The Archaeological Museum of Sperlonga

Sperlona, Villa di Tiberio e museo

In 1957, the builders of the coastal road between the cities of Terracina and Gaeta were protagonists of an exceptional discovery. A few hundred meters from the town of Sperlonga, along the ancient Via Valeria Flacca, they came upon a number of archaeological remains, that within a short time were identified with the villa of Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37. The villa, whose original construction dates back to the late Republican age, was made up of a series of terraces facing the sea: it was well known through the ancient sources, but its actual location remained still unknown. The sources tell that Tiberius in 26 during a banquet was saved by the collapse of some rocks thanks to the courage of his friend and confidant Sejanus: it is very likely that the episode, narrated by Suetonius and Tacitus, exactly happened in this place, to be exact in the cave.
As the imperial residence, the villa was embellished with a remarkable collection of art objects, which included heads, busts, statues and marble groups. Some of these objects have been unearthed during excavations, although reduced to the state of minute fragments. Their themes often recall the legend of the mythical king of Ithaca, Odysseus, such as a statue of the hero, the Group of Scylla and the Group of the blinded Polyphemus: the last two can relate to the sculptors Athanodoros, Hagesandros and Polydoros of Rhodes, the same masters who sculpted the Group of Laocoon, from 1506 in the Vatican Museums.
The attention to Ulysses gets along with the history and legends of the site. Since Roman times it was believed that the great headland to the north was the island of Circe, i.e. the place where the king of Ithaca, still following the narration of Homer, lived for over a year before returnig wise, freeing his companions and resuming his journey home. The myth of Ulysses, already figured on some Greek vases of the principle of the seventh century BC, had become especially popular in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The core elements of his character enclosed quality of extraordinary charm, such as intelligence and cunning, the spirit of adventure and the irresistible attraction to the unknown. The same qualities inspired for Virgil's Aeneid, written when Tiberius was young and in turn set partly in the southern Lazio. No wonder, thenm if the emperor remained bound as well by the site.
Over the centuries, the legend of Ulysses would inspire generations of readers and writers. “Then of the antique flame the greater horn, / Murmuring, began to wave itself about / Even as a flame doth which the wind fatigues”. These famous verses belong to Dante Alighieri, the great medieaval Italian poet, who in XXVI canto of The Divine Comedy gave voice to the soul of the hero making precisely like a flame. Ulysses is the title and to some extent also the plot of the most important novel of Irish James Joyce, widely regarded as a landmark in the literature of the twentieth century. “But where is the man who in the days and nights of exile wandering the world like a dog and said that ‘Nobody’ was his name?”: here’s the reference to the king of Ithaca put into verse by the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, precisely in Odyssey, Book XXIII. A list that could easily continue and that makes the myth of Ulysses a constitutive element of our civilization.
Today’s site effectively collects the witness of Ulysses and Tiberius. Right after the site’s discovery, the Italian government took the responsability to secure the site of the villa and what was left of the sculptures, which were subjected to an appropriate and delicate work of reconstruction. In 1963, after six years from the discovery, the National Archaeological Museum of Sperlonga, designed by Giorgio Zama, was inaugurated. The Museum has the primary objective to preserve and show to the public the surviving sculptures, many of which, as has been mentioned, of extraordinary historical and artistic value: this happens just a few meters from the place where they were exposed in origin. On the other hand, the Museum is the starting point for a journey in some ways unique.
The journey, which in fact lasts just a few minutes, has its key elements in the forces of nature and history, of ancient myth and literature. Walking south, the visitor through a smooth slope surrounded by vegetation typical of the Mediterranean gets to the ruins of the imperial villa. The path drives quicklt to the fish ponds and the cave, inside of which were set up once the groups and statues. From that position, turning to the west, it is natural to embrace the Monte Circeo, the islands of Ponza and Palmarola on the background and ideally the Mediterranean Sea in its entirety, from Sardinia to the Pillars of Hercules. What is more important: one may do it with the same eyes of Tiberius. And before that, of course, with the eyes of Ulysses.


Visiting hours: 8:30 am to 7:30 pm
Closed: January 1, May 1, December 25
Full ticket € 5.00, reduced € 2.50

National Archaeological Museum and Villa of Tiberius
Via Flacca, km 16.300
04029 Sperlonga (Lt), Italy
phone: +39 0771 548028

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