The Ten Thousand (English)

Albrecht Dürer suspended between Ovid e Procopius. Fantastic and tormented journey of the German Renaissance master through Southern Italy.
Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand - Albrecht Dürer | Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand – Albrecht Dürer
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
In monte Ararath pássio sanctórum Mártyrum decem míllium, crucifixórum.1 “On Mount Ararat, the passion of ten thousand holy martyrs crucified’. Cesare Baronio, in the Roman Martyrology (1589), introduced the commemoration of the Ten Thousand on 22nd June, which was maintained in subsequent editions until 2004, when Pope John Paul II decreed its abolition

The episode of the martyrdom of ten thousand men during the tenth persecution perpetrated by the Emperor Diocletian against the Christians inspired numerous iconographic representations in Europe between the 15th and 16th centuries. Its commemoration was officially introduced in the Roman Martyrology of 1589 by Cardinal Caesar Baronius. Among the artists who dealt with this subject were (in chronological order) the German sculptor Erasmus Grasser, the Swiss painter and playwright Niklaus Manuel, the Italians Vittore Carpaccio Crucifixion and apotheosis of the ten thousand martyrs of Mount Ararat, Agnolo Bronzino, Jacopo Pontormo and Michele Tosini

The Christian sources that documented the ferocious torture of the saint Acathius Primicerius, a Roman official – sometimes confused with Acathius of Antakya and Acathius of Melitene – and of the ten thousand soldiers who accompanied him on his expedition to Armenia and who converted to Christianity with him, were numerous and not difficult to access: Eusebius of Caesarea2Eusebio di Cesarea, Ekklēsiastikè historía, IV sec. and Lactantius3Lattanzio, De mortibus persecutorum, IV sec. (3rd-4th centuries), Anastasius the Libraian4Anastasio il Bibliotecario, Passio Sanctorum, IX sec. (a pseudonym used by the antipope Anastasius III in the 9th century, gain success as a writer and philologist, bypassing his detractors), Jacopo da Varazze5Jacopo da Varazze, Legenda Aurea, 1298 (13th century), Pietro de’ Natali6Pietro de’ Natali, Catalogus Sanctorum et gestorum eorum, Vicenza, 1493 (15th century).
The story, set in the time of the Tetrarchy, is sometimes  intertwined with a similar legend that anticipates the event to the empire of Hadrian (1st-2nd century) when an angel is said to have appeared to nine thousand soldiers struggling to quell an Armenian revolt and urging them to convert7Cfr. The Ten Thousand Martyrs – Encyclopedia Volume – Catholic Encyclopedia – Catholic Online. The effect was victory over the rebels, which convinced another thousand men to embrace Christianity, provoking the emperor’s wrath, who would have punished them with the help of other pagan kings, inflicting on them punishments like those of Christ’s passion.

Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastical History8Eusebio di Cesarea, op.cit., I, 2, 19-21 explains the reasons that made divine intervention necessary, i.e. the serious sins of which many men were guilty:

“19.They cared neither for their cities, nor for the way of governing them, nor for the arts and sciences. Neither by name were virtue, the principles of justice, nor even virtue and philosophy known to them. Nomads in the deserts, they led a life like that of beasts and wild animals.
The intellectual faculties coming from nature, the rational and mythical seeds of the human soul, they corrupted them with the excess of deliberate wickedness, indulging completely in all kinds of wickedness, sometimes corrupting each other, sometimes killing each other; Sometimes they became anthropophagous, or dared recklessly to fight against God and to engage in those battles of giants which are celebrated among all peoples, or meditated to fortify the earth against heaven, or, seized with foolish and absurd thoughts, to prepare for war against him who is above all.

Eusebius also tells us how God remedied their deplorable conduct:

“20. Against those who behaved in this way, God, who watches over all things, sent floods and torrents of fire as over a wild forest that had spread over the whole earth, and he exterminated them with continual famine, pestilence and war, and also with thunderbolts from on high; with the severest punishments he stopped that most grievous and terrible disease of souls.
21. Then, while the torpor of wickedness had been poured out upon almost all, like a terrible intoxication, which darkens and obscures the souls of almost all men, the Wisdom of God, the first-born and first-creature, and the pre-existent Word Himself, through an excess of love for men, manifested Himself to the lower beings, now by the appearance of angels, now by God Himself, as a saving power, to one or two of the ancient men who were God’s friends, and He could not do this except in human form, since it would not have been possible for Him to do it otherwise for them.

