34. Roman Silhouette Figures: A Contribution to Music Archaeology?

  • Norbert Franken, Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin


This paper is the first overall study of Roman silhouette figures cut out of bronze sheets. The silhouette-shaped figures are mostly reduced to their outlines and show chiseled or engraved detail drawings. Though the figures have a wide distribution throughout the ancient world, they remain extraordinarily rare. The silhouettes tend to represent deities, particularly figures from the Apollonian entourage. Although most of these figures are now deprived of their contexts, a distinct emphasis on music and dance scenes can clearly be observed. Taking technical characteristics as well as information on find contexts into consideration, the author proposes that the silhouette figures were originally used as inlays for wooden musical instruments and furniture.

The question of original function is of great importance in our attempts to understand any archaeological object. For many ancient bronzes, this question is not easy to answer. Technical features, context of the discovery, or figural parallels can often provide valuable information. First of all, however, one must search for comparable bronzes. Only when one expands one’s view from the individual object to all similar artifacts does it become possible to better understand and assess their shared characteristics.

The following examples provide a useful illustration of this methodological approach. Under consideration here are sheet-metal silhouette figures dating to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The figures are cut from flat bronze sheets about 1 to 3 millimeters in thickness; internal details are incised. Sheet-metal silhouettes with similar features can also be found in the Archaic,1 Classical,2 and early medieval3 periods, but these sheets and all questionable pieces4 are only touched upon here for technical and aesthetic comparisons to the silhouettes of individual figures.

Figure 34.1. Armed dancer. H: 10.5 cm. Berlin, Antikensammlung-SMB, inv. 31631 Image: Norbert Franken, Antikensammlung – SMB

I begin my analysis with the silhouette of a dancing warrior in Berlin’s Antikensammlung (cat. 1; fig. 34.1). The helmeted warrior (H: 10.5 cm) wears a short cloak slung around his waist, and appears to be holding a short knife in the right hand. Spread across his torso is a row of short, mostly parallel incisions, which, to judge from two similar examples, represents either a tightly fitting vest or body hair.5

Also in Berlin is a long vine-leaf sheet with richly incised detail (cat. 2). In the middle, one of two tendrils is framed by an Apollonian cult-statue (a Baitylos); on the edges of the leaf there are masks and ritual objects, including baskets and tympana.

For comparison, I cite nine individual silhouette figures and a group from Tajikistan. The nine are a Mercury from Chur in Switzerland (cat. 3; fig. 34.2); a dancing girl from the excavations in Tel Dor (Israel) (cat. 4; fig. 34.3); an Apollo with kithara and griffin in Lyon (cat. 6; fig. 34.4); a seated griffin facing right (H: 3.9 cm) on the art market (cat. 13); a pantheistic goddess with torch and polos in Munich (so far the only silhouette figure with a border) (cat. 7; fig. 34.5); a dwarf in Parma with very crudely incised interior drawing (cat. 8; fig. 34.6); a Victoria originally shown inscribing a shield in Reggio Emilia (cat. 9; fig. 34.7); a silhouette of a dancing satyr in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (cat. 11); a satyr with wineskin and kantharos in the Museo Gregoriano Profano at the Vatican (cat. 10; fig. 34.8); and an offering jug in Verona (cat. 12).

Figure 34.2. Mercury. H: 6.5 cm. Chur, Rätisches Museum, inv. 67/112 Image: Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden, Neg. no. 1375-7A
Figure 34.3. Female dancer. H: 8.2 cm. Dor, the Tel Dor Archaeological Expedition Image: Tel Dor Archaeological Expedition
Figure 34.4. Apollo. H: 8 cm. Lyon, Musée gallo-romaine, inv. Br 26 Image: © J.-M. Degueule, Musée gallo-romain de Lyon
Figure 34.5. Goddess. Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, inv. NI 4536 Image: Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München
Figure 34.6. Dwarf. H: 8.3 cm. Parma, Museo d’Antichità, inv. B 416 Image: Museo Nazionale di Antichità, Parma
Figure 34.7. Victoria. H: 12.9 cm. Reggio Emilia, Museo “Gaetano Chierici,” inv. 15242 Image: Reggio Emilia, Museo “Gaetano Chierici” di Paletnologia, Archivio Fotografico
Figure 34.8. Satyr. H: 5.8 cm. Rome, Musei Vaticani, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, inv. 11510 Image: Musei Vaticani, Archivio Fotografico Neg. no. XXVII.15.146

Of particular interest is a group of silhouette figures from the so-called Oxus Temple in Tajikistan: they show Cupid with grapes, with a kithara, with Psyche, with birds, and so on (cat. 5).

