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Myth in Marble Volume 58 Number 4, July/August 2005
by Jarrett A. Lobell

A tragic figure emerges from the ruins of a Roman villa.

[image] This spring, archaeologist Carmen Lalli was astonished to uncover a six-foot tall statue of the goddess Niobe on the grounds of the Villa dei Quintili, five miles from the center of Rome. (Claudio Peri/ANSA/Landov) [LARGER IMAGE]

Carmen Lalli was wrapping up a two-year excavation at one of ancient Rome's most luxurious suburban villas in April when she noticed a small piece of marble sticking out of the ground in her trench. Thinking it was only a fragment, the young Italian archaeologist raked the soil away, revealing the edge of a statue. It turned out to be an extraordinary find: a marble figure of Niobe--one of antiquity's most tragic mythic figures--headless, more than six feet tall, and weighing more than 3,000 pounds. "To find a statue of this size, this quality--I was completely astonished," recalls Lalli.

After more than 200 years of excavation, it was thought that most of the statues had been found. The recent discovery of the Niobe is remarkable not only for the rarity of a find of monumental sculpture but also for its compelling subject matter. Niobe, queen of the city of Thebes, boasted that she was superior to Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis, because the goddess had only two children while she had 12. Leto responded by having Apollo and Artemis slaughter all of Niobe's children. In antiquity, Niobe's story served as a lesson about the consequences of excessive pride.

According to Rita Paris, head archaeologist of the Soprintendezna Archeologica di Roma, the Niobe probably once was part of a large group of statues telling the tragedy of Niobe and her children. A statue of Zeus seated on a rock (found at an unknown date) as well as statues of Apollo and Artemis, and a Niobid (one of Niobe's children) uncovered in the same area of the villa in 1925, are now in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. They likely form the rest of the statue group.

The Niobe is also important because it is one of the few statues from the villa whose findspot is known. Although Paris thinks that the statue was found where it fell, it is clear that the head had been deliberately removed. The ongoing excavation, which began at the villa in the 1990s as part of the massive public works in preparation for the 2000 Papal Jubilee year, will continue when additional funds are secured, as will Paris' search through the museums of Europe to locate Niobe's head.

Jarrett A. Lobell is associate managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America