This Roman antique sculptural group, dating from the 1st century A.D., has an exceptionally storied provenance. It depicts the deity Silenus, known as the tutor and older companion of the God of Wine, Dionysus. With him, Silenus participated in wine-soaked revels which involved music-making and wild dancing as well as prophesying. Silenus is the god associated with King Midas to whom he gave the gift of turning all he touched to gold, and Silenus was also remembered in antiquity as a misanthropic philosopher. He appears frequently in Roman sculpture, often cavorting on sarcophagi reliefs with Dionysus. He is usually elderly, pot-bellied and short, inebriated and carried by a donkey or a goat. He went on to be a staple subject for early modern artists, most famously Rubens (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen- Alte Pinakothek München, 319).
This sculpture perhaps survived so well on account of its relatively small scale. Nevertheless, it was extensively restored by the Roman sculptor and restorer Bartomeo Cavaceppi. Cavaceppi made copies of well-known classical sculptures such as the Bust of Faustina in the Capitoline Museum but was most famous for his skillful and unabashed restoration of classical antiquities. Between 1768 and 1772 he published etchings of his work in three volumes, Raccolta d’antiche statue busti bassirilievi ed altre sculture restaurate da Bartolomeo Cavaceppi scultore romano. This piece is published as plate 39, as already being ‘in Inghilterra’, in the first volume. Cavaceppi believed that his additions should be both permanent, fixed with dowels, and as invisible as possible; such was his success that at one time he employed a studio of 50 assistants. In this group he produced the base, the trunk under the goat, carved the four legs, the head of the goat and the tail as well as the arm holding the grapes and the cup.
The group was bought from Cavaceppi by the equally celebrated James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. Stuart was a Scottish architect and archeologist who made his name in 1762 when he published The Antiquities of Athens and other Monuments in Greece, based on a journey he had made to Greece in the preceding year. The book was a sensation and James was immediately dubbed ‘Athenian’ Stuart. He is in large part responsible for the so-called ‘Greek Revival’ which had such a profound impact on British architecture. Stuart lived in Rome for many years where he advised aristocratic British travelers on their purchases.
Among the richest and most distinguished of these was Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham who would go on to be twice prime minister of Great Britain. He had been asked by his father to buy statues in Rome for the Grand Hall of their Palladian mansion Wentworth Woodhouse. Because of his father’s early death in 1750, the Marquess had to cut short his Grand Tour and return to England. However, he continued, often through Stuart, to buy sculpture from Rome until 1771 when the project was completed. The Grand Hall was described as ‘beyond all comparison the finest room in England’. The purchase of this piece from Stuart for 50 pounds is recorded in the Rockingham archives. It was perhaps only fitting that ‘Athenian’ Stuart should have been the purveyor of this piece as his personal consumption of wine was as notorious as that of Silenus.❖