#1: nobile opus aut curiositas – How Much Fascination Can Flow From an Ancient Luxury Faucet?

Cristina Ruggero

Our database collects extensive visual material, and offers an overview of graphic works covered in the project Antiquitatum Thesaurus. In the following, we present an object we tracked at the beginning of our research, which has intrigued us immediately as much as it seems to have fascinated past scholars. Although it is classified as a production of the 4th century, throughout the 17th century it was also considered Egyptian probably because of its iconography.
The National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France, BnF) has been preserving this object in its Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities since 1797, where it is catalogued as a “chariot fitting” (élément de char) with the inventory number “bronze.1885”. Its appearance, as well as its function, are unique and somehow enigmatic. Furthermore, it belonged to some of the most eminent collectors in 17th century France.

Our ‘candidate’ consists of a cube topped by a knob in the shape of a cuboctahedron (a polyhedron with eight triangular faces and six square faces) with two side handles ending with (presumably) swan heads. Six triangles of the polyhedron are engraved with flowers and two squares with hanging theatre masks. On the top edge of the front, there is an inscription in silver letters: ADELFII. The central part of the cube shows a figure (a pterophorus, i.e. a lector priest) with a feathered headdress. This figure bends forward towards a bird (a goose, sacred animal to Isis?). In his right hand, he holds a musical instrument (sistrum) and in his left an instrument vase (situla). On the ground, there are poppy (?) flowers, and in the background, a window. On the base, a dog is depicted chasing a deer. There is a clear distinction between the main front side and a rear side which is completely undecorated. In the bottom of the object there is a deep square opening. The object is made of bronze, while the figures are silver inlays.

The object was represented for the first time in a woodcut in the volume Vetustissimae tabulae aeneae [...] explicatio (Venice 1605 [1]) by Lorenzo Pignoria and engraved for a new edition about the Mensa Isaica published by the same author three years later under the title Characteres Aegyptici [...] (Frankfurt 1608 [2]). In both plates, it takes up a central position among five Egyptian statuettes and three amulets, although presented in differing arrangements.

About ten to fifteen years later, it appeared in a single sheet among the watercolours documenting antiquities, rarities, and curiosities belonging to the French erudite Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637), in the album titled Cabinet de Peiresc (Paris, ca. 1620 [3]). Mounted on the album sheet are two black-framed drawings of different sizes. They show the artefact in a front and a bottom view. The upper drawing is larger, vertically arranged and has a title and long annotations in the lower half: quotations from ancient authors speaking of similar objects.

After having been the property of Achille II de Harlay, comte de Beaumont et seigneur de Dolot (1606–1671), the object entered the collection of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris in 1671. The object was described in an entry and represented in a frontal view together with other Egyptian artefacts from the collection in the catalogue Le cabinet de la bibliothèque de Sainte Geneviève published in 1692 [4] by the regular canon and the abbey’s librarian Claude Du Molinet (1620–1687).

Finally, Bernard de Montfaucon (1655–1741), one of the first scholars to conceive an encyclopaedic work of antiquities in 15 volumes comprised of approximately 5,000 illustrations, inserted a picture of the object in a plate of his L’antiquité expliquée […] (Paris 1719–1724 [5]) together with other antiquities. The context of the related chapter deals with ancient country houses, gardens and water supply through pipes and decorative fountains. The French erudite was aware of the provenance of the piece first from Peiresc’s collection and then from the Paris abbey.

The artefact is challenging in various respects.

Date and Provenance

In the BnF database, the object is classified as having been executed in Roman times (4th cent.), but without any explanation for this dating.

A reference could be found in the letters Peiresc wrote to Girolamo Aleandro on December 18, 1620, and July 1, 1624. [6] Here, the French erudite compares the Epistomium with a scene in a Calendar of 354 A.D. Starting from a Carolingian copy of it, Peiresc had drawings of the ancient book made with the intention to let them engrave, supplemented with commentaries by Aleandro, under the patronage of the Barberini family. Although today the Carolingian original is considered lost, we know its contents from Peiresc's drawings, which were also copied several times. [7] Among the images of the months there was a similar representation of the figure with the feathered hairdo, which was put in relation to the Isis cult and the Ancient Egyptian Hilaria Festival in November. [8] Further, Peiresc explains the confusion in the representation of an Egyptian mystery, both in the calendar and on the object in question, due to their production in “those low centuries”.

But a dating follows thanks to Peiresc’s identification of the supposed owner. Starting from the engraved name – ADELFII –, he assigns it to a roman office, the urban prefect Clodius Adelfius. [9] A date was not further discussed in the 17th century, but there was a tendency to classify the artefact as Egyptian (today, we would rather say Egyptianizing), probably due to the presence of a typical instrument (sistrum) and of a winged priest (pterophorus) and the relation to the Roman Isiac Fasti (chronological or calendar-based lists of official and religiously sanctioned events).

Although Pignoria was the first to publish an illustration, the object was preserved in Peiresc’s museum in Aix-en-Provence. The French sent a drawing of the Epistomium to his friend and colleague in Padua, as a passage in a letter of December 16, 1620, confirms. [10] Here, Peiresc states that he gave the figure (meaning a drawing?) to Pignoria who had it engraved first in his publication of 1605 dedicated to the Mensa Isiaca (see above).

Peiresc’s generosity in sharing information and material (a part of the initial collection of Athanasius Kircher came from him) is well known from the plethora of correspondence. However, the question of origin and discovery, as well as how Peiresc came into possession of it, still remains unresolved.

Graphic Representations

The representations of the Epistomium, executed during the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century, reveal some relationships and interdependencies between the graphic works. The object was reproduced both referring on previous drawings and by a careful observation from life.

