Medma, Rosarno? For most travelers to Italy, these names will not ring any bells. The former was an ancient city-state of Greater Greece and the latter is its modern-day counterpart in Calabria. Medma’s terracotta is exceptionally beautiful. You can see a few pieces in the collection of the British Museum, or visit the archeological museums in Rosarno and Reggio, and have your fill.
In the words of British-born archeologist David Randall-MacIver:
Those who are not familiar with the museums of southern Italy and Sicily can hardly realize what a rich field of study is afforded by the minor terracottas, of which there are many thousand examples…. Amongst them all, however, I would assign the first place for sheer beauty to the examples from Rosarno. (from Greek Cities in Italy and Sicily, 1931)
Having visited many museums in Southern Italy, I can say that Mr. Randall-MacIver had a lot to choose from, and I concur. The terracotta figurines from Medma are particularly striking. Gazing at the attractive female statuettes and busts, I’ve wondered if the women from Medma weren’t the most beautiful of ancient times. The sculptures were fashioned from a local clay that has lent their characteristic reddish color. Medma had close ties with Locri Epizephyrii, a colony established in the 7th century BC by women from Locris in central Greece. Handsome ladies, no doubt.
The Locrians founded Medma (or Mesma) in the 6th century BC. Locri lies over the mountains along Calabria’s eastern coast on the Ionian Sea and Medma is on the Tyrrhenian Sea on the western shore at what would have been less than a day’s walk back in the day. The present city is called Rosarno and its center sits on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Gioia Tauro. Today, state highway 682 goes west across the peninsula from just north of Locri.
From the dimensions of the excavations of the area, Medma would have been able to accommodate over 4,000 citizens in its heyday during the Greek period. The town was mentioned by Roman writers. However, it is thought that the population eventually moved and founded nearby Nicotera some time in the 2nd century AD.
Excavations have uncovered numerous artifacts as well as structural remains of the city. Judging from the craft of the terracotta and bronze pieces discovered in the necropolis and sanctuary areas, Medma had a distinctive and sophisticated lifestyle with particular emphasis on the exaltation of beauty. Interesting to note that Locri Epizephyrii, the founding city-state, was a matriarchal society that was unique in the Greek world.
The wealth of terracotta includes many female heads and busts. These votive offerings would have been divine representations or stylized images of the donors, themselves. Various hairstyles frame the noble faces set off by classic earrings or a modest crown. What are they all thinking behind those half smiles?
The enigmatic expressions date these sculptures between the late 6th to the 5th century BC. The following terracotta figures with a rigid, frontal stance, one seated on a throne and the other standing, offer winged creatures that bring to mind the cult of Aphrodite.
Another standing female figure from the Archaic Period balances the high cylindrical head covering of a goddess with a wreath in her left hand and a pomegranate, the symbol of fertility, in her right.
TERRACOTTA HORSES AND MEN
Male and animal figures also count amongst the ancient objects. In fact, Mr. Randall-MacIver noted, “One peculiarity of the people of Medma was their fondness for horses; fifty complete figurines and over 100 heads of horses made in pottery were found in one deposit.”
Two distinctive statuettes that never fail to catch my eye are the young man carrying a ram on his shoulders and the mythical hero riding a giant turtle. The terracotta head of a bearded man with a Corinthian helmet shows the masculine side of Medma.
And this small bull is a fine example of a bronze artifact from the ancient colony.
MEDMA ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM IN ROSARNO
Numerous ancient objects from Medma are on display in the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria, and in 2014 the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Medma-Rosarno opened in the city of Rosarno, which is in the Province of Reggio Calabria less than an hour’s drive north of Reggio. More information can be found on the Museo Medma’s Facebook page.
In the words of Mr. Randall-MacIver:
Rosarno lies in a district of extraordinary fertility, sheltered from all winds and possessed of a very rich soil. The olive groves are said to be the most extensive in all Calabria, if not in all Italy. And the olives in this district are not trimmed and cut as they are elsewhere but are allowed to grow to the height of forest trees….. It is a wonderful experience to pass from the windswept heights of the mountain of Gerace down into broad quiet woods, as still and as as solemn as the oak groves of the Druids. No wonder that the Locrians were charmed with this region so blessed by all the gods.
Read more about the fascinating region in the toe of the boot in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this important area of South Italy. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.
See Rosarno terracotta sculptures on my Calabria Tour.
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