Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews


main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry June 2011


The Mothers of Capuathe Gods of Olden Italy


Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, once called The Provincial Museum in Capua "the most significant museum of ancient Italian civilization in Campania." That is heady praise, indeed, since the Campania region of Italy contains dozens of sites and museums (including the large National museums in Naples and Salerno) packed with displays on Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum, Cuma, the Samnites, the Etruscans, the Oscans, Greeks and Romans. The Capua museum was inaugurated in 1874, heavily damaged by air-raids in WW II but was restored and reopened in 1956. Today, the whole complex in Capua consists of 32 exhibition rooms, 20 rooms for storage, three courtyards and a large garden.

The jewel of "ancient Italian civilization" in the museum—that which brings scholars from around the world—is the unique collection dedicated to the Matres Matutae (the Latin plural of Mater Matuta, lit. Mother of the Morning), a term associated in Italic mythology with the Goddess of Spring, Birth and Fertility. The collection consists of an altar to the Mater Matuta, one statue of the "mother" goddess, herself—seated and holding a pomegranate, a fruit symbolic in many ancient cultures of fruitfulness (see also this example), and a great of number of votive statues of various sizes carved in tufa of seated women, each embracing anywhere from 1 to 12 infants (photo, above). The entire affair was uncovered during agricultural excavations begun in 1846 near Capua.

The farmers had uncovered an ancient Italic fertility temple. The original digging was stopped, archaeologists were called in and by the 1870s, the results were earmarked for the new Capua museum. Inscriptions found on the altar were in the Oscan language (closely related to Latin). The votive statuettes appear to have been sculpted beginning around 700 BC, running to about the first century BC. For much of that period, Oscan speakers such as the Samnites co-existed in central and south-central Italy with the Etruscans, Greeks and Romans. Probably the most striking aspect of these statuettes is that they look so much like those found with Etruscan or Latin inscriptions elsewhere in Italy (such as the well-known Mater Matuta temple in the Forum Boarium in Rome)—the blocky representation of the seated woman embracing her children and "presenting" them, as it were, to the goddess, as if to say, "Hello, again! I just had another one. Little girl. Good kid. Thanks! (P.S. Maybe twelve is enough. Just saying.)"

It's very visual evidence of the ubiquity of the Mater Matuta at a time well before Imperial Rome, when the only thing that overarched great expanses of land were the gods who gave us life and granted us fertility. I don't know just how—or even if—the Mater Matuta intersects with even broader concepts such as the Earth Mother or the ideas that put women at the center of pre-Indo-European life in Italy—say, before 4000 B.C. Actually, even that is relatively recent compared to the Woman of Willendorf, say, that small limestone statuette from 24,000-22,000 years ago found in Austria in 1908. It is one of a number of such items that might be—because of the exaggerated rendering of bosom, abdomen and vulva—fertility symbols. It is amusing to me that the umbrella term for such prehistoric objects is "Venus figurines." The term "Venus" is obviously an anachronism, since Venus, herself, as a concept in human culture would not be along for many thousands of years after the items were carved. (It's archaeological shorthand for scholars, I know, but surely they must realize that some kid on a field trip is going to "learn" that they venerated Venus in the Stone Age. It's somewhat like scholars 10,000 years from now studying us and concluding that the Madonna, the mother of Jesus, was named for a pop music star.) And since we know nothing of the cultures that produced the items, it's a leap to say that they are fertility symbols; they might have been, yes, but there are other possibilities. They might also be samples of Late Stone Age Porn. What? Indeed, that one is a serious contender. I mean, What do you expect? Caveboys will be caveboys.

With the Mothers of Capua, there is really no doubt. They are spectacular manifestations of the joy and hope connected with fertility and survival in ancient Italy. The figures have a pastoral purity of the kind that inspires even modern Italian poets with nostalgia. One of Giosuè Carducci's Barbarian Odes (from 1876) is about the Clitumnus river of ancient Umbria. My prose translation of the closing is...
...The darkening clouds hang like smoke on the Apennines: grand, austere and green from the spreading mountains, Umbria watches. Hail, green Umbria, and you the fount of god Clitumnus. I feel in my heart the ancient home, my fevered brow touched by the olden gods of Italy.
I include it here because they are the lines I thought of when I first read of Maiuri's praise for the Capua museum.


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