On the Missing Herm of Ponte Fabricio

Robert S. Wagman

University of Florida

As convincingly argued by Louise Holland in 1961, the two four-headed marble herms visible today on the parapets of Ponte Fabricio in Rome belong to an original group of four which once stood outside the bridge's entrance, probably supporting the fence of a small outdoor precinct (Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome XXI, pp. 212-219). Besides the herms on Ponte Fabricio, only one other monument from this group has been retrieved so far. The recovery of the fourth and last herm remains, on the other hand, problematic.

Following a previous suggestion by Holland, Maria Conticello de Spagnolis has recently proposed to identify the missing herm with the one standing on the well-known monument to poet Gioacchino Belli in Trastevere (Bollettino di Archeologia 19, 21 [1993] pp. 95-103).  Both Holland and Conticello de Spagnolis assume that the sculpture had to be "drastically" reduced in size so as to fit the new location. However, neither of them appears to have actually measured it or examined it from close by.

The most obvious problem with Holland and de Spagnolis' interpretation is that the herm depicted at Belli's side is larger, not smaller, than the ones on Ponte Fabricio. This is true not only of the dimensions of the pillar, but also of the grooves carved on its sides. A second problem is that the above mentioned grooves, instead of running to the bottom of the pillar as in the herms of Ponte Fabricio, stop exactly at the insertion point with Belli's monument, thus proving that they were cut for show, rather than a true architectural purpose. This is also confirmed by the fact that, while the herms on Ponte Fabricio have grooves of proportional width (narrow groove on the short side, wide groove on the long side), both grooves on the Belli herm are artificially set to the same width.

Hard as it is to give up the idea of a 'fourth herm', one must accept that the marble sculpture which graces Belli's monument is, alas, a modern copy. It is, infact, a fairly accurate reproduction of the herm on the south parapet of Ponte Fabricio, slightly enlarged in order to be viewed from a distance. Save for taking some liberties with the architectural details, the sculptor of the Belli statue proves in the end to have been a good student of Roman antiquities. As confirmed by his equally accurate depiction of 'Pasquino' on the back of the statue, he did not intend to produce just a generic portrait of Belli, but something that would underscore the poet's special relationship with some of Rome's most characteristic and most loved archaeological landmarks.


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