Savile, Diana and Eaton


FundiliaIf you haven’t seen the Nemi exhibition at Nottingham Castle yet – hurry up. Although the show is on until September 29 this display of Etruscan and Roman artefacts from the shrine of Diana at Nemi hasn’t been seen in public since the early 1980s, which suggests they might not go on show again for another 25 years. That the contents of an ancient healing temple in Italy  are in Nottinghamshire at all is all down to Lord Savile, who excavated Nemi in 1885. Savile’s seat was Rufford Abbey and so donated his collection of Nemi busts, frieze fragments and clay devotional figurines to his local museum which was Nottingham Castle. Curator Ann Inscker has been working to get the artefacts out of storage again for years and return items that had been on loan to a museum in Denmark (the museum there owns the other half of the artefacts excavated at Nemi). Ann’s favourite piece, and no doubt the favourite of many visitors, is the impressive tall herm of an imposing Roman lady called Fundilia which is displayed in a room which may be designed to look like a shadowy temple interior. Elsewhere you can peer at dozens of devotional figurines and models of human anatomy shaped in clay which were, presumably, left at the shrine in the hope that Diana, goddess of hunting and healing, would bless the worshippers with better health. The Nemi shrine was of course a  source of considerable interest to Sir James Frazer, whose multi-volume study of magic and mystery The Golden Bough was an attempt to understand the atavistic forces expressed in the rites of the priest of Nemi, Rex Nemorensis, King of the Grove. The priest had one of the best and worst jobs since he was guardian of the goddess’s shrine but knew that his fate was to be killed by the next person who wanted to be priest. The killer would then become the new priest, fated to be slain by the next job- seeker. This continual cycle of life and death within the woods of Nemi inspired both Frazer’s monumental work of anthropology and a much less well known French play titled Le Pretre de Nemi (The Priest of Nemi) by Ernest Renan in 1886. The play is, by most accounts, unperformable but,  for the occasion of the exhibition, has been translated into English by the Nottingham playwright and screenwriter Michael Eaton and published by John Lucas’s Shoestring Press in Beeston. In fact, Michael has several other connections to the Nemi story (including a degree in anthropology), all of which he will be explaining in his talk at Nottingham Castle on September 18 (1.15pm – it’s free but you have to pay to get into the Castle). Michael’s film, The Priest of Nemi, is also showing in the Nemi exhibition: both this and his talk should help illuminate the unlikely story of how the contents of an ancient Roman shrine ended up at Nottingham Castle.  But there are two other Nemi-related issues worth mentioning. One is that the lake at Nemi contained the sunken remains of two huge wooden pleasure barges that were built on the orders of the Emperor Caligula. After years of efforts to raise them, one was finally recovered in Mussolini’s time by draining the lake. The boat was on show in a museum for years but was, alas, burned by accident or design when the Germans retreated from the area in the Second World War. However, you can see photographs of  the two boats in the Castle exhibition. The other issue is the similarity of Rex Nemorensis – the King of the Grove – to Vernemetum, which was the name of the Roman town near Willoughby-on-the-Wolds in Nottinghamshire. The town’s name, translating as ‘very sacred grove’, suggests that it may have harboured a shrine or temple of some kind. The Roman spa town Aquae Arnemetiae, today called Buxton in Derbyshire, is also often translated as ‘waters of the goddess of the grove’ or some variation thereof.

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