Oil LampThe Sacrifice to Priapus, Italy, Romano-Mantuan, before 1480

Oil Lamp
The Sacrifice to Priapus

Oil Lamp
The Sacrifice to Priapus

Inscribed in the exergue: L.C.I.
Inscribed on the base: C.I.C. / I O M S, cast incuse, with, above and below, a leaf
Italy, Romano-Mantuan, before 1480


2 cm; ⅘ in.
15 cm; 5⅘ in.
6 cm; 2⅖ in.

Related literature

A. Radcliffe, ‘Two Early Romano-Mantuan Plaquettes’ in A. Luchs (ed.), Italian Plaquettes: Studies in the History of Art , Vol. XXII (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1989), pp. 93-103
J. Pope-Hennessy, ‘The Study of Italian Plaquettes’ in A. Luchs (ed.), Italian Plaquettes: Studies in the History of Art , Vol. XXII (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1989), pp. 19-32
J. Pope-Hennessy, Renaissance Bronzes from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Reliefs - Plaquettes - Statuettes - Utensils and Mortars (Phaidon Press Ltd, London, 1965), p. 92, no. 326, fig. 254
E. Maclagan, Catalogue of Italian Plaquettes (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1924), p. 43

This bronze oil lamp in partial low relief is an exquisite example of Italian Renaissance craftsmanship. The work has been attributed to the as yet still unidentified master ‘L.C.I.’ whose raised signature can be seen on the central medallion. The artist is so designated by the Victoria and Albert Museum whose collection comprises three of his works – a plaquette, 'A Sacrifice to Cupid' (Inv. no. 7498-1861), a plaquette, ‘A Sacrifice to Priapus’ (Inv. no. A. 453-1910) intended for use as a lamp lid, and a lamp with separate lid depicting the Priapus scene (Inv. no. 2621&A-1856). In contrast to these second and third objects, our lamp, also representing a sacrifice to Priapus, is complete. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an identical plaquette (Acc. no. 1975.1.1343), also a part only of a lamp and in inferior condition to our example, which it ascribes to a model created by Cristoforo di Geremia, active in Rome between 1456 – 1476. A virtually identical complete lamp, again in poorer condition than our work, found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Inv. no. KK 5924) is also ascribed to this medalist. Another lamp with the same plaquette in the Bode Museum is attributed by Bode to Andrea Riccio (Trent 1470 – 1532 Padua) (Inv. no. M 39/1). A comparable plaquette depicting a scene of sacrifice to Cupid can be found in the Samuel H. Kress collection ascribed to a Paduan artist of the 16th century. Some examples of this artist’s work are signed ‘L.C.R.I.I.S.’ Neither form of the signature have been explained.

In Greek mythology, Priapus (or Priapos) was a god of fertility, livestock and plants identifiable by his large permanent erection. The medical condition known as priapism, where the erect penis does not return to its flaccid state, despite the absence of both physical and psychological stimulation, derives its name from this source.

On the central medallion, a tripod vessel stands before an ithyphallic herm of Priapus. On the left, a woman places an offering in it. On the right, a kneeling woman, half naked, raises her hands in adoration. Standing behind her is a third woman who lifts a laurel wreath towards the image. In the exergue, in relief, are the letters ‘L.C.I.’

The perimeter of the lamp is a finely carved continuous décor of Centaurs engaged in various activities such as playing the flute and holding a harp and torch. Naiads (nymphs who presided over fountains, wells, springs, streams and other bodies of freshwater) perch on their backs. The height of refinement, the scrolled tails of these half-man half-horse characters highlight the sinuous shape of the lamp. Both the handle and spout take the form of a shell decorated on the reverse in elegant scrollwork, palmettes and volutes.

The reverse of the central medallion is inscribed within the foot ring ‘C.I.C. / I O M S’, cast incuse, with, above and below, a leaf, which (as Radcliffe (op. cit., p. 96) has observed) is a natural adjunct to classicising inscriptions. The question of the meaning of the base inscription has been the subject of debate from the early 17th century. In the first volume of his work on oils and unguents, Fortunatus Scacchus (who assumed the lamp to be antique) suggested that the letters under the base were to be read as ‘C(ai) I(ulii) C(aesaris) I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) S(acrum), concluding that the lamp had originally been consecrated to Jupiter by Julius Caesar. In 1652, in the second edition of his treatise on antique lamps, Fortunius Licetus amends Scacchus’ interpretation to read as ‘C(aius) I(ulius) C(aesar), I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(axiom) S(acravit)’. Radcliffe (op. cit., p. 103) considered what appears on the base to be a conventional inscription borrowed from antiquity which need not be read in conjunction with the exergue inscription.

Despite extensive research on the subject, the plaquette ‘A Sacrifice to Priapus’, found most commonly, as with our example, fixed into the top of a classicising oil lamp, has yet to be conclusively accounted for. Leading experts in the field such as Bode and Planiscig attributed this type of oil lamp to Riccio and his workshop. While other scholars felt unable to quite accept this ascription, most perceived some degree of relationship to Riccio (who trained as a goldsmith and lived and worked all his life in Padua), leading to close classifications down to ‘Paduan, late fifteenth or early sixteenth century’. Until relatively recently, the general consensus had been that the master ‘L.C.I.’ worked in Padua, or perhaps Milan (an acknowledgment to Molinier who proposed this alternative origin), in close connection with Riccio and was subject to his influence. Radcliffe has, however, demonstrated convincingly that the work dates from before 1480 rather than the early part of the 16th century and is classifiable as Romano-Mantuan. Although unwilling to press the question of authorship, it was his opinion that Cristoforo di Geremia was the only medalist of his day capable of handling small relief groups of great complexity with the flexibility and assurance found in these plaquettes. Cristoforo, who was Mantuan and active in Rome between 1456 – 1476, did not sever relations with Mantua revisiting the city in connection with his work as a jeweler for the Gonzaga. In Radcliffe’s opinion, it is only in the work of Cristoforo that close correspondence in style and composition may be found. As noted, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kunsthistorisches Museum ascribe their examples to that artist.

Oil lamps of this type reflect the great skill of Italian artists of the mid to late fifteenth century in transforming a commonplace domestic object into a treasured sculptural work. Though a functional utensil, our elaborate lamp is above all a work of art, designed to take its place alongside other collectibles in a scholar's study that would have been illuminated primarily by candlelight. With a rich dark brown patina, it is a particularly rare example of a complete lamp of the highest quality in exceptional original condition.

SOLD: Private collection, Belgium