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The Nemi Ship Bronzes

These magnificent bronze fittings were salvaged from the so-called first Nemi ship, which was used as an extension of Caligula's sumptuous palace on shore nearby.

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

William Blake, The Tyger (1794)

The massive steering oar at the stern of Caligula's pleasure barge was held in place by a lattice of heavy beams. The ends of the two crosswise beams were adorned with the bronze heads of three lions and a panther, and the lengthwise beams with four wolves. The panther above is particularly impressive, its spotted coat rendered by damascening, whereby flame-like sheets of copper and tin (some missing) were set into the bronze surface. One cannot help but think of the introductory lines to Blake's poem"Tyger tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night."

These two lions' heads, their faces framed by a thick mane, decorated the terminals that capped the steering oars.

The wolves are fiercer than their leonine counterparts, with bared teeth, fierce eyes, and lowered ears. The ring held in the teeth, seemingly intended for mooring, also had an ornamental function and may have been used to hang garlands.

A section of the ship's railing also survives, with the pillars capped by two-faced herms, paired maenads alternating with pairs of satyrs and Silenuses, all part of the cult of Dionysus.

From the second ship, right and left forearms were recovered, the up-turned thumb serving an apotropaic function in warding off evil and keeping danger away. A second pair is thought to have existed, one on each side of the ship.

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