The Grandest Art of the Ancients

Portable Classic

an exhibition at the Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice, May 9–September 13, 2015

Serial Classic

an exhibition at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, May 9–August 24, 2015

Piccoli Grandi Bronzi

an exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum, Florence, March 20–August 31, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Barbara Arbeid and Mario Iozzo
Florence: Edizioni Polistampa, 234 pp., €34.00 (paper)

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World

an exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, March 14–June 21, 2015; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, July 28–November 1, 2015; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., December 13, 2015–March 20, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Jens M. Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin
Getty Publications, 368 pp., $65.00
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Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Massimo, Rome
‘Statue of a Seated Boxer (Terme Boxer),’ bronze with copper inlays, third century BC

While excavating on Rome’s Quirinal Hill in 1885, archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani discovered a pair of bronze statues by Greek sculptors that seemed to greet their release from oblivion with fully human bemusement. One, from the third to second century BC, was a nude male of gilded bronze, larger than life, casually leaning on his long spear with a grace that makes the weapon look like a scepter. Robust and muscular, young but no longer youthful, he poses with surprising lightness, a coiled spring of energy, with a shock of wiry hair and a stubble beard to signal his exuberant virility. Yet his eyes are wary under his prominent brow; what drives this body, stripped of every trapping except a coat of gold leaf, is pure mind. Clearly one of those Greek rulers who traced their line back to the gods, he is practically a god himself.

The other statue, from the third century BC, a life-sized seated boxer, could not have been more poignantly human. Lanciani photographed him sitting on the ground, watching over the excavation, looking more like a companion or mascot for the workers than a masterpiece of ancient sculpture.

The boxer came to rest this summer at the center of an exhibition in Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, where he has been set so close to the ground that we can look directly into his face, and see what Lanciani’s workmen saw in 1885: the scars of survival. This man, too, has a heroic, muscular body, but his hands are swollen beneath the protective leather straps and leather padding that Greek boxers used for official matches (they practiced with gloves), and his face has been brutally battered.

The broken nose and cauliflower ears suggest a long series of previous fights, but the sculptor also makes it clear that the latest bout has finished only a moment ago by using a chisel to jab new cuts into the skin of the boxer’s face, uppermost ear, and arms. A purple patch of bronze appliqué creates the rising bruise on his cheekbone. Copper alloy suggests the red of fresh blood, oozing from a cut on his ear and splashed on his thigh as he turns his injured head to look upward, meeting our eyes head on.

The boxer’s hair and beard are spiky with sweat, and his parted lips, shrunk inward over toothless gums, suggest that he is panting with exhaustion. His genitals are bound by a kynodesme, the ancient Greek equivalent of a jockstrap. He once had inlaid eyes, but all we see now are empty sockets, surrounded by surprisingly luxuriant metallic lashes. It is the endless depth of those sightless eyes that drives home the distance between his suffering and the feelings he evokes in us. Is that suffering face, with its unique pattern of damage done, a mask to cover his intimate self or the true image of his soul? Was it the soul of a poet or a brute? Are we meant to admire his endurance, or pity his bleeding fragility? Is his story a grim tale of abuse and violence, or has he suffered to some purpose? Some of these questions can be answered, at least tentatively, but in the end the sculptor’s artistry ensures that we can only look down into those empty eyes and feel compassion for the human being before us. He must have been a champion, but he won that distinction at a tragic price.

A tour de force of bronze work, the boxer shows why that medium was so prized in the ancient world. The precious metal could be cast to impressive dimensions, in daring poses, and burnished to a tawny sheen that suggested living skin or animal fur. Under the right conditions (which include being immersed in water), bronze sculpture can last for millennia, but it can also be melted down to make coins, armor, or weapons, and often was. Of the thousands of large-scale bronzes the ancient world produced, only a few hundred survive, along with great numbers of miniatures, some replicas of the great bronze masterpieces, some original creations.

Among the ancient world’s most famous bronzes there were images of gods, like the colossal Athena Promachos who guarded the Athenian Acropolis (the glint of her spear could be seen from Cape Sounion, more than fifty kilometers distant), an early work of the great Pheidias, designer and master sculptor of the Parthenon, and the still-larger statue of Apollo known as the Colossus of Rhodes. But bronze, with its warm sheen and its flexibility, lent itself above all to the portrayal of human beings, notably the victorious athletes who won at the Olympics and the Pythian Games of Delphi (where the beautiful statue of a charioteer still survives).