Origin of the painting

BenchAlthough the Society of Bollandists and some canonists doubted its veracity, the story kept its echo alive, arousing the interest of illustrious men, including Frederick III, known as “the Wise”9Cfr. M. Block, Frederick the Wise: Prince and Protector, in The Canadian Lutheran, luglio/agosto 2016.

Portrait of Frederick III of Saxony (1496)
Albrecht Dürer | Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

It was the Prince Elector of Saxony (founder of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther and Melanchthon lectured) who commissioned Albrecht Dürer to paint the panel today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum10Cfr. M. Block, op. cit..

The work is preceded by a preparatory drawing (1507).


and from a woodcut (1496/1497).

The latter differs from the oil painting in its extremely bloody depiction of torture, starting with Acathius lying on the ground and having one of his eyes pierced. Severed heads, like sparse elements of vegetation in the barren terrain, assemblages of naked people, among whom emerge, in a dynamic tension towards emptiness, bodies destined to fall ruinously from the cliff; whips, spears and rudimentary borers with which the emperor’s traitors were tortured.

It is not only this gruesome spectacle that leaves the viewer appalled, but also the inhuman indifference of the onlookers to the suffering of their fellow human beings starting with the small group of monarchs in the lower left-hand corner, continuing with the trio on the opposite side, and ending with the couple with plumes in the background along the right-hand edge of the engraving.

The anamorphic landscape accentuates the pathos of the scene, set in a realistic background with a castle in sight.

“Albrecht Dürer, The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, c. 1496/1497, woodcut – Detail

This will be followed by an anamorphic rereading of the engraving. #StayTuned

The choice of theme reflects the cultural climate of the time, which was characterised by strong political and religious divisions generating a climate of intolerance and fear, both towards known dangers, such as the Turkish threat11Cfr. S. Faroqhi, L’Impero ottomano, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2018, and towards new realities that broke with the past, such as the Protestant Reformation.

The unwavering resistance with which Acathius and the ten thousand embraced Christianity and rejected pagan idols is similar to Luther’s tenacious refusal to retract the 95 theses, despite pressure from Charles V and other members of the Diet of Worms12Cfr. D. Cantimori, Saggio introduttivo a Martin Lutero, Discorsi a tavola, trad. di Leandro Perini, Torino, Einaudi, 1969, pp. VII-LXXXII.
It was Frederick III himself who hosted the German reformer at his residence in Wartburg after the Diet13Cfr. M.Block, op. cit.. It is possible that the work also represented a propaganda tool for the prince to ingratiate himself with the pontiff. Leo X, who had succeeded Julius II (known as the ‘terrible’), chose him as the ideal candidate for the leadership of the Holy Roman Empire – a role that Charles V would later take.

The iconographic subject of the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand was moreover well known in the German area, as shown by the Peringsdörfer Retable, originally located in the church of the Augustinian hermits in Nuremberg, executed around 1485 by an unidentified late Gothic painter.

Dürer and Celtis

The authorship and dating of the painting, in Vienna, is attested by the inscription in the centre of the composition.
A figure dressed in black, probably a self-portrait of the painter, holds a title block on which stands the sentence.

Detail: Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer
Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
“Iste faciebat ano domini 1508 Albertus Dürer Aleman”.

“Iste faciebat ano domini 1508 Albertus Dürer Aleman”.

Detail: Cartiglio
Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The face is reminiscent of other self-portraits by the artist, in particular the drawing in the Kunsthalle Bremen in which Dürer portrays himself as the Man of Sorrows (Ecce Homo), with a similar hairstyle and profile.

Man of Sorrows (Ecce Homo)

The man appears in the company of his writer friend Conrad Celtis, who is also strongly influenced by the court of Frederick the Wise.

Detail: Conrad Celtis (on the left) and Albrecht Dürer | Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The cryptor-portrait of Celtis can be found in the woodcut of the epitaph, made by Dürer the previous year, in which the poet, depicted in a three-quarter view, wears a similar headdress and a fur-trimmed cloak.
The German humanist also appears in the engraving of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of 1496: he is the man standing on the right, facing the viewer, and watching the terrible torture of Acathius with his eyes lowered.
The identification is further confirmed by the effigy on the stamp by the artist Wilhelm Dachauer, issued in Germany during the Second World War.

