The Heidelberg – Naxos Altar. History of its re-composition and exchange

The altar is named after the two museums that respectively held fragments A and B. The history of how the two fragments were recognized and re-composed is exemplary of the ways, sometimes bizarre, in which antiquities have been transmitted down to us.

In 1983, during research she was conducting in the photographic archive of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, Paola Pelagatti recognized from a photograph that a fragment of terracotta plaque with remains of a relief of sphinxes in the Antikenmuseum of the University of Heidelberg (fragment A) was the missing part of a terracotta altar that she herself had acquired in 1973 and that is now preserved in the Museum of Naxos in Sicily (fragment B).

The Heidelberg fragment had been purchased by Friedrich von Duhn at Taormina in 1902 and donated by him to the Collection of the University of Heidelberg. The German University first gave the fragment on temporary loan to the Museum of Naxos in Sicily in 1990: it was then included in an exhibition with the title “An altar divided between Heidelberg and Naxos and other altars in Sicily and Magna Graecia”.

The fragment returned once again to the Museum of Naxos in Sicily in 1995, this time for an exhibition commemorating the fortieth anniversary of excavations on the site of Naxos. Thanks to the far-sightedness and magnanimity of Tonio Hoelscher, the then Director of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Heidelberg, and of Hermann Pflug, Curator of the Archaeological Museum at the same University, fragment A was then left on extended loan at the Museum of Naxos in Sicily, pending completion of negotiations for an exchange between the two museums. The negotiations would be successfully completed in June 1997.

The transaction leading to the exchange between the Archaeological Museum of Naxos and that of the University of Heidelberg was long and complex. Here we wish to underline its symbolic value: two museums, so different in origin and in the formation of their collections, were able to collaborate on a common project, transcending national barriers and testifying to the efficacy of the scientific community.


BTerracotta altar fragment belonging to Naxos Museum.

On the front of the altar two winged sphinxes heraldically confront each other to the sides of an anthemion (from anthem, Greek word for flower, denoting a floral motif in Greco-Roman decoration). This is the centre point of the composition; it is formed by two lyre-shaped double volutes supporting two palmettes of different size. It is the anthemion that distinguishes the composition and makes this type of altar unique among the altars with confronted sphinxes produced in Sicily and in Magna Graecia in the archaic period.

The anthemion motif is undoubtedly of Ionic origin. Its most convincing parallels are found in the architectural decoration of Eastern Greece, and more particularly in the sculptural decoration of funerary stelae, which had become common in the second half of the 6th century BC.

The profiling and modelling of the sphinxes also derive from Eastern Greek models. They recall in general the form of the faces that characterize the so-called Aphrodite Group attributed to workshops at Miletus. So once again Sicilian Naxos reveals its strong links with Eastern Greece; and these links left their indelible mark on its pottery and on its sculptural decoration in the archaic period.

The Heidelberg-Naxos type of altar, however, was not an import from the Eastern Mediterranean. That its creation and production are attributable to a workshop situated in the colony itself would seem to be corroborated by the external quality of the clay, by the circumstance that the Heidelberg-Naxos exemplar is visibly a kiln waster (i.e. discarded after firing), and by the finding of other fragments belonging to altars of the same type during excavations conducted on the site of the ancient colony of Naxos in Sicily.

The Berlin Altar and the ADVENTUROUS HISTORY of its conservation

ATerracotta altar fragment belonging to Heidelberg Museum.

The Berlin Altar belongs to the same type, but not to the same series, as the Heidelberg – Naxos altar. It is preserved intact. It presents two circular holes at the sides, to facilitate transport. It has a flat top for offerings, recessed below the upper cornice. Shortly after Paola Pelagatti had acquired fragment B at Giardini Naxos, she showed it to the German archaeologist Ernst Langlotz during a visit he made to Syracuse in 1974. During their discussion of the find, Langlotz, a great connoisseur of Greek sculpture of the archaic period, mentioned that he had seen an altar of the same type in Berlin, in the Collection of the Institute of Archaeology at the Humboldt University. He added with regret that the piece in question had been lost during the war, but he promised to seek the photographic plate; he soon found it and sent a print of it to Paola Pelagatti. The photo was speedily published and was destined for years to represent the only evidence for the altar.

The Berlin Altar had been acquired at Taormina with a provenance from Naxos prior to 1913, and later sold to the Institute of Archaeology in Berlin, as attested by the Catalogue published by the Berlin Auction House Lepke’s in 1913; the relevant catalogue entry provides a brief description of the piece accompanied by a photograph.

The altar long remained lost. It unexpectedly resurfaced in 1995, six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, during work on the reorganization of the plaster-cast collections of the Pergamon Museum. News of its rediscovery was given by Volker Kaestner.

The altar, like the rest of the University Collection, had participated in the convulsive events of the Second World War, but fortunately had escaped from them intact. It had shared the fate of innumerable works of art looted at the end of the war, transported in makeshift packing cases, often using rubber tires as shock absorbers – signs of which are still visible on the altar, as also those left by the plaster-casts with which the altar was long jumbled together. The altar ended up with other war booty in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad. From there, in the late 1960s, the altar, together with other antiquities, was returned to Berlin and re-entered the museum. But it was only after the rapid but meticulous process of control and reorganization, following the reunification of the city, that the Pergamon Museum (like other Museums of Berlin) re-acquired a large part of its collections, taking care to exclude the pieces that belonged to other Museums. During this process the altar was identified and returned to the Humboldt University. It was once again exhibited in its Museum, where, thanks to the research of Paola Pelagatti, its Sicilian provenance was duly acknowledged.