The weary Greek boxer, then, is almost certainly shown at his moment of supreme triumph, when he will finally be able to hang up the leather-and-sheepskin himantes oxeis covering his hands, the “sharp straps,” once and for all. He may well have paid for this monument himself—Olympic boxing, for all its bloody immediacy, was still an aristocratic sport.* The Italian classicist Paolo Moreno has even suggested a name for this long-suffering spirit: Mys, a boxer from the Spartan colony of Taras (modern Taranto), who finally won his Olympic victory in 336 BC, at the age of forty, and thus became a byword for brave persistence. We may be meant to read this ravaged face in a Sophoclean key, like Herakles in the tragedy Philoktetes:

And first I will tell you of my misfortunes,
Of all that I suffered—and by going through those sufferings
I obtained deathless virtue, as you can see.
And you, know it well, must endure all this,
To create a glorious life from your pain.

An Olympic champion in the classical period would never have chosen to show himself in such graphic, painful mortality, but by the time of Mys of Taras, a contemporary of Aristotle (twenty years older than Mys) and Alexander the Great (twenty years younger), signs of vulnerable humanity, like the heroic ruler’s furrowed brow and the boxer’s wounds, had entered the repertory of Greek sculpture. Even godlike Alexander’s portraits emphasize his cowlick and unruly hair as well as his large, sparkling eyes. This is the period that classicists call “Hellenistic” rather than “Hellenic,” inspired by a concept of Greekness that could be, and was, exported from Egypt to Afghanistan, creating wondrous cosmopolitan cities like Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. Born of this broader, sophisticated world, Hellenistic artists—working from the late fourth century to the late first century BC—reveled in curiosity about that world’s disparate peoples, about strange creatures of myth and nature, and about the mystery of individuality itself. They also, as the boxer shows by example, paid extraordinary homage to the value of work. And no wonder. The sculptor Lysippos, born in 390 BC, claimed to have created more than 1,500 bronze statues in the course of his illustrious career.

It is Lysippos, appropriately enough, who opens Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition of Hellenistic bronzes, “Power and Pathos,” with a signed marble pedestal from Corinth, one of the ancient world’s most bustling ports (the exhibition will travel to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles this summer and fall, and then to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.). The statue itself is missing, as are all the master’s original works. We know them largely from copies made for Roman collectors of the imperial era, that is, for people who lived more than four hundred years after Lysippos downed his tools for the last time in around 300 BC.

According to ancient writers like Pliny the Elder, the admiral, collector, and efficiency expert who died investigating the eruption of Vesuvius, Lysippos worked both in metal and in marble, although the two media required two radically different techniques. Carving marble is an art of subtraction. Michelangelo once described it as releasing a figure from its sheath of stone. A sculptor in metal, on the other hand, performs nearly the opposite action, building up his figure from the inside out, using soft materials like clay and wood, before embedding it in a mold of clay or plaster.

The mold, in turn (or a mold of the mold), will be filled with molten metal to make either a solid cast or, more practically, a hollow shell. Bronzes, therefore, always take their shape at one remove from the sculptor’s hand, and because molds themselves can be reproduced, metal statues can be cast in multiples. After casting, however, the sculptors picked up rasp and chisel for final detailing, carving and scoring the metal as if they were working marble, adding inlays of metal, ivory, bone, and stone for eyes, lips, teeth, skin, hair. As a result, no two versions of an individual work are ever completely alike, even if they emerged at the same time from the same workshop.

The exhibition makes this point with two herms, stylized statues of Dionysus, one found in a shipwreck off Mahdia, Tunisia, in 1907, and one that appeared suddenly on the Swiss art market in the 1970s and is now housed in the Getty Museum. The alloy used to cast these fine bronzes is virtually identical; they must have been cast in the same pouring, in the same workshop. The Mahdia bronze, however, is much more finely finished than its twin (despite its more ravaged condition): the god’s turban falls more jauntily, and the surface of the bronze has been carefully smoothed and inscribed with the signature of the master, Boëthos of Kalchedon. The other herm, more simply tooled and with a less luxuriant turban, must be the work of an assistant. The shop itself was probably located on the island of Rhodes in the time of Hadrian (reigned 117–138), the well-traveled, cultured Roman emperor who did so much to knit together his disparate empire.

