The sarcophagus panel portrays a man wearing a toga, shown with a roll of papyrus in his hand and a ring on his finger, symbols of the educated and wealthy class. The carving of people's faces on sarcophagi together with their personal items, had the purpose of leaving an imprint of the identity of the deceased: their physical appearance, virtues and social status. The deceased were remembered with their portraits as if the images could replace them.
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The past as a memory of the future
Ancient funerary art considered the grave as a threshold in which life and death, memory and oblivion, past and future were associated and exchanged roles in the present.
The inscription shows the dedication of a wife to her husband, a soldier in the Roman army who had taken leave with honour. Entrusting one's memory to writing meant “being talked about”: to be remembered through the words of the living. Thus past life was continually renewed in the present.
The sarcophagus fragment features seasonal genii, depicted with nature's gifts and the fruits of each season. Their aim was to encourage the enjoyment of the prosperity of nature, but above all to symbolize the return to life after death: like the seasons, life and death are part of a cycle that continuously repeats itself. The recognition and remembrance of the dead imply their return to life: one can be reborn through memory.
The relief depicts the work of a baker and was part of the decoration of a funerary monument. The decorations on the graves of freed slaves, artisans and traders often illustrated the trades of the deceased, thus memorialising the actions they performed in life. The scenes are set in shops and workshops where the deceased is portrayed wearing work clothes and surrounded by customers and workers. Manual work, originally an object of contempt, later became a value for those who had reached positions of economic power through hard labour.
Ancient funerary art considered the grave as a threshold in which life and death, memory and oblivion, past and future were associated and exchanged roles in the present. In this sense, the funerary monument is the site of a unifying transformation: where death joins life, representing it in memory, and eternal life crosses into death and promises its return. For this reason sarcophagi depict scenes from life, human portraits, mythological events and characters, literal and symbolic writings.
The mask, like the sepulchre as a whole, is the sign par excellence: the embodiment of memory, it represents the figures and the stages of human destiny on earth: from birth to adult sexual maturity and from the incarnation of the eternal parental figures to death. This is how human life is entrusted to signs and writings – traces of the living which endure so that their fame and name resurrect in the present. The virginity of eternal rebirth is like a flower that blooms every time in the recognition that happens now. A fire that illuminates the night for an instant.
Special thanks to Carlo Sini, author of this text.