Oil lamp in the form of the head of an African

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An oil lamp made by the lost-wax technique. The body of the lamp is shaped in the form of a head, and given the facial features, we can observe that the depiction is of an African. The pouring hole is on the forehead and the nozzle which held the wick is a large circular hole in the mouth with an elongated lower lip. Remains of the handle, used to hold or hang the lamp, can be seen at the back end of the piece as well as some piece of the mechanism which would have held the lid to the pouring hole in place. This lid is now lost.

There were various types of mask depicting comedy, tragedy and satire. The first were rather rough, with crossed eyes, twisted mouth and ravaged cheeks. The tragic masks were notably larger and had look of fury, with curled hair and deformed forehead or temples. The masks of satire were more grotesque, representing extravagant and fantastic figures like cyclopes, centaurs, fauns and satyrs.

The mouth of the mask serves as the pouring hole. Below this and projecting forward is a nozzle with a circular hole for the wick. On both sides and the mouth we find two very small circular holes so that the lamp could be hung up with a chain. A hollow square can be seen at the back of the head where the handle of the lamp would have been inserted. Today this piece is lost.

Ancient Roman lamps were small utensils, normally made from clay, but also made in bronze, which were used by the ancient Romans and later by the Visigoths to provide artificial light. They were fuelled with olive oil and had from one to a dozen wicks. Some had handles so that they could be moved easily from one room to another. They could also be carried by participants in ritual activities or by actors in plays, as is the case with this piece, as can be seen by the theatre mask decoration.

Different types of scenes could be seen in relief on lamps: erotic scenes, ones with gladiators, motifs from mythology or floral patterns. These lamps became very popular as they were not expensive. They were produced en masse using moulds instead of being individually produced by craftsmen.

The technique of lost-wax casting is a sculptural procedure using a mould made from a prototype of the piece to be worked, and this prototype is usually made from beeswax. This is covered with a thick layer of soft material, usually clay, which then solidifies. Once this has hardened it is put in a kiln where the wax inside melts and leaks out through expressly made holes in the clay. In its place molten metal is injected and this takes on the exact form of the mould. To release the final piece the mould must be removed.

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