Described as a 'White marble tomb on the island of Sifnos', the image shown here appears in Marie Gabriel Auguste Florent de Choiseul-Gouffier's (1752-1817), Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce (Picturesque travel of Greece), published in Paris, 1782.
Unlike Houel, Choiseul-Gouffier’s interest was not artistic but academic; he was a classical scholar and possessed a passion for antiquities. In 1776 he left for Greece on board the frigate Atalante, commanded by Joseph Bernard de Chabert who had begun the task of charting the Mediterranean. Choiseul-Gouffier visited the south Peloponnese, the Cyclades and other Aegean islands, and then later Asia Minor.
He was accompanied by painters and architects and it was these who produced the images for the first volume of Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce (from which this image was taken) published on his return to France in 1782, as well as the two further volumes in 1809 and 1822. Whilst Choiseul-Gouffier, like other travel writers of the time, suggested that these sites were best visited in person to better comprehend the ancient authors, his narrative allowed readers to become acquainted with previously unknown regions of Greece.
Later in his life Choiseul-Gouffier visited Athens where he removed and sent to France a part of the Parthenon frieze which now resides in the Musée du Louvre, as does a marble bust of Marcus Aurelius which he bought after its discovery in Attica in 1789. He wrote that ‘one cannot step into this country without finding masterpieces, remnants of what she owned and witnesses of what she has lost’ which applies equally to his Attic artefacts as it does to the Siphnian sarcophagus depicted in this image.
Though the portrayals of the two sarcophagi differ due to geographical location, setting and artist, the reuse of this sarcophagus is similar to that depicted by Houel. It is interesting, however, that whilst the Sicilian sarcophagus has been consciously incorporated into the surroundings, with its placement on a base and the water flowing from the classical-style masks, that from Sifnos is at odds with the natural landscape and the water is crudely channelled from elsewhere.
Houel praised reuse as the sole reason for the survival of the sarcophagus, however Choiseul-Gouffier criticises the ‘barbarity of the inhabitants’ and describes the new purpose of the tomb as the ‘vilest of uses’. Here the disparity between artist and classicist is apparent; the former is pleased that beautiful objects survive regardless of how this is achieved, whilst the latter sees artefacts as pieces of history that should remained untouched and unused. Choiseul-Gouffier’s indignation could be due to his postulation that the ‘beautifully executed tomb’ was perhaps dedicated to ‘the memory of a hero’ and so he sees this reuse as sacrilegious and a blatant disregard for the memory of the dead.
It is somewhat ironic that it is the supposedly educated Greek scholar, and not Houel the artist, who makes this naive suggestion of a ‘hero’; the influence of Homer’s epic poetry on Choiseul-Gouffier is evident. He too fails to note the religious significance of the sarcophagus’ iconography. A similar example, also discovered on a Greek island, can be found in the British Museum.
It is similarly decorated with reliefs of large garlands of fruit, flowers and leaves including pomegranates, myrtle and ivy, all of which have mythological associations with death and the underworld. These garlands are attached to the corners of the sarcophagus by bucrania (ox skulls), which are generally considered to be a reference to the practice of garlanding sacrificial oxen. This derivation from altar decoration was a motif that later became popular with the Romans and can be seen on tombs such as that of Cecilia Metella.