Two schemes for an iconographic prosopography of Celtis and Dürer will be produced shortly. #StayTuned


A composite narrative plot unfolds around them, determined by a hypothetical syntax of sequences.  In the foreground, horizontally, is the beginning of the story in medias res: Acathius, recognisable by his bishop’s robes, is surrounded by some elegantly dressed figures, with two of whom he seems to be talking to. The man with the uncovered head, the only one in the group, holds out his arms as if offering him a last chance of salvation. On the other hand, the figure with the blue cloak on his back is pointing with his right hand in the direction he will otherwise go. The saint’s response is immediately apparent from the hands tied behind his back and the procession of nudes making their way up the rocky slope.

In the foreground, we see the macabre massacre of decapitated bodies, while, at the sides, we see the crucified martyrs (on the left) and the Eastern kings summoned by Diocletian to inflict mortal torture (on the right).
It is precisely through the depiction of the rulers that Dürer updates the tragic event, bringing the viewer face to face with the ‘monsters’ of his time: in the sultan standing, with his index finger pointing at the martyrs in the foreground (a robust build and a garment of bright blue) we recognise the youthful features of Beyazid II, known as ‘The Saint’, who led the Ottoman Empire from 1481 to 1512. The Sultan on horseback (absent from the preparatory drawing) is presumably his father Mehmed II ‘The Conqueror’, who in 1453 conquered Constantinople, the capital and last bastion of the Byzantine Empire, becoming the first KAYSER-İ RÛM, Caesar and Roman Emperor14For a comparison, see in particular Gentile Bellini’s Portrait of Mehmed II and Paolo Veronese’s workshop’s Portrait of Beyazid II.
Sultan Beyazid II, 1481-1512, portrait in the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, Turkey.

The same portrait, with slight adjustments, appears replicated in the man with the halberd, in a midnight blue suit, on the far right of the painting. This suggests that Dürer used a preparatory cartoon for a more rapid execution of the faces.
The Sultan on horseback also recalls, in his features and posture, the representation of the Emperor Domitian in the Martyrdom of Saint John (1497)the first woodcut of the Apocalypse.

The resemblance of the Turkish king to the Domitian of the Apocalypse probably implies a reference to the controversy between the Spanish court and the imperial court in the 15th and 16th centuries and reveals Dürer’s aversion to Hispanic rule. The quarrel, well expressed in other works by Dürer, especially in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse15For an in-depth analysis of the engraving from the Apocalypse series, please refer to the dedicated sheet. A female figure, who supports the quarrel, is  visible behind the emperor’s head. She is also similar to the woman holding the cup in the Whore of Babylon, identified by an inscription inlaid in the crown, in which we read the name ISABELLA. In the same woodcut, the man with the monstrous anamorphic profile, apparently with his back turned, but in fact facing the crowd, wearing a crown and turban, could therefore be Ferdinand the Catholic.

It is conceivable that in the last five years of the 15th century, Dürer’s political sensibility considered the identification between the Turkish threat and the Iberian danger to be almost indistinguishable.
Furthermore, the sudden departure of Philip the Fair in 1506 (thus close to the execution of the painting) must have particularly shocked public opinion, perhaps due to a benefit from Ferdinand. A form of critical ataraxia therefore allows us to follow both the Turkish and the Hispanic hypotheses.

Renaissance historical sources show that Westerners – with a few exceptions in Venetian circles – perceived the Ottomans as a despotic and corrupt power, so much so that they were ready to unite, even at the cost of a new crusade, to defeat them permanently 16Cfr. M. Soykut, Note sui rapporti tra Italia, Islam e impero ottomano (secoli XV-XVII), in Archivio Storico Italiano Vol. 169, No. 2 (628) (aprile-giugno 2011), Olschki, Firenze, 2011, pp.221-240. Cardinal Bessarion considered the Ottomans to be equivalent to the ancient Persians, both images of barbarism in antithesis to the civilisation represented first by the Greeks and Romans, then by Christian Europe17Bessarione, Bessarione Cardinale Niceno. A gli illustrissimi, et incliti Principi d’Italia in Orazioni del Signor Scipione Ammirato a diversi principi intorno ai preparimenti che s’avrebbono a farsi contra la potenza del Turco. Aggiuntioni nel fine le lettere et orazioni di Monsignor Bessarione Cardinal Niceno scritte a Principi d’Italia, Fiorenza, per Filippo Giunti, 1598. Pope Pius II described them as “gente crudele, ignominiosa, et in tutte maniere di lussuria ardente”, yet he tried the path of mediation by writing a letter (which never reached its destination) to Mehmed II, the Epistula ad Mahumetem, in which he invited him to convert in order to rule the world together18E. S. Piccolomini, La Discritione de l’Asia et Europa di Papa Pio II, Venezia, Appresso Vicenzo Valgrisi a ‘l segno d’Erasmo, 1544.
The relationship between West and East is an ambiguous one, in which the adversary must be fought and annihilated, but on occasion can become an ally against a common enemy. This is demonstrated by Diocletian who turned to the centuries-old enemies of the Romans in order to exterminate the Christians guilty of not having celebrated sacrifices to pagan idols.

