The charm of beauty Antinoo @ Villa Adriana

Antinous Farnese, Naples, Archoelogical National Museum,  photo by Luigi Spina

Organized by the Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Lazio, this show  (on view until November 4th 2012) focuses on 50 works dedicated to the myth of Antinous and his connection with Adriano, in that house that the emperor-philosopher erected as a temple of harmony and beauty (

The whole story is mysterious as much as fascinating. In one of his most popular versions it says that Antinous, infant of an aristocratic Greek family, joined the Emperor Hadrian when he passed through the region of Bithynia around 124 AD. The two soon became inseparable: the cultured and refined sovereign and his great favourite, who follows him on trips along the roads of the Empire and inspires moments of rest in the retreat of Villa Adriana designed to enhance the right of the senses. The relationship lasts probably only about six years, until the young Antinous drowns in the Nile. The ‘truth’ of the facts is shrouded in fog, the versions of Greek and Roman historians diverge: the young man might have been murdered and this is quite likely; some others say that he voluntarily sacrificed himself because an oracle had foretold misfortune to his emperor and so his self-sacrifice would have appeased the gods;  and there are those who believe that it was even the same Hadrian to offer to the gods the gift of his most valuable man; and then who emphasizes the devastating power of jealousy that could have easily hit the young boy. The fact is that the death of his lover becomes Hadrian’s obsession. While in Egypt a cult will be started around Antinous, the Emperor spreads portraits of the beloved to every corner of the empire: an incredibly anguished love story.

The obsession with the image that characterizes the life of the emperor after the death of the young, makes the face of Antinous one of the best preserved. It is found on busts, statues, gems, carvings, drawings and engravings; in the guise of Apollo, Dionysus, Osiris, and even interpreted in a Christian sense as the bust of the Museum of the Opera del Duomo of Pisa in which the image is adapted. It is a unique case in the history of art: the preservation of the memory of a face in the name of the love of a man.

Head from a statue of Antinous-Dionysus from the Townley collection; London, The British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum

Head of Antinous-Osiris from the collection Chigi marmo rosso; Dresda, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Skulpturensammlung, inv. Hm 23 (AB 423) © Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Photographer: H.-P. Klut / E. Estel 1999

The exhibition is articulated in four sections for a narration that emphasizes, in the enormous amount of portraits of Antinous spread throughout the world, the return to Villa Adriana of finds which were, most probably, found there. It begins with portraits of Hadrian and Antinous, including the marble bust of the Vatican Museums and the beautiful bronze from the Archaeological Museum of Florence. It continues with an analysis of the deification of the young, from time to time represented in the role of a god, as in the beautiful portrait of Antinous-Osiris in red quartzite lent by the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. The last section focuses on the luck of Antinous’ story through the centuries.

The show furthermore highlights the Antinoieion, the space in villa Adriana created to house the remains of the young, but which was also characterized as a place of worship where the new god appeared within the pantheon of Egyptian and Roman deities.

Furthermore  Francesco Vezzoli has been invited to show the self-portrait he realized as Antinous, almost indentified as one of the first ‘stars’ in history.


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