#3: One Chicken Cage – or Two?

Timo Strauch

The present blog entry provides another insight into the daily work of the Antiquitatum Thesaurus project and illustrates the diversity and complexity of the source material from the early-modern visual tradition of ancient artefacts, to be investigated throughout the project.

In the third book of the first part of volume 2 of his "Antiquité expliquée", which deals with the cult of the Greeks and the Romans, Bernard de Montfaucon devotes himself to altars, sacrificial devices and sacrificial acts. On fifteen plates (from no. LIV to LXVIII) he depicts a variety of implements which, in his view, were used by the priests or their assistants for various purposes in the performance of their rituals. Among them are also utensils which, from today's perspective, erroneously fell into this context, such as some Etruscan mirrors, which Montfaucon regarded as paterae, i.e. sacrificial bowls. Two other objects also seem to stand out in this context, namely the illustrations of two chicken cages on plates LXIII (fig. 3) and LXIV (fig. 1).

In the accompanying text, Montfaucon comments as follows:

"Voici deux cages pullaires, l'une donnée par M. de la Chausse, où les deux poulets paroissent mangeant le grain avec avidité: l'autre dessinée à Rome par M. le Brun. Nous avons déja parlé de leur usage, & de l'augure qu'on tiroit de la maniere que les poulets recevoient le grain qu'on leur apportoit. S'ils se jettoient avidement sur le grain, c'étoit un bon augure; si leur avidité étoit si grande, qu'en sautant & en mangeant ils répandissent une partie du grain, l'augure étoit excellent; & c'est ce qu'on appelloit tripudium solistimum: s'ils refusoient de manger, c'étoit un mauvais augure." [1]

The Roman custom of using the more or less pronounced enthusiasm with which two chickens kept especially for this purpose peck at the grains thrown to them to ascertain good or bad omens for an impending military enterprise is described in ancient textual sources, but contemporary pictorial representations of the divination act or the associated equipment are rare. [2]

Obviously, Montfaucon assumed that he would be able to show his readers two different versions of the ancient portable chicken cage, which were attested by two independent sources. Although similar in their basic design, the numerous differences, sometimes more sometimes less striking, regarding proportions and ornamentation of the cages are immediately apparent, as is the differing depiction of the two pecking chickens. Montfaucon does not discuss the actual antique models of the illustrations, which is due to the fact that his sources also remained vague in this respect.

The model for fig. 3 on plate LXIII can be found on plate 25 of the "Sectio tertia" of Michel-Ange de la Chausse's "Romanum Museum" of 1690. The evidence for this is provided by the corresponding cut-out in an album, which is in the Bibliothèque nationale de France among the so-called "Papiers de Montfaucon" and in which many of the preparatory materials for the second volume of the "Antiquité expliquée" have been preserved together with the first proofs of the plates. [3]

La Chausse's plate is entitled "CAVEA PVLLARIA", bears the note "Ex antiquo marmore" and is signed by Pietro Santi Bartoli. In the text accompanying the panel, La Chausse describes the ancient custom and lists the ancient text sources known to him, but he does not name the source for his illustration. [4]

The model for Montfaucon's second illustration is a drawing on fol. 60 r in Charles le Brun's "Livre d'anticques tirées d'après celles qui sont à Rome". In this volume, Le Brun had compiled a selection of neatly executed drawings of antiquities to dedicate and present to his patron, the “Chancellier de France” Pierre Séguier (1588–1672), after his return from his three-year stay in Rome (1642–1645). [5]

The direct comparison between the originals and their respective copies in Montfaucon makes it clear how reliable – at least in these two cases – his illustrator(s) worked. Both Bartoli's engraving and Le Brun's pen-and-wash drawing were transferred to Montfaucon's plates with great precision and obvious sensitivity.

Le Brun's page shows, in addition to the chicken cage ("Cage Pullaire"), a lituus ("Baston augural des Anciens Romains") and a ladle ("Sympulle"). All three motifs – as well as fourteen others in the third section of the book of drawings – are copies after woodcuts in Guillaume du Choul's "Discours de la religion des anciens romains", which was first published in Lyon in 1556 and which was printed in numerous further editions into the 17th century. [6] In his text, Du Choul gives a reference to the ancient monument on which his illustration was based: „[…] quelle se voit à Rome en une table de marbre, en la maison du Cardinal de Cesis, accompaignée d’un fort beau epigramme […].“ [7]

With the help of this evidence, it is possible to identify the ancient model with the monumental tomb relief of Marcus Pompeius Asper, first attested in Grottaferrata at the end of the 15th century. In the early 16th century, it came to Rome into the possession of the Cesi family and into their palace near the Vatican, before moving to the collection of Camillo Massimo in the 17th century. Since then it has been walled up in what is now Palazzo Albani-Del Drago near the Quattro Fontane. [8]

The relief has aroused the interest of numerous antiquarians, its inscription tracing the military career of M. Pompeius Asper and the detailed and quite well preserved pictorial representations of some militaria as attributes of the deceased have been welcome objects of study in the exploration of ancient material culture. The chicken cage, on the other hand, refers to Atimetus, freedman of M. Pompeius Asper and patron of the tomb relief, who held the office of a pullarius, i.e. the responsible for keeping the prophesying chickens. An engraving published by Antonio Lafreri in 1551 made the relief more widely known, but a large number of drawings have also survived. [9] If we look at the rendering of the chicken cage in particular, we notice the relatively wide range of interpretations of the antique marble, which is more heavily rubbed precisely in this area of the relief:

Above all, the design of the carrying handle varies, which is sometimes depicted abstractly with more or less curled volutes, sometimes as ending in animal protomes, as well as the decoration of the upper end of the cage. The latter, however, always remains box-shaped in profile, even the arrangement of the two pecking hens facing left is approximately the same.