The Tortoise

The circumference of the martyrs stoned or thrown from the cliff appears in the background, where the verticality of the rock face is powerfully inserted. The top is a powerful anamorphosis of a turtle.

Detail: Anamorphic Tortoise

Here is an excerpt from Claudia Angelilli and Carla Salvetti’s research on the etymology of the word ‘tortoise19C. Angelelli – C. Salvetti, Il gallo e la testuggine nel mosaico pavimentale della basilica teodoriana: per togliere le tenebre e fare luce sul noto tema iconografico. In: Atti del XV Colloquio dell’Associazione Italiana per lo Studio e la Conservazione del Mosaico, Aquileia, 4-7 febbraio 2009, Tivoli, 2010, pp. 587-598 e R.Egger, ‘Ein altchristliches Kampfsymbol’, in Römische Antike und frühes Christentum. Ausgewälte Schrif- ten von R. Egger, 1, Klagenfurt 1967, pp. 144-158’:

“As for the late Greek tartarouchos, which occurs several times in magical texts and in works by Christian authors with the undoubted meaning of “inhabitant of Tartarus” and variously attributed to evil entities, dwellers of darkness, infernal beings called into question in association with the gods of Hades, it is also in no way referred to that animal, of land or sea, equipped with a carapace and identified, if anything, as a symbol of corporeity, stability, longevity, invulnerability, wisdom and sometimes as an exemplar of mediating abilities between heaven and earth and a figure of the universe (its shell is round like the vault of heaven and flat underneath like the earth)20Cfr. Even the imprecatory tablet from Trogir, which Egger calls into question to reiterate the negative connotations of the tortoise, refers to an immondissimus spiretus tartarucus that is not clearly identified and in no way related to the poor tortoise. It should also be noted that not all etymological dictionaries accept the etymology proposed by Egger for tortoise: In the Etymological Dictionary of the Italian Language (DELI) by Cortellazzo-Zolli, it is stated that the earliest known forms would be against the Greek origin of the term, therefore from Tàrtaro, and an anti-suffix applied to the oldest form, still Romance, tartuca, is suggested; or if anything, a derivation from tortus, or twisted, as a connotation-attribute of the animal’s legs or the upper part of the carapace.”

It cannot be excluded that the Dürer’s panel conceals a gigantomachy or titanomachy, which would also justify the presence, as a lexical reference, of the anamorphic tortoise (in Tartarus, in fact, the defeated Titans would have been locked up by Zeus21Esiodo, Teogonia, 617-623). The hypothesis is supported by the fact that Ovid places his gigantomachy in a Sicilian setting 22Ovidio, Metamorfosi, I, vv.151-162, as Dürer did for the ten thousand martyrs.

This is followed by a more extensive review, with a hypothesis of an iconographic reading of the work as an early titanomachy or gigantomachy hidden anamorphically. #StayTuned

The two nudes on the sultan’s left, preceded by the torturer dressed in red, constitute the point of intersection between the horizontal, circular and vertical elements.
Finally, in the far left, we can see a village perched at the top of a relief, partially hidden by the foliage, a mountain and a bridge surmounted by a half-column. This is a far from imaginary landscape which shows Leonardo’s mastery of aerial perspective; we can observe the ancient Roman port of Villa San Giovanni and, in the mist, beyond the strait, the ‘gateway to Sicily’: Messina.
Significant precedents of this landscape representation are two works in Nuremberg – the Lamentation for the Dead Christ (1498) and the Hercules Killing the Stymphalian Birds (1500).

The composition, both structurally and conceptually, is based on the antitheses: high – low, horizontality – verticality, right – left, straight – curved lines, nudity – sumptuousness of clothing, West – East, Christianity – paganism, manifest – not manifest.

The Giant

From the integration of opposites comes the global understanding of the picture. It is the dichotomous relationship between the manifest and the ‘hidden’ element that plays a fundamental role. Manifest is ‘what is visible to the passive observer’, while hidden is “what appears to the active observer”. In fact, if the viewer looks at the panel from a foreshortened angle, from the median point at the base of the painting, a figure will begin to take shape, stretching upwards until it expands into the upper right-hand corner of the rectangle.