The size of these silhouette figures varies greatly. Their height ranges from barely 6 centimeters (cat. 10; see fig. 34.8) to more than 18 cm (cat. 11). The subjects are equally variable. There are goddesses and gods, for example Victoria (cat. 9; see fig. 34.7), Apollo (cat. 6; see fig. 34.4), and Mercury (cat. 3; see fig. 34.2). Particularly striking are the dancing or cavorting figures: a warrior (cat. 1; see fig. 34.1); a girl (cat. 4; see fig. 34.3); and a satyr (cat. 11).

So far as is known, the backs of the silhouette figures are all flat. We might therefore conclude that most of the sheets were inlaid in or otherwise attached to a wooden base. Many of the sheets are perforated, suggesting that they were nailed in place. Some of the perforations are carefully worked, whereas others are so crude as to suggest that they are the result of later repairs.

The most important features of the silhouette figures can be summarized as follows:

  1. Silhouette figures on sheet metal that can be dated to the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods are extremely rare. Despite an extensive search, this catalogue consists of only thirteen examples.

  2. The findspots reveal a wide geographic spread, from France (cat. 6) and Switzerland (cat. 3) to Israel (cat. 4) and Tajikistan (cat. 5). A cluster appears to be in northern Italy, as indicated by the silhouette figures in Reggio Emilia (cat. 9), Veleia (cat. 8), and Verona (cat. 12).

  3. So far as can be determined, the contexts are exclusively Roman, for example in Chur (cat. 3), Lyon (cat. 6), Veleia (cat. 8), and Verona (cat. 12). There are also two sanctuaries: Tel Dor (cat. 4) and the Oxus Temple (cat. 5).

  4. In style and quality, the silhouette figures show considerable differences, pointing to several workshops. Alongside superficial or clumsy incision, as on the dwarf in Parma (cat. 8; see fig. 34.6), there are also original and expressive or routinely conventional interior drawings, as on the Vatican satyr (cat. 10; see fig. 34.8) or the dancing girl in Tel Dor (cat. 4; see fig. 34.3), and a few works of high quality, such as the Munich goddess (cat. 7; see fig. 34.5) and the Victoria in Reggio Emilia (cat. 9; see fig. 34.7).

  5. The subjects reveal a clear preference for figures from the Apollinian and Dionysian realms.

Because a number of the sheets must have been affixed to small wooden boxes or other furniture (see cat. 7 and 12), it seems probable that most of the silhouette figures originally served as decoration for wooden musical instruments.

Both literary references and a few figural representations indicate that figural inlays in wooden musical instruments are distinct possibilities. Two examples are a bronze lyre from Kertsch, today in St. Petersburg, with apparently secondarily used reliefs of Victoria and Mars on the inner side,6 and a kithara decorated with an image of Marsyas that belongs to a marble statue of Apollo from Bulla Regia, now in Tunis.7

Of particular interest is a miniature bronze kithara, which the Akademisches Kunstmuseum of the University of Bonn purchased in 2009.8 The kithara, which originally must have been the attribute of a statuette of Apollo, preserves inlays in different metals on both sides, in imitation of intarsia. On the inner side is a theatrical mask and on the outer side there is a seated Eros. Similarly, we can propose that most of the silhouette-figures were used to adorn actual wooden musical instruments.


Cat. 1: Armed dancer. Berlin, Antikensammlung – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. 31631. H: 10.5 cm. D: 0.12 cm. Said to be from Etruria. Purchased ca. 1936/37 from the collection of Dr. Albert Figdor, Vienna. Published: Franken 2011 (31631). Fig. 34.1.

Cat. 2. Vine leaf. Berlin, Antikensammlung – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. Fr. 1552 l. H: 11.4 cm. W: 9.8 cm. D: 0.1–0.3 cm. Findspot unknown. Purchased in 1869 from the estate of Eduard Gerhard. Published: Friederichs 1871, 326, no. 1552 l; Franken 2011 (Fr. 1552 l).

Cat. 3. Mercury, probably inlaid in wood. Chur, Rätisches Museum, inv. 67/112. H: 6.5 cm. Found in 1967 during excavation of the marketplace in Chur. Published: Siegfried-Weiss 1991, 146, plate 55.1; 80.5. H: 6.5 cm. Punched and cut decoration. Dated to the second or third century AD by stylistic similarity to a weapon with inlaid bronze and silver figures on an iron sword. Fig. 34.2.

Cat. 4. Female dancer. Dor, Tel Dor Archaeological Expedition. H: 8.2 cm. Found in 1988 in the excavations of Area F at Tel Dor. Published: Stern 1994, plate 6.1; Wolff 1994, 506, fig. 30. Fig. 34.3.

