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Caius Perperna Geminus, by Roman cinerarium

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About the artwork

William Hesketh Lever was a philanthropic industrialist who was a great believer in the education and enlightenment of his workforce. Lever built a village around his factory at Port Sunlight, Wirral, in order to house his workers in a healthy environment.

During the late Victorian and early Edwardian period there grew amongst his peers a belief in the Garden Suburb Movement whereby it was believed that healthy workers living in healthy surroundings produced a happier, more productive workforce. Port Sunlight is the product of Lever’s desire to provide his workers with this happier, healthier environment so rare in Great Britain at the height of industrialisation and Empire.

Following the decision to found the Lady Lever Art Gallery within the Port Sunlight village this Roman cinerarium was collected by Lever as part of a larger collection of antiquities objects, partly for their aesthetic value but mainly for teaching purposes.

Prior to setting up the Lady Lever Art Gallery Lever had placed full sized images of famous pieces of classical sculpture from around the world in his Port Sunlight schools. Used as teaching aids for his workers and their children these images were frowned upon for their nudity by the Cheshire County Council who later assumed control of the schools.

Discovery in tombs in Siena

This marble cinerarium or ash chest was discovered in tombs in Siena in the early 18th century, but later belonged to the Italian sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (c.1716-1799). Bartolomeo Cavaceppi trained as a sculptor entering the Academia di San Luca in 1732. He worked as a restorer for the pope at the Museo Clementino and between 1768 and 1772 he published three volumes of engraved images of works he had either restored or owned, entitled 'Raccolta d'antiche statue, busti, teste cognite'.

Cavaceppi’s workshop in Rome was well known amongst British collectors of classical sculpture undertaking the Grand Tour throughout the second half of the 18th century. He would act as a buyer of classical sculpture on behalf of tourists and in many cases would undertake the restoration of sculpture on behalf of his foreign patrons.

Sometimes he would make copies of the original classical pieces or create pieces of his own in the classical style or 'all’ antica'. As Cavaceppi rarely signed his own work in some cases pieces have been confused with originals. This ash chest or cinerarium is a perfect example of a piece that has been embellished by Cavaceppi.

Although the inscription, its panel, the associated flora and fauna are antique he was probably responsible for the restorations and additions, the reclining sphinxes on the lid, the cornucopiae and flowers on the base and the ornamentation on the back.

The inscription on this ash chest tells us that it once contained the ashes of Caius Perperna Geminus. Caius was sixty-eight when he died and was survived by his former slaves Caius Perperna Agathopus and Saturnina and Fortunata now a freedman and freedwomen and heirs of the deceased. Freedmen were a large social class in ancient Rome. Once made a freedman by his master a former slave automatically became a Roman citizen.

It was customary for the former slave to take his masters name or nomen, the master then became the patronus. Slaves could gain their freedom in many ways. If a slave should survive his master then he may have been freed in his owners will. Sometimes an owner bought their slaves' freedom themselves perhaps as a reward for good service, whilst some slaves could buy their own freedom.

Roman funeral rituals

The ritual of the funeral played an important part in Roman society. The belief in the departed person’s last journey across the river Styx to the Underworld to judge whether that spirit should reside in the Roman heaven known as Elysium or be cast into hell, Tartarus, was central to the Roman view of the afterlife.

In a Roman funeral following the correct ritual and honouring the dead played an essential role in preparing a beloved departed relative for the Afterlife. Following the correct procedure to ensure that the deceased was properly laid to rest and enjoyed an eternity in Elysium also meant that they would not return to haunt the living. A funeral was also seen as a way to reflect the deceased's status during his life and the importance of his surviving family members.