After 83 years, Sicily's finest portrait of Augustus returns home to Centuripe

The most beautiful portrait of Augustus preserved in Sicily is finally coming home after 83 years: the bust, kept for eight decades at the Archaeological Museum in Syracuse, is in fact returning permanently to Centuripe. It will be kept in the town's archaeological museum.

After 83 years, the marble portrait of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian Augustus, the “best of the Augustan age preserved in Sicily” (as Nicola Bonacasa, longtime director of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Palermo, had defined it), returns to Centuripe after having been kept forever at the “Paolo Orsi” Regional Archaeological Museum in Syracuse: the bust, in fact, although it had been found (in 1938) in the town in the province of Enna, had been immediately transferred to the Syracuse museum, prompting protests from the inhabitants. The return of the work was strongly desired by Centuripe Mayor Salvatore La Spina and Regional Councillor Alberto Samonà, who say they are proud and excited about the important milestone.

The return of the portrait of Augustus is in fact the result of an intense and fruitful collaboration between several institutions: the Department for Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity; the Archaeological and Landscape Park of Catania and the Valley of Aci, whose responsibilities include the Regional Archaeological Museum of Centuripe; and the Archaeological and Landscape Park of Syracuse, Eloro villa Tellaro and Akrai within whose management falls the “Paolo Orsi” Museum of Syracuse. Together with the important portrait and thanks to the memorandum of understanding between the entities, the entire Centuripe collection, kept at the Paolo Orsi Museum, will be transferred to the Centuripe Regional Archaeological Museum for a duration of 5 years. The collection also includes two other extraordinary portraits, one of Germanicus and one of Drusus Minor, as well as important Centuripine vases and several clay works.

The head of Augustus was found in Centuripe on April 30, 1938, while celebrations of the Augustan bimillennium were underway, by one of the workers intent on digging the foundation cable of one of the four pylons intended to support a section of road. The work emerged in the very city that Octavian himself almost two thousand years earlier had supported, along with Syracuse and Catania, to reciprocate the help offered him during his campaign against Sextus Pompey in Sicily. The portrait is carved on the same model as that of the statue of Augustus found in the villa of his wife Livia at Prima Porta, now housed in the Vatican Museums. After the find, despite opposition and resistance from the centuripine community, which had tried in every way to block the departure of the find, and despite the fact that the Municipal Antiquarium had already been founded, it was decided at the time to transfer it to Syracuse.

The marble portrait had already returned to the Enna town for a brief period in September 2011. It was a temporary loan for a few months, which had succeeded in attracting a considerable increase in visitors to the new Regional Museum.

“It is undoubtedly a great opportunity,” comments Councillor Alberto Samonà, “which allows extraordinary finds discovered so long ago and preserved at the ”Paolo Orsi“ to be enhanced in their original context and, at the same time, to make the beautiful museum named after the well-known archaeologist from Rovereto known ”outside the house“ as well. It is a cultural policy initiative that aims to preserve the lesser-known places in inland Sicily for a narrative that takes into account their extraordinary history and strategic importance. Equally, it is a way of witnessing a fruitful work between archaeological parks, that of Catania and that of Syracuse, aimed at making the cultural offerings of the Paolo Orsi known even outside of the Arethusa museum site, creating the prerequisites for the birth of a diffuse museum, which can make different territories dialogue in the name of a new strategy of promoting archaeology and our identity.”

“The Centuripe Laboratory,” argues Carlo Staffile, director of the Archaeological and Landscape Park of Syracuse, Eloro, Villa del Tellaro and Akrai, “consists of the first attempt by the direction of the Archaeological and Landscape Park of Syracuse, Eloro, Villa del Tellaro and Akrai, of which the prestigious Paolo Orsi Museum is part, to offer Sicilian archaeological museums the long-term loan of an entire archaeological collection not currently on display in the halls of the Arethusean museum. An entire collection (and not the return of the single artifact, as has often happened and happens, an attracting masterpiece, it is true, but in reality subtracted from the unitary complex of the excavation) means hundreds of objects, a set of history and material culture that has come to light thanks to the work of great archaeologists, it means the story of a country, a real piece of museum in the museum. Not a dismemberment, then, but a restitution, in which the value and history of the territory of reference can be a vehicle and driver for the rediscovery by the citizenship of their roots but also the proposal of a cultural tourist itinerary.”

The Centuripe Archaeological Museum, with the arrival of this important collection, is enriched and completes the impressive collection that is, a rare if not unique case, exclusively from local excavations. For Gioconda Lamagna, director of the Archaeological Park of Catania, “the arrival of the three portraits will enrich the exhibition that can rightly be called the centerpiece of the Museum, consisting of the complex from the nearby building of the imperial age traditionally known as the Augustales. Imposing marble statues, portrait-heads, and honorary inscriptions in Latin, which also arouse great impression because of the setting, which is of great scenic effect; to them will be added the three portraits of the ”Paolo Orsi,“ with the dual result of reconstituting the context of origin and enriching the already conspicuous heritage of history and art of the Centuripe Museum. In short, it will be an opportunity to turn the spotlight back on the city’s very important archaeological heritage and to revive the museum’s image after the long pause imposed by the Covid emergency.”

“A historic achievement,” stressed Mayor Salvatore La Spina, “we are happy and excited. The return of the Head of Augustus is a goal we had set for ourselves from the beginning and represents a real turning point for the whole community. This portrait, because of its beauty and elegance I hope will become the symbol of the rebirth of the town, an identifying mark that will imprint the name of Centuripe even more in the annals of history and the world. Its beauty will be the emblem of our project for the revival of Centuripe Imperial City. I would like to thank Councillor Alberto Samonà, Director Gioconda Lamagna, Director Carlo Staffile, and all the officials of the Department and the Archaeological Parks of Syracuse and Catania for the careful as well as helpful collaboration undertaken in the previous months. What Else to Add, the emperor returns home!”

After 83 years, Sicily's finest portrait of Augustus returns home to Centuripe
After 83 years, Sicily's finest portrait of Augustus returns home to Centuripe

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