Cat. 5. Cupids. Dushanbe, National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan, inv. TS 264, 265, 269‒71, 807, 825, 846, 1250, 2158, 7926, o.Nr./1091. H: 1.5–6.4 cm. W: 1.5–5.3 cm. D: 0.05–0.2 cm. From the Oxus Temple (Tajikistan). Published: Dushanbe 1985, 95, no. 225–32, fig. S. 81; Zürich 1989, 48, no. 19 with fig. (Eros; incorrectly described as gilded bronze, dated to first century AD); Rome 1993, 35‒36, no. 18 with ill. (Eros); Lindström 2009, 363, no. 258, with ill. (dated first–second century AD).

Cat. 6. Apollo. Lyon, Musée gallo-romaine, inv. Br 26. H: 8 cm. Said to be from Lyon, given to the museum in 1890. Published: Bazin 1891, 377, fig. 223; Reinach 1910, 50.2; Boucher 1976, 131; Boucher and Tassinari 1976, 34, no. 26, with ill. Fig. 34.4.

Cat. 7. Goddess. Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, inv. NI 4536. H: 11.1 cm. W: 5.9 cm. D: ca. 0.09 cm. Findspot unknown. Purchased in 2002 from the art market. Published: Kunstobjekte der Antike 2002, 64–65, no. 3314, fig. p. 6; Schmölder-Veit 2002, 291‒92 (with date in first century AD); Knauß 2002, 313, fig. 21.11; 585, cat. 380. Fig. 34.5.

Cat. 8. Dwarf. Parma, Museo d’Antichità, inv. B 416. H: 8.3 cm. D: 0.5 cm. From Veleia (inv. 1952, no. 345). Published: D’Andria 1970, 100, no. 156, plate 32. Fig. 34.6.

Cat. 9. Victoria. Reggio Emilia, Museo “Gaetano Chierici” di Paletnologia, inv. 15242. H: 12.9 cm. From the surroundings of Reggio Emilia. Published: Bolla 2007/2011, 68–69, no. 46, with ill. Fig. 34.7.

Cat. 10. Satyr. Rome, Vatican Museums, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, inv. 11510. H: 5.8 cm. Findspot unknown. Published: D’Andria 1970, 100, under no. 156. Fig. 34.8.

Cat. 11. Dancing satyr. Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, inv. 1981.64.18. H: 18.4 cm. Findspot unknown. Unpublished.

Cat. 12. Offering jug. Verona, Museo Archeologico, inv. 22124. H: 11.6 cm. Found in 1891 in Verona on the banks of the Adige River. Published: Bolla 1999, 210, 230, fig. 54, plate 75.

Cat. 13. Seated griffin. Art market. H: 3.9 cm. Findspot unknown. Published: Antiken 2011, 40, no. 1095, plate 74 (there incorrectly identified as Byzantine).


A lively discussion followed my presentation on October 17, 2015, at the XIXth International Congress on Ancient Bronzes at the Getty Center, Los Angeles. For suggestions and references, I am grateful to J. Daehner, N. Gulyaeva, D. Ignatiadou, C. Mattusch, and J. Pollini. For images, permissions, and additional information I should also like to thank R. Aleotti (Reggio Emilia), M. Bernabò Brea (Parma), M. Bolla (Verona), S. Culpepper Stroup (Washington), W. Geominy (Bonn), L. Hagel (Santa Barbara), F. Knauß (Munich), G. Lindström (Berlin), R. Macellari (Reggio Emilia), A. Paolucci (Rome), J. Rageth (Chur), M. Sannibale (Rome), E. Stern (Tel Dor Excavation), D. Tisserand (Lyon), and A. Viani (Reggio Emilia).


  1. Massow 1916, 21–22, fig. 4 (boar and bull walking toward the left; said to be from Thebes; formerly in Leipzig, Archäologisches Institut der Universität); Arapoyianni 2007, 25, fig. 24 (two large nude men facing left).
  2. Blatter 1964, cols. 811–12, fig. 4 (woman toward the right; from Athens, Pnyx).
  3. Fuchs 1940, 110–13, plates 13–16 (sheets serving as shield devices).
  4. Among them are a victorious charioteer in a broad frame from Aquileia: Brusin 1934, 137, 139, no. 4, fig. 77; a pigeon on a globe from a tomb in Bavai: Faider-Feytmans 1957, 85, no. 163, plate 32; also a dolphin said to be incised on both sides in Bonn: Menzel 1986, 72, no. 166, plate 83.
  5. For instance on the silhouette figure of a griffin (cat. 13; art market).
  6. Behn 1954, 85, plate 51, 117 b; Vendries 1999, 50–52, plate 1. A date in the second to third centuries AD, suggested by Vendries on the basis of style, can in the case of the lyre’s secondary use provide only a terminus post quem.
  7. Vendries 1999, 88–95, plate 8c (other examples are at least in part the result of modern restorations).
  8. Bonn, Akademisches Kunstmuseum. H: 7.8 cm. W: 6.2 cm: Ars Antiqua 1959, 35, no. 90, plate 43.


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