Federico Zeri's Palmyrene Relief Sculptures
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Federico Zeri's Palmyrene Relief Sculptures

Since June 2000 the Vatican Museums have displayed a group of funerary relief sculptures, which were donated by Federico Zeri, in a special arrangement resembling the niches of the family tombs in Palmyra. The ten Palmyrene sculptures of the Zeri legacy were added to the three already belonging to the Vatican collection, thus creating a group which illustrate the most common carved types of Palmyrene art.

Three sculptures illustrate the most genuine and unique aspects of art in Palmyra. They belong to the first phase of development of funerary sculpture in the city of the desert (beginnings of the 2nd century AD), when Palmyra was not yet under the direct influence of Rome. The absorbed and solemn look of the characters represented on the first sculptures (Inv. N. 56595) testifies to its oriental inspiration, which Palmyrene art would hand down to later Roman art. In particular, the religious meaning of the frontal representation referring to the experience of the ecstatic vision or to the participation in the afterlife becomes more important within the context of the funerary relief.

On the contrary, a slightly later woman's head (Inv. N. 56597) shows the effects of classical naturalism on an otherwise linear and hieratic art. This work can be dated back to the beginning of the 3rd century AD, by analogy with the splendid "Dama intera" (Inv. N. 56602). This is a veiled bust of a lady with inscription, which is characterised by the accurate representation of the embroidered clothes and jewels, some of which have still the original gilding. The "Dama" is turned three-quarter and wears a mantel and a tunic with an elegant hem decorated with acanthus. Oak leaves adorn the hem of the sleeves. The rounded head-dress which the "Dama" wears is decorated with pearls and rosettes apparently sewn on it. The jewels consist of two necklaces and of composite earrings. They are rich, but not exaggerated. The naturalistic effect of the face features and the balance among the parts make of this "Dama" one of the best examples of Palmyrene funerary portraiture.

The priest's head (Inv. N. 56599), which is characterised by a high modius, may be compared with another priest portrait kept in the Vatican (Inv. N. 1600). It shows a category of Palmyrene art probably portraying the important religious caste of the priests from Bêl, whose temple played a central role in the story of the caravan city also at an economic and political level. The head must have belonged to a sarcophagus or to a relief representing the funerary banquette, with the priests lying with their wives and sometimes with their children and brothers. These strong family ties are typical of the Palmyrene society and are also testified by the inscriptions visible on the same sculptures.