Hampshire Cultural Trust

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Cave Canem

Beware of the 2,000 year-old dog!

Cave Canem (Latin - ‘Beware of the Dog!’) The dog we are here being warned about probably lived in England in the second quarter of the 19th century, but it must have had ancestors in Italy nearly two thousand years ago, because this is a copy of a mosaic found in Pompeii – hence the Latin – buried in volcanic ash when Vesuvius erupted on 24 August AD79.

The ‘House of the Tragic Poet’, excavated in 1824-1825, is named after other mosaics discovered there depicting scenes from the theatre. But it was the dog mosaic found in the entrance hall that seized everyone’s imagination – including some enterprising sort who saw a potential profit in selling copies to tourists. An unknown number were made, most likely in or around Naples, and sold to visitors, amongst whom the English were prominent.

However, the only others known to Hampshire Museums are two sets which guard the entrance to Bantry House, overlooking Bantry Bay in Ireland. They were taken there by Viscount Berehaven, son of the first Earl of Bantry, some time before 1840. Until then he had been travelling in the tradition of the 18th century ‘Grand Tour’, during which young aristocrats were expected to acquire knowledge of European culture and quantities of art and antiques.

The early history of our tile panel which is on display in the Allen Gallery is unknown, but it shows signs of having once formed part of a threshold. One wonders how many callers, not well up in their Latin, came away from it bloodied and better informed.