Francisco Tropa (Lisbon, 1968) has developed a project for the Conversations Space that brings together contemporary sculpture and archaeology, in collaboration with the archaeologist Sérgio Carneiro.
The starting point of this exhibition is a bronze ‘pyrgus’ or ‘dice box’ found in the newly discovered Roman Healing Spa of Chaves. This unique sculptural object of the Roman period is essentially a tower used to throw dice.
The artist places this object at the centre of his project, evoking notions of time and origins (beginning with the origins of sculpture itself); history and chance; the body, play and death.
Francisco Tropa is a Portuguese artist with an established career dating from the 90s. In recent years, he has gained increasing critical and institutional attention on the international circuit, with appearances at the Venice Biennale (2011), the Istanbul Biennial (2011), Manifesta (2000), the Melbourne Biennial (1999) and the Biennial of São Paulo (1998).
Curators: Sérgio Carneiro e Penelope Curtis
VIEW OF THE EXHIBITION
The Roman Healing Spa of Chaves (Aquae Flaviae) is the largest and best preserved complex of its type in the Iberian Peninsula. In addition, it is one of the few across the whole of the Roman Empire to have been excavated in recent times.
The spa consisted of two large pools and eight smaller pools for individual use; a walled courtyard; a temple dedicated to the Nymphs and a still functioning thermal water supply and drainage system. To this day, water emerges from the ground at a temperature of 65º C, filling all the pools.
The complex was built in the first century AD and, some 200 years later, an earthquake destroyed the central building, leading to the collapse of the vault. As well as bones, a collection of rare personal belongings was buried under tons of shattered bricks and rubble and preserved by the mud, offering us a unique insight today into the daily life of those who were bathing in the healing waters at the moment of the disaster. As in the case of Pompeii, a natural disaster created an invaluable time capsule.
Those who could afford to interrupt their routine labours to spend a fortnight at a spa city such as Aquae Flaviae had plenty of free time to devote to leisure activities such as playing games.
Several artefacts were found during the archaeological excavations of the site, including game boards inscribed on the steps of one of the pools and on a brick, as well as dice, game counters and a bronze dice tower, of which only two other examples have been found until now. This is the pyrgus from Chaves.
Among the many artefacts found in Chaves, and now exhibited for the first time, was an incredibly rare tower used to throw dice during games and to prevent cheating. This object was known as a pyrgus by the Romans.
The pyrgus, and its dice, was found buried under the rubble of the building during the archaeological excavations. It lay close to two skeletons, perhaps those of individuals who were playing at the edge of the pool at the moment of the earthquake.
The Chaves pyrgus is a small tower of bronze pierced to form a complex geometric or vegetal pattern. While literary and iconographic references to this type of artefact suggest their use was fairly common, there are very few surviving examples.
Inscriptions were commonly included on these devices, and the pyrgus exhibited bears the following phrase:
‘Just as the quadriga, racing from the barriers (carceres), sometimes rolls; thus, the dice, when thrown, tumble down the stairs of the pyrgus. Made in the workshop of Soricus. Use this with luck.’
This comparison between the game of dice and chariot racing was a powerful image. The sudden exit of the quadrigas as the barriers (carceres) simultaneously opened – a mechanism that, like the pyrgus, was used to guarantee a fair start in the horse races -, is a common theme in Roman iconography and literature.
Francisco Tropa and the archaeologist Sérgio Carneiro maintained a constant dialogue from the start of the archaeological excavations of the Roman Healing Spa of Chaves.
A series of games made by Francisco Tropa are set out around the exhibition space. They are all concerned with the concept of playing, and took as their starting point the pyrgus and other objects associated with games and writing found at Chaves.
At times, Francisco Tropa’s work evokes excavated objects and is based on the fact that our method of counting, throwing and gambling is derived from simple numeric systems.
The pieces were produced over the last decade and, in many cases, during the last year. Most of them involve bronze casting, a process whose fidelity fascinates the artist, who explores the relationship between original and replica in many of these games. Thus bronze shells and pebbles sit alongside the original objects from which they were cast.
Tropa named all his games ‘Scripta’, referring to the inscribed game boards found throughout the Roman Empire, engraved on the ground or on plaques.
The game board was usually very simple: a piece of cloth that could be folded, rolled up, or even kept in a pocket. Francis Tropa likes objects that can be moved and repositioned and although these games cannot actually be played, it is possible to image how they might be. The game boards are always arranged differently: there are no fixed patterns, and Tropa constantly alludes to games of chance.