Ancient sarcophagus adorned with bas-relief which is used today to receive the waters of a fountain', the image shown here, appears in Jean Pierre Louis Laurent Houel's (1735-1813), Voyage pittoresque des isles de Sicile: de Malte et de Lipari, où l’on traite des antiquités qui s’y trouvent encore; des principaux phénomènes que la nature y offre; du costume des habitans, & de quelques usages (Picturesque travel of the islands of Sicily, Malta and Lipari, where one deals with antiques that can be found there, the main phenomena that nature offers, the costume of the inhabitants, and some uses), published in Paris, 1782-87.
Houel’s background was artistic; born into a family of prosperous artisans, he was sent to the drawing academy in Rouen at fifteen, where the art of early Dutch and Flemish painters influenced his chosen specialty- landscape painting. In 1758, aged just twenty-three, Houel published a book of landscape engravings, and eleven years later influential patrons secured a place for him at the French Academy in Rome. Captivated with Italian customs, landscapes, and ancient sites, he travelled throughout southern Italy creating drawings which were praised in Parisian salons of the early 1770s. He spent the years 1776 to 1779 travelling in Sicily, Lipari, and Malta, after which he published numerous lavishly illustrated travel books based on his journey, and it is from one of these books which the image is taken.
Houel’s main intention was to illustrate local topography, though the title of his book also proclaims an interest in the costume of the inhabitants and surviving antiquities. This image incorporates both of these interests, though the sarcophagus is the subject of much more discussion and the main focus of the image itself as the figures are marginalised. In the accompanying text Houel states that ‘around the sarcophagus, which receives water coming out of two modern masks, I have placed women dressed in the manner of the people of Messina’. It is unclear whether the Sicilian city is the setting of this scene; nonetheless the phrase ‘I have placed (j’ai placé)’ suggests a deliberate inclusion of the women on the part of the artist, and perhaps a conflation of people and place to create the perfect picture.
Referring to the sarcophagus itself, Houel concludes that it is only its reuse as a water receptacle that has prevented its destruction, ‘without its usefulness, it would have been broken, cut or sawed like so many other masterpieces’. However he is also concerned that this new usage ignores its original purpose, ‘the history of it, and the name of the person to whom it had been intended’, though this information would have been difficult to recover even if it had survived untouched.
The text describes the scene depicted on the sarcophagus, the gathering and pressing of the grapes, which Houel notes is a practice consistent with his own day. Given that Sicily was a largely agricultural island, especially in antiquity, and that he was not a classical scholar, Houel understandably acknowledges the scene merely as a depiction of the tasks undertaken by those who worked the land, and fails to notice its religious significance.
The image of a bearded man, on the side of the tub in which the men tread the grapes, is most likely identifiable as Dionysus/ Bacchus, the god associated with the grape harvest and wine in both Greek and Roman religion. Either could have influenced the sarcophagus as Sicily was colonised by the Greeks and considered part of Magna Graecia, but became a Roman province during the third century BC. It is not only the god’s connection with cultivation that explains the depictions on the sarcophagus; he was one of the many deities associated with death and dying.
A sarcophagus catalogued by the British Museum as ‘marble sarcophagus with a Bacchic scene’ also features males pressing grapes and is probably linked to the idea of the vine as the ultimate symbol of life, death and rebirth. Both sarcophagi also share the inclusion of animal imagery, a source of obvious perplexity for Houel, ‘what are these big heads of lions seen on either side of the sarcophagus?’, though this is easily explained by the close connection of the felines with Dionysus in myths such as those of Agave and Acoetes.