The sculpture was probably a cult image rather than a decorative culture trophy.[clarification needed] The serpent at Athena's right foot recalls the archaic myth of Erichthonius in his serpent form. The forearms are restorations, as are the spear and the sphinx upon the goddess's Corinthian helmet.
Discovery and reputation
It was discovered in the early 17th century, reputedly in the ruins of a ten-sided nymphaeum on the Esquiline Hill which thus mistakenly identified as a "Temple of Minerva Medica" Pietro Santi Bartoli, also in the 17th century, gave an alternative discovery site, in the Orto di Minerva adjacent to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which was widely thought to have been built over a temple of Minerva (dedicated by Pompey the Great in 62 BCE). On the basis of its quality, it was reputed well into the 19th century to be a copy of a statue by Pheidias, and was included among stucco casts representing Europe's great sculpture that formed part of the German pavilion at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904.
The statue receives its name from having been in the collection of Vincenzo Giustiniani in the Palazzo Giustiniani, which was luxuriously engraved and published as the Galleria Giustiniana (Rome, 1631). Apparently the sculpture was never copied during the time it was in the Giustiniani collection: Winckelmann never mentioned it, though the austere classical style it exhibits was first isolated and described by him. Towards the end of the century it had become an object of admiration especially among the British visitors: a custodian of the Giustiniani told Goethe that the restored hand was whiter than the rest of the work because the English had kissed it so often. A bust adapted from this "Minerva" (the similar Athena of Velletri was a later discovery) appears as a tabletop accessory in more than a dozen of Pompeo Batoni's portraits of English visitors to Rome. When the French sculptor Claude Michel, who adopted the Greek name "Clodion", was a pupil at the French Academy in Rome (1762–71), he made a refined and highly finished terracotta Minerva that is a pastiche of several approved antiquities, notably the Minerve Giustiniani.
The Minerva Giustiniani as it was called, escaped the fate of the rest of the Giustiniani collection, which had been removed in 1807 during the Napoleonic occupation to Paris, where it was to some extent broken up. In 1815 all that remained of it, in particular about 170 paintings, was purchased by Frederick William III of Prussia and removed to Berlin, where it formed a portion of the royal museum.
The Minerva however had been bought by Lucien Bonaparte in 1805, and was installed in the grand hall of his Roman residence, the Palazzo Nunez. In 1817 he sold it to Pope Pius VII who was commissioning the Braccio Nuovo of the Vatican Museums. When the Braccio Nuovo was opened in 1822, the sculpture was installed as it is today.
- Athena of Velletri, a closely similar type.
- Helbig 1963:343-4. Height 2.25 m.
- Haskell and Penny 1981:270.
- It makes its first appearance as the first piece of sculpture engraved in the Galleria Giustiniani, 1631, vol. I, pl. 3.
- The site of the actual Temple of Minerva Medica, known from ancient references, has not been securely identified. (Platner and Ashby 1929).
- Haskell and Penny (1981:269) find that "both locations seem suspiciously appropriate, and the latter may have been suggested by the connection between the snake and Aesculapius, the god of Medicine".
- The casts are conserved at the Southeast Missouri State University (news release Archived February 13, 2009, at the Wayback Machine).
- Noted in the exhibition catalogue for Pompeo Batoni, prince of painters in 18th-century Rome, (Edgar Peters Bowron and Peter Björn Kerbep, curators), Houston and London, 2007, p. 79.
- Pompeo Batoni, prince of painters in eighteenth-century Rome.
- Now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 1975.312.6 (on-line catalogue entry).
- Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, 1981. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Antique Sculpture, 1500-1900 (Yale University Press), cat. no. 63.
- Wolfgang Helbig, Führer durch die öffenlicher Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, rev. ed 1963-72.
- Samuel Ball Platner and Thomas Ashby, 1929. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (on-line excerpt)