The abstract handle, the rectilinear silhouette of the cage and the pair of birds facing in the same direction are also found in Du Choul's woodcut, which should confirm its derivation from the tomb relief beyond doubt. But what about the plate in La Chausse? With the figural carrying handle, it shows only one attribute that is otherwise attested in the documentation of the 16th century only by the draughtsman of the Codex Coburgensis, who is particularly reliable in terms of faithful reproduction, while the curved tongue or flute ornament of the crowning of the cage, but above all the arrangement of the chickens facing each other, suggests that this could also be a reproduction of another ancient representation of a cavea pullaria. After all, cages were probably not uniformly standardised in antiquity either.

The solution is provided by an anonymous drawing from the Museo Cartaceo of Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657). [10] It shows a rendering of the tomb relief of M. Pompeius Asper omitting the inscription, and the reproduction of the chicken cage shows all three characteristic features that also characterise the plate in La Chausse – albeit reversed.

Again, differences in proportions and in the treatment of individual details suggest that there is no direct relationship of dependence between the Dal Pozzo drawing and the Bartoli engraving. But both are in any case closer to each other than to any of the examples given above. Moreover, the comparison ascertains that La Chausse's plate is also based on the tomb relief of M. Pompeius Asper and thus Montfaucon's two chicken cages are merely two interpretations of one and the same ancient artefact.

Given the sheer number of sources that Montfaucon exploited for his pictorial compendium, it is hardly surprising that here and there he lost track of how individual models related to each other. In other passages, however, he himself addresses the problem of parallel visual transmission, e.g. in the “Supplément” of 1724, where he provides supplementary illustrations of objects already published in 1719. [11] The work on the Thesaurus will reveal, among other things, how often or how rarely both the one and the other happened.

[1] Bernard de Montfaucon: L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, Paris 1719, vol. 2.1, p. 145; cf. https://doi.org/10.11588/diglit.57724#0286.

[2] The custom and the literary, epigraphic and iconographic sources informing about it are presented in detail by Giuseppina Foti: Funzioni e caratteri del pullarius in età repubblicana e imperiale, in: Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell’Università degli Studi di Milano, 64.2 (2011), pp. 89–121. Foti also briefly discusses Montfaucon’s two illustrations.

[3] Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Dép. des manuscrits, Ms. Latin 11916, fol. 116 r; cf. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b105083557/f244.item#.

[4] Michel-Ange de la Chausse: Romanum Museum sive Thesaurus Eruditae Antiquitatis, Rome 1690, p. 88; cf. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/gri.ark:/13960/t72v96h2j?urlappend=%3Bseq=306.

[5] Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Dép. des manuscrits, Ms. Français 17217, fol. 60 r; cf. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52517132k/f141.item#. For the book of drawings, see Stéphane Loire: Charles le Brun à Rome (1642–1645). Les dessins d’après l’antique, in: Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 136 (2000), pp. 73–102.

[6] Montfaucon adopts three more drawings by Le Brun, which are based on woodcuts by Du Choul, apparently without being aware of this copy relationship, although he also directly refers to Du Choul's publication as a source for his illustrations, especially for ancient coins.

[7] Guillaume du Choul: Discours de la religion des anciens romains, Lyon 1556, p. 236; cf. http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id1668893525/238.

[8] Cf. CIL XIV 2523: https://arachne.dainst.org/entity/2460745; Arachne-ID 1086881: https://arachne.dainst.org/entity/1086881; cf. most recently Maria Grazia Granino Cecere: A proposito del sepolcro di M. Pompeius Asper e della familia del suo pullarius (CIL, XIV 2523), in: Munus Laetitiae. Studi miscellanei offerti a Maria Letizia Lazzarini, ed. by Francesco Camia, Lavinio del Monaco and Michela Nocita, Rome 2018, vol. 1, pp. 421–439 (with reference to previous bibliography).

[9] For the documentation of the relief in the Renaissance, cf. CensusID 157295 (http://census.bbaw.de/easydb/censusID=157295) and Birte Rubach: Ant. Lafreri formis Romae. Der Verleger Antonio Lafreri und seine Druckgraphikproduktion, Berlin 2016, pp. 44–46 and p. 316, no. 306.

[10] Windsor, Royal Library, RL 8253; cf. Cornelius C. Vermeule: The Dal Pozzo-Albani Drawings of Classical Antiquities in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, in: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 56.2 (1966), p. 14; Ingo Herklotz: Cassiano dal Pozzo und die Archäologie des 17. Jahrhunderts, Munich 1999 (Römische Forschungen der Bibliotheca Hertziana, 28), p. 317, fig. 14.

[11] E.g. for three of the Egyptian statues excavated in 1710 in the Villa Verospi (Montfaucon 1719, vol 2.2, pl. CVII and Bernard de Montfaucon: Supplément au livre de l'antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, Paris 1724, vol. 2, pls. XXXIV, XXXVI and XXXVII – both after unidentified models), or for an Etruscan mirror (Montfaucon 1719, vol. 2.1, pl. LXII, fig. 3 after „Fabretti“ and Montfaucon 1724, vol. 2, pl. XVIII, fig. 2 after „l’Abbé Fauvel“).