The Sleeping Ariadne, housed in the Vatican Museums, is a Roman Hadrianic copy of a Hellenistic sculpture of the Pergamon School of the 2nd century and is one of the most renowned sculptures of Antiquity, the original of which is lost. It was purchased by Pope Julius II in 1512 and installed in the Galleria delle Statue or the Gallery of the Statues in the Vatican Museum.
However, a variant Sleeping Ariadne is also housed in the Prado Museum in Madrid, in Spain and a later Roman Variant found in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome, is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. As there are several such versions of the same figure in various other museums, including St Petersburg and Florence, it seems that the idea of their origin from a lost original is probably convincing. The Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museums is made of marble from Paros in the Cyclades, a fine material which was highly preferred by the artists in those days, and was widely exported across the vast Roman Empire.
The statue of the Sleeping Ariadne depicts a reclining young woman, fallen asleep in a not too comfortable position on an uneven surface. She is neither quite lying nor sitting, her head pillowed on her left arm, and her right thrown over her head, with her extended legs crossed at the calves.
She is dressed in a toga-like garment of ancient Greece, which has slipped a little in her sleep, exposing one of her breasts and part of her stomach. With her dress bunched up across the most private area of her elegant body, the statue of the Sleeping Ariadne conveys a graceful sweeping motion as each gesture remains curved and fluid.
However, the reclining statue of Ariadne was once wrongly identified as Cleopatra of Egypt because of the snake-shaped bracelet on her upper left hand, which was mistaken as the asp, the poisonous snake, which took her life. Accordingly, it was placed in a niche with its background painted with Egyptian motifs by Cristoforo Unterperger in 1779. Ultimately, at the end of the 1700s, it was recognized as Princess Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus to kill the Minotaur, the deadly monster.
According to Greek legend, as Mino’s son died during some games in Athens, the enraged king of Crete attacked Athens and won. As the condition of peace, he demanded that every year seven young men and seven young women of Athens should be sent to Crete to be devoured by the half-bull, half-human monster, named Minotaur, the bastard son of his wife Pasiphae, born from her union with a bull, and lives in a labyrinth. One year, Theseus, the son of King Aegeus of Athens, volunteered to be sent to Crete, with a plan to kill the Minotaur.
When Theseus arrived in Crete, Ariadne fell in love with him at the first sight and proposed to help him, if he agrees to marry her. As Theseus agreed, she gave him a sword to fight and a ball of thread to mark his way to come out of the labyrinth.
Ultimately, Theseus killed the monster, followed the thread to come back to the entrance of the labyrinth, and sailed for Athens with Ariadne, to keep his promise. However, on the way to Athens, the ship stopped at the Island of Naxos, where Theseus deserted Ariadne unceremoniously, while she was sleeping on the beach. The statue of the reclining Ariadne reflects that period when she was slumbering, keeping full trust on the man whom she loved. Nevertheless, Ariadne was later spotted by Dionysus, known as Bacchus to the Romans, and married her.
The story of Ariadne is discussed in details in Bacchus and Ariadne.