Il meccanismo anamorfico – che Dürer apprese durante i soggiorni italiani, come egli stesso The anamorphic mechanism – which Dürer learned during his Italian visits, as Dürer wrote in a letter to his humanist friend Willibald Pirkheimer23About the correspondence W. Pirkheimer, cfr. AA.VV., Albrecht Dürer, Lettere da Venezia, Mondadori Electa, Milano, 2007., renders the image of a giant in the act of supporting a heavy block of stone.

In classical mythology, in which Renaissance culture showed a renewed interest, it is the characterisation of the Cyclops Polyphemus that is congruent with the iconographic elements; elements that characterise the giant in Dürer’s painting. Specifically, in Book XIII of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the love between the shepherd Acis and the nymph Galatea is narrated, the giant, in a jealous rage after surprising his beloved in the company of Pan’s son, is described as he is about to hurl himself at his rival:

insequitur Cyclops partemque e monte revulsam mittit, et extremus quamvis pervenit ad illum angulus e saxo, totum tamen obruit Acin”.

The Cyclops was chasing him, broke off part of the mountain and hurled it at him, and although only one end of the boulder hit him, it buried Acis completely“.

The next verses report that Acis was allowed to continue to exist, undergoing a metamorphosis: the blood that flowed under the boulder became a river, which took its name24Ovidio, MetamorfosiXIII, vv.738 – 897.

The Latin poet’s ties with Sicily are well known, as documented in the Epistulae ex Ponto, in which he nostalgically recalls the period he spent on the island (c. 26-25 B.C.) with his friend Pompeius Macer, to whom the letter was addressed25Ovidio, Epistulae ex Ponto, libro II, elegia X.

The invention of printing made it possible for Ovid’s works to be widely circulated. Already in 1471 there are several editions of the Metamorphoses, including one by Baldassarre Azzoguidi26The editio princeps of the Metamorphoses, dated 1471, is attributed to Azzoguidi,a machine compositor working in Bologna, where Dürer stayed.

The presence of the giant’s anamorphosis provides the observer with a clue to the identification, including toponymy, of the river landscape in the background, leading him, by means of an analexis, to the origins of Acireale – the ancient Aquilia Vetere – a town in the province of Catania, located on the Ionian coast overlooking Calabria, which reached its peak in the 16th century, becoming, albeit briefly, the capital of the Alagona27Cfr. M. C. Gravagno, Aci nei secoli XVI e XVII, Accademia degli Zelanti e dei Dafnici, Acireale, 1986 dynasty.

Final considerations

The Viennese panel lends itself to different levels of interpretation: on the most immediate level, it evokes a tragic slice of Roman history, showing us one of the less noble aspects of the imperial age; the anamorphoses reveal a mythological and mythopoetic substratum which the Renaissance helped to revive and which Dürer appropriated in a highly personal way; A syntopic reading, in a complex network of cross-references between the painting and the engravings of the Apocalypse, leads us into the cultural-historical context of the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, giving us access to Dürer’s perception of the reality of his time.

With regard to the design of the anamorphic machine, it is clear that Dürer went beyond the idea of a mere divertissement, nor did he make it purely functional to the dramatisation of martyrdom; it also integrates the semantic content of the work, both narrative and argumentative, giving it a dynamism that obliges the observer to make a ‘mental movement’, to confront a precognition of themes that, following in the footsteps of other artists, here as elsewhere, the German painter inserted as a subtext.

If we add to this the fact that in Sicily devotion to the ten thousand martyrs was well established, both in the period between the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age and in the centuries immediately following – as evidenced by an altar in the ancient church of Santa Maria della Stella in Militello (16th century)28M. Malgioglio, Percorsi di fede, arte e storia nel Santuario di S. Maria della Stella a Militello in Val di Catania, Ed. Santuario S. Maria della Stella, Militello, 2007 and by the desire of the Knights of Jerusalem to have a church dedicated to Saint Achatius and his companions built in the city of Palermo (17th century)29L. Buscemi, Sconosciuti e dimenticati – Monumenti, luoghi e personaggi di Palermo, Navarra Editore, Palermo, 2009– it follows that, in order to fully understand the ‘poetics of complementarity’ underlying Dürer’s work, it is necessary to adopt a new reading key and reconsider its relationship with Italy, and in particular with the Sicilian setting.


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  • L. Buscemi, Sconosciuti e dimenticati – Monumenti, luoghi e personaggi di Palermo, Navarra Editore, Palermo, 2009.

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