“Dioscuri, the Divine Protectors of Rome” by Michał Kuźmiński

This post has been prepared by Michał Kuźmiński, a student of Cultural Studies – Mediterranean Civilization at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw, within the Our Mythical Childhood Seminar. Michał spent the Summer term in Rome, at his Erasmus Plus stay, and, as much as the situation permitted, he was preparing these reports on the traces of some ancient gods, goddesses, and heroes in Urbs aeterna.

Among the Greek gods Zeus was the one who presented the strongest liking and passion for human women and their beauty. His most famous child, whom he had with a mortal, was undoubtedly Heracles. However, the hero was not the only one, in fact Zeus could boast of quite numerous heroic offspring. And among them were also the twin brothers called Dioscuri, literally the “sons of god” – Castor and Polydeuces.

Their mother was Leda, the wife of the king of Sparta, Tyndareus. According to Homer both Dioscuri were children of mortal parents [1], but in a more widely spread version, at least one of them (Polydeuces) was a son of Zeus. They were considered as excellent horsemen and hunters, who took part in the hunting of the Calydonian Boar as well as the expedition of Argonauts. Since they were brothers of famous Helen of Troy, they also saved her when she was abducted by Theseus and taken to Athens. After the death of Castor, Polydeuces decided to give half of his immortality to his brother and at the end they both became the stars known as the Gemini (“twins”).

The divine brothers were also much respected by Romans who worshipped them as Castor and Pollux. The veneration of Dioscuri was founded on a solid basis of the story which became one of the most prominent founding myths of the Roman state. As it was described by Livy in his monumental work Ab urbe condita (history of Rome from the founding): shortly after the establishment of the Roman Republic the war with the Latin League broke out. During it, the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus tried to reclaim the throne of Rome. However, he was defeated by Romans in the Battle of Lake Regillus in 496 BC [2]. According to the legend, the divine brothers showed up during the battle and fought with Romans, leading them to a victory [3].

The commander of the Roman troops, Aulus Postumius vowed to build a temple devoted to Dioscuri to express gratitude for their help. The legend says that the divine twins appeared after the battle in the very heart of Rome, watering their horses at the spring of Juturna, just beside the Forum. A few years later the temple of Dioscuri was constructed in this place, as a fulfilment of the Roman general’s vow. For the centuries the building stood in the central area of Rome’s political life, acknowledging the significance of Castor and Pollux as the divine protectors of the Roman state. Only the ruins remain today – the podium of the building and three lone columns which draw an attention of the visitors in the archaeological park of the Forum Romanum.

Dioscuri were also adapted as the patrons of the ancient Roman noblemen – the equites. They constituted a wealthy (though not the richest) social class, whose members’ name meant in Latin the “cavalrymen”. Thus, Castor and Pollux, the master horsemen were the natural choice for the protectors of equites. This dual patronage over the state and its noblemen survived the fall of Roman Empire and Dioscuri remained an important motif in the visual narrations of the public spaces of Rome.

It’s very well visible on the Capitoline Hill, not far from the ancient temple of Dioscuri. The area which played a vital role in Antiquity thanks to the temple of Jupiter (the most important one in Rome) upheld its status in subsequent centuries, for it became a seat of the civil government in the city. The magistrates called “Conservators” used to gather in Palazzo dei Conservatori which today is a part of the Capitoline Museums. The visitors can admire inside the lavishly decorated halls with walls covered with frescoes depicting some episodes from the early history of Rome. Naturally, the painting with the Battle of Lake Regillus couldn’t be missing. The divine twins are depicted there mounting white horses in the middle of the battle turmoil. They carry the spears and wear the helmets with stars above them – a traditional allusion to their transformation into stars after death.

Tommaso Laureti (1530–1602), Victory at Lake Regillus, 1587–1594, fresco in Palazzo dei Conservatori, Musei Capitolini, Rome — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

The fresco is located in the hall which was used to administer justice and the surrounding paintings were supposed to remind the magistrates about the ancient Roman virtues to which everyone should aspire. That is, however, not the only place where Dioscuri can be found. They dominate the Capitoline Hill, as they tower over the monumental stairs leading to the central square. The layout of the area is owed to the design of Michelangelo, who created a vision of a truly impressive and harmonious seat of a city government. In accordance with the plan, two monumental ancient sculptures of Castor and Pollux were set on either side of the entrance to the main square of Capitoline Hill. The statues were found in about 1560 near Circus Flaminius, so it’s possible that they belonged to another temple of Dioscuri from this area of the city. The marble sculptures depict Castor and Pollux standing in rather static poses with their indispensable horses. Their arms are raised in a gesture which indicates that originally they held the bridles which didn’t survive until today. On the top of the hill they stand relaxed, looking at the passing citizens of the city which they helped with divine aid.

Castor and Pollux, marble sculptures at the top of the balustrade leading to the Capitoline Hill, Rome, found and re-erected in the 2nd half of the 16th century — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

And that is not the only place in Rome, where two monumental sculptures of Dioscuri tower over the passers-by. The other one is Piazza del Quirinale, the spacious square in front of the Quirinal Palace, nowadays a residence of the President of the Italian Republic. The building used to serve for centuries as a residence of numerous Popes and Kings of Italy. Thus, in terms of history it’s been very closely related to the offices representing the highest ranks of government.

On the square there is a large fountain with an obelisk in the middle and two statues of Castor and Pollux with horses on either side. The sculptures were recorded standing there already in the Middle Ages, giving the name to the area – Monte Cavallo (“the horse hill”). Therefore, it’s believed that Dioscuri survived the fall of Rome untouched in their original position, perhaps being a part of the decoration of Constantine’s Baths which existed in that place. The statues from Quirinal could be confused with those from Capitoline Hill. However, they’re not identical, since Dioscuri from Quirinal Hill are much more dynamic, captured in motion, as if they struggled to tame the restless horses.

