner. Although he sometimes makes mistakes about the immediate surroundings of the monuments he describes, he can normally be counted on for accuracy in his observation of the object or monument which is the central focus of each image.
The Roman marble base in Valletta has been unjustly neglected for too long. Despite its poor condition, the relief panel on the front provides an interesting example in the small group of known personifications of Sicilia, while the reliefs on the sides of the base, which in my view depict men handling turtles, appear, if correctly interpreted, to be unique in Roman sculpture – an allusion to creatures once likely to have been plentiful in the waters off Maltese (and Sicilian) shores.
I am grateful for permission to publish the base to the Director of the National Museum of Archaeology, Dr Sharon Sultana, who kindly arranged to have it brought it from the stores for me to study in May 2022; to Marcia Grima, for much help during my visit; and to Dr Reuben Grima and Nathaniel Cutajar, for generously sharing with me their own research on the more recent history of the base. Dr Grima also kindly read a draft of this paper and I am grateful to him for his helpful comments. I would also like to acknowledge here the time and practical assistance given to me both in advance of and during my visit to Malta by Anthony Bonanno and David Cardona. Dr Norbert Franken kindly gave permission for his photo of the Kos mosaic to be published here. The astute comments of my friend John Crawshaw, who kindly read a draft of this paper, were as always much appreciated, enriching the final version presented here. This kindness comes exactly fifty years after the first manuscript of mine that he scrutinized, also to its great advantage. I am grateful too to Nino Ampolo, who drew my attention to Settis 1966. The photograph of the Corinth lamp, acquired with the assistance of Hector Williams, is published here by kind permission of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Corinth Excavations.
Roger J. A. Wilson
Centre for the Study of Ancient Sicily
Department of Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies
University of British Columbia
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Roger J. A. WILSON is Director of the Centre for the Study of Ancient Sicily at the University of British Columbia, where he was awarded the Killam Prize for Research in recognition of his life-long contributions to scholarship. He has also taught at the Universities of Nottingham and Dublin, and been Visiting Professor at McMaster University, Balsdon Fellow at the British School at Rome, Guest Scholar at the Getty Villa, Malibu, Dalrymple Lecturer in Archaeology at Glasgow, and Byvanck Lecturer at the National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden. Among his books are Piazza Armerina (1982), Sicily under the Roman Empire (1990), and Caddeddi on the Tellaro (2016). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
- The present paper is a condensed, but also revised, version of Wilson 2022, to which the reader is referred for more detail.
Malta Archaeological Review 2023, issue 13, https://doi.org/10.46651/mar.2023.2
Received: 11 April 2023 | Accepted: 4 July 2023 | Published online: 10 October 2023