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New Life

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The font along the S wall of the church of S. Maria di Ponte couldn't be more discrete. Small, no inscription, almost no ornament, a plain wooden cover: just about right for a baby.

I don't know how long it's been here; maybe no one knows. A closer look makes that a relevant question. The bowl of this baptismal font is an unusually fine piece of smooth carving in a very hard, very expensive material: grey Egyptian granite as far as I can tell. The carving itself is not medieval, but almost certainly Roman.

(The stand is a makeshift affair, cobbled together from two pieces of stone and a base that may be stone or ceramic, related only by their convenience for the purpose, something we see thruout Italy: here's a closer look.)

The only other objects I've seen so far in Italy similar to this are a pair of small columns in Rome, now in the courtyard of the Museo Capitolino: they are carved with Egyptian figures and doubtless come from a temple to some Egyptian divinity, most likely Isis or Serapis, popular in larger cities and ports throughout the Roman dominion. But here, for the last few hundred years, the bowl has been "baptized" to a new purpose, as it were, and serves a different religion altogether.

There are no records to provide a provenance for this bowl; we're all free to guess. My own speculation is that it is indeed Egyptian, an incense bowl from a temple, but a temple nowhere near here, maybe in Rome or Ostia. Yet, if the very small inland town of Treia (about 65 km NE of Ponte) had, as it almost certainly did, an Egyptian temple — of which two statues still exist — who's to say we may not some day find a shrine, say, of Osiris in southern Umbria? The world is a very strange place.

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How I wish stones could speak!

This elegant smooth bowl of very hard granite may have inspired other much more primitive baptismal fonts in the area; the font in the church of S. Michele in Cortigno — only 5 km E of here — is a tempting possibility.

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Page updated: 21 Mar 14