Saturnalia

Ernesto Biondi, Saturnalia, detail, 1909 (copy of original from 1900). Bronze, Botanical Garden of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Prior to the Roman Empire coming under Christian rule in the fourth century C.E., the festival of Saturnalia was celebrated to honor the Roman agricultural deity Saturn. The festival was widely observed with revelatory feasting, gift giving, public animal sacrifices, social role reversals, and the lighting of candles. Seen here is a bronze sculpture by Ernesto Biondi (1855–1917) depicting the drunken debauchery of Saturnalia. The life-sized bronze figures represent Romans from the ruling class, gladiators, and slaves jubilantly celebrating together. In 1905 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City arranged for the work to go on display. Once on view, the museum trustees declared it a work of “immorality” and removed it from view. Biondi sued the museum for $200,000 in damages; however, the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of the museum.

Ernesto Biondi, Saturnalia, detail, 1909 (copy of original from 1900). Bronze, Botanical Garden of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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