  • First of all, it should be kept in mind that Pignoria certainly had not seen the Epistomium but reproduced it starting from a drawing by Peiresc which is probably not the watercolour mentioned above and which is still untraced. Both his representations refer to the same model and are slightly three-quarter views.
  • That Peiresc owned the Epistomium is corroborated by the more detailed representation of the piece that shows it both frontally and from below and by the text with quotations from ancient sources in his hand.
  • After the acquisition, Du Molinet had a new drawing made, when he conceived the catalogue of the Paris abbey’s collection, and he chose for it a rigorous frontal view.
  • Montfaucon – as stated in the caption indicating the provenance of the object from the Paris abbey Sainte Geneviève – used as a model for his representation the engraving taken from Du Molinet.


  • Pignoria publishes the object without comment, probably not knowing its use.
  • Peiresc – referring to the authority of Vitruvius and other ancient and modern scholars – identifies it as an Epistomium æreum (EΠIΣTOMION), a bronze fountain key, i.e. a handle or hydraulic tool like a tap used to open and close an orifice or water jets. The French complains in a letter to Girolamo Aleandro from December 18, 1620, about the “very bad drawing” Pignoria had made of the “key to close water channels”. Furthermore, Peiresc draws parallels between the scene represented on the bronze object and the illustration of the month November in a Calendar of 354. [11]
  • In his catalogue, Du Molinet specifies its function as a Manubrium epistomium.
  • Montfaucon translates the nomination into French: clef de fountaine.
  • Recently, the object has also been considered to be a passe-guide de char – a chariot fitting, attached to the front of war chariot to hold the reins of the carriage in place – or occasionally also a part of a sword handle.

Intrinsic Value

What may have been the motivation for collecting what was believed to be an Epistomium? Considering that it has only one main decorated side, it does not seem to have been of high artistic or material value. Nevertheless, the treatment reserved to an object, that had to cover mainly functional purposes – such as to facilitate the opening of a water jet – is quite surprising. The alleged Epistomium, a product of minor aristocratic art, is made of bronze with silver inlay, as if the ‘faucet’ was considered an exclusive luxury item. The fact that it was personalized with the name ADELFII testifies to the individuality, exclusiveness as well as financial power of its original owner as well as to his links with the Isis rites. This valorisation would probably make more sense if the artefact was a chariot fitting. Whatever the Epistomium aptly reflects the eras’ collecting interests, i.e. curiosities and rarities related to ancient culture.


Although the object still needs clarification as to its origin, dating or function, and its connection with the Isis rites, the reconstructed contexts are exemplary for our working method:
Antiquitatum Thesaurums aims at tracing all graphic representations related to ancient works, even if the artefacts have not always survived or still need to be traced in museums or private collections. It will also serve to shed light on collecting practices and interests in the 17th and 18th centuries and on international relations linked to the study of antiquity in its many facets.

[1] Lorenzo Pignoria: Vetustissimae tabulae aeneae sacris Aegyptiorum simulacris [...] explicatio, Venice 1605, pl. 2.

[2] Lorenzo Pignoria: Characteres Aegyptici, hoc est Sacrorum, quibus Aegyptii utuntur, simulachrorum accurata delineatio et explicatio, Frankfurt 1608, pl. 1.

[3] [Recueil. Cabinet de Peiresc], Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Dép. Estampes et Photographie, Rés. AA-54-FOL, fol. 99.

[4] Le cabinet de la bibliothèque de Sainte Geneviève. Divisé en deux parties [...], Par le R. P. Claude du Molinet, chanoine régulier de la Congrégation de France, Paris 1692, pl. IX, no. II.

[5] Bernard de Montfaucon: L'antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures / Antiquitas explenatione et schematibus illustrata, 15 vols, Paris 17191 (1722-242), vol. 3,1, pl. 65.

[6] Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. Lat. 6504, fols 164–165.

[7] For the calendar of the year 354 A.D. cf. Josef Strzygowski: Die Calenderbilder des Chronographen vom Jahre 354, Berlin 1888, p. 12; Henri Stern: Le calendrier de 354. Étude sur son texte et sur ses illustrations (Institut français de Beyrouth, Bibliothèque archéologique et historique, IV), Paris 1953.

[8] David Jaffé: Rubens’ Self-portrait in Focus, (exhibitian catalogue, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 13/8/1988–30/10/1988) Brisbane 1988, p. 46; Sydney Hervé Aufrère: La momie et la tempête. Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc et la curiosité égyptienne en Provence au début du XVII siècle, Avignon 1990, pp. 210–212; Amanda Claridge, Ingo Herklotz: Classical manuscript illustrations (The Paper Museum of Cassiano Dal Pozzo: A, Antiquities and architecture; 6), London 2012, in part. pp. 17, 43–50.

[9] Letter to Aleandro of December 18, 1620: “Et perciò che c’è un iscrittion in lettere d’argento rimesse nel metallo co’l nome ADELPHII, et che ne’ fasti prefectorij si trova nel consolato post Sergium et Nigrinianum … un Prefetto Urbano chiamato Clodius Adelfius…” non so se si potrebbe congietturare, che l’opera dove era posta detta chiave fosse stata fabricate sotto quell’Adelfio.” quoted after Strzygowski 1888, op. cit., p. 12.

[10] Quoted after Aufrère 1990, op. cit., p. 212.

[11] “…V. S: [Aleandro] n’haverà veduto un simile ben che assai mal disegnata, nel libro del S. Lorenzo Pignoria della Tavola Isiaca … in una chiave da serrar canali di Aqua (…) Et forzi che tale chiave di bronzo fu adoperata ne’ canali dell’acque necessarie per le lavationi usate ne’ sacri di Iside …”, quoted after Strzygowski 1888, op. cit., p. 12.