Raffeale Stern (1774–1820), Fountain of Dioscuri, 1818, Piazza del Quirinale, Rome; The marble sculptures and the obelisk are spolia date back to the Roman Empire — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

Both places became iconic and their images appeared widely on various reproductions throughout the centuries. As a consequence, the visual relation of the sculptures of Dioscuri and the idea of the power of rulers became fixed in people’s minds. So, the motif was used once again by Antiquity-loving dictator of 20th century Italy: Benito Mussolini. He planned the construction of a whole new district to the south from the historical centre of Rome. The so-called Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) was supposed to be a spot of 1942 World’s Fair which was cancelled due to an outbreak of war.

One of the most prominent structures of the EUR district is Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (Palace of the Italian Civilisation), a wonderful example of modernist architecture. The building has a strikingly simple design, with a façade dominated by rows of arches – an obvious reference to the most iconic of the ancient buildings – Colosseum, to which it owes a nickname “Square Colosseum”. The structure is located on the top of the hill, to which monumental stairs lead. Such a combination – a hilly location and a building expressing the power of government and a good fortune of the state called inevitably for a specific artistic adornment, namely the statues of Dioscuri.

Giovanni Guerrini (1887–1972), Ernesto La Padula (1902–1968), and Mario Romano (n.d.), Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, Rome, 1938–1943 — photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

Four sculptural groups were made of travertine blocks, the same material which was used for a cladding of the façade. Dioscuri resemble more the versions from Quirinal Hill – they’re depicted in dynamic poses, next to the horses captured in a rapid motion. They refer to the ancient culture, but their details are far less refined and their bodies express rather a brutish massiveness of the fascist regime which conceived them, than the elegance of classical art.

Publio Morbiducci (1889–1963) and Alberto de Felci (n.d.), one of four equestrian marble sculptural groups of the Dioscuri marking the corners of the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, Rome, 1942–1956.
— photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

The overview of a presence of Dioscuri in Rome can be concluded with a more intimate example, a small painting by Alberto Savinio exhibited temporarily in the museum in Palazzo Altemps. Savinio was born as Andrea de Chirico in 1891 and became a very active writer, painter, and composer. He was an outstanding artist, who left a prodigious number of various works. Savinio was deeply influenced by contemporary modernist authors and incorporated in his works many surrealist elements. In 1929 he painted Dioscuri in an unprecedented way. First of all, they’re not accompanied by their indispensable horses. Secondly, their naked, muscular bodies dominate over very small, reduced heads which lack faces. The twins stand by the window, through which the clouds on the sky and some geometrical figures are visible. It’s rather debatable what was the exact idea of Savinio, however one thing seems to be sure. They’re definitely not the divine protectors of the state, expressions of the noblemen’s power or easily recognizable heroes. It’s as if Savinio granted them a well-earned tranquility and anonymity of people who finally don’t have to stand for any public cause any more, don’t need to comply with standards of “public celebrities” and can enjoy being just themselves.

Alberto Savinio (1891–1952), The Dioscuri, oil on canvas, 1929, temporary exhibition Savinio. Incanto e mito at the Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Altemps, Rome, 8 February – 13 June 2021
— photo by Michał Kuźmiński.

Sources

Cicero, De natura deorum, transl. Harris Rackham, Harvard University Press, London 1967, p. 127.

Homer, Iliada, transl. Kazimiera Jeżewska, Zakład Narodowy Imienia Ossolińskich, Wrocław 1986, p. 77.

Livy, The History of Rome, transl. Canon Roberts, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London 1905, pp. 101–103.

Claridge, Amanda, Rome. An Oxford Archaeological Guide, Oxford 2010, pp. 94–95.

Haskell, Francis and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500–1900, Yale University Press, London 1981.

Jewell K., The De Chirico Brothers & the Politics of Modernism, The Pennsylvania Staff University Press, Pennsylvania 2004, pp. 1–2.

Leeming, David, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, p. 63.

Roman, Luke and Monica Roman, Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, Facts On File, New York 2010, pp. 139–140.

About the statues of Dioscuri in EUR:

https://www.eurspa.it/it/asset-property/patrimonio/arte-e-design/opere-scultoree/i-dioscuri (accessed September 10, 2021).

See also Michał Kuźmiński’s post about Hercules in Rome and about Venus in Rome.


[1] Homer, Iliada, transl. Kazimiera Jeżewska, Zakład Narodowy Imienia Ossolińskich, Wrocław 1986, p. 77.

[2] Livy, The History of Rome, transl. Canon Roberts, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London 1905, pp. 101–103.

[3] Cicero, De natura deorum, transl. Harris Rackham, Harvard University Press, London 1967, p. 127.

Post written by Michał Kuźmiński

Post edited and placed by Dorota Rejter and Olga Strycharczyk

One thought on ““Dioscuri, the Divine Protectors of Rome” by Michał Kuźmiński”

  1. The German poet Goethe saw the Dioscuri at the Quirinal 1786, too:

    “Yesterday, however, which was the Festival of All Souls, things went better with me. This commemoration is kept by the Pope in his private chapel on the Quirinal. I hastened with Tischbein to the Monte Cavallo. The piazza before the palace has something altogether singular, so irregular is it, and yet so grand and so beautiful! I now cast eyes upon the Colossuses! Neither eye nor mind was large enough to take them in. Ascending a broad flight of steps, we followed the crowd through a splendid and spacious hall. In this antechamber, directly opposite to the chapel, and in sight of the numerous apartments, one feels somewhat strange to find one’s self beneath the same roof with the vicar of Christ…”

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