As the boxer shows, with the red inlay of his lips and blood, his purple bruise and copper nipples, the metal statues of the Hellenistic world could flash almost as many hues as our own “colorized” bronzes, all the while displaying the quality the ancient Greeks prized most in art: aglaia, shiny brightness, the glitter of the gods. The same richness of color animates the first statue to greet us in the exhibition: the late-second-century-BC Etruscan bronze known as the Arringatore, the Orator, with his rosy lips and variegated tebenna (the Etruscan ancestor to the Roman toga). His short, parted hairstyle makes him look uncannily contemporary, but what most distinguishes this portrait of the priest Aule Meteli (whose name we know from the Etruscan dedication incised into the hem of his tebenna) is his air of dignity, what the Romans were already calling gravitas.

The Etruscans smelted bronze in factory sites near Pisa and on the island of Elba; not surprisingly, they worked it masterfully, with less care for proportion than their Greek counterparts and a gift for heightening the expression of emotion. Aule Meteli shows how profoundly their work influenced Renaissance sculptors like Michelangelo, who collected Etruscan bronzes, and unfortunately died (in 1564) just two years before the Arringatore was discovered. The sculptor of David would have appreciated how the sculptor of Aule Meteli employed the same trick: exaggerating the size of the figure’s hands, both because they will be seen from below and because they carry such a weight of significance.

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Kalymnos Archaeological Museum, Pothia, Greece
Bronze statue of a woman, third century BC; found in 1994 in the sea east of Kalymnos, Greece

The National Archaeological Museum of Florence, which loaned Aule Meteli to Palazzo Strozzi, used his absence as an opportunity to mount an exhibition of its own, “Piccoli Grandi Bronzi,” devoted to exquisite small bronzes, both ancient and Renaissance, from the Medici collection. For reasons of space, most of these pieces are normally kept in the museum’s storerooms, and it is a delight to see them out in the open. The cover of the exhibition catalog shows the ravishingly beautiful head of a young African girl, originally designed to form the body of a tiny bronze pitcher (she still has a hole in the top of her head).

At some point, an artist in the Medici entourage fitted her with a body of mottled black-and-white marble and an ill-fitting set of oversize hands and feet, so that she looks a bit like a stone doll, but the focused intelligence of her face lets her transcend her incongruous body as gracefully as she once transcended the presence of a spout and handle sprouting from her sprightly square-cut hair. The Medici bronzes are flanked by a choice selection of Medici cameos, including an agate portrait of the emperor Augustus in profile as an ethereal Apollo, his patron deity.

As Florence reveled in Hellenistic bronzes great and small, the Prada Foundation of Milan unveiled its own paired exhibitions of classical sculpture in two settings—the new Prada Foundation complex on the outskirts of Milan, and Ca’ Corner della Regina in the heart of Venice—both curated by Salvatore Settis, Anna Anguissola, and Davide Gasparotti, in venues designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Rather than compete with the exhibitions in Florence, these two shows provide a complement on many different levels and think in many of the same terms. Both James Bradburne in Florence and Rem Koolhaas in Milan decided to display sculptures at ground level rather than raised on pedestals; only so can we look down into the poiganant face of the boxer or come eye-to-eye with a terrifying modern reproduction of Warrior A from Riace.

In Milan, the show titled “Serial Classic” explores the ways in which ancient artists created multiple versions of a single work, either at the moment of production or centuries later. In Venice, a complementary exhibition called “Portable Classic” shows how sculptors, both ancient and early modern, reproduced large works of art in miniature, most dramatically by arranging a series of fifteen replicas of a colossal marble statue, the Farnese Hercules, in order of size.

Found headless in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in the sixteenth century, the gigantic image shows a mature, muscle-bound Hercules pausing at the end of the twelve labors that have consumed his life. He has rested his club on the ground (never the most refined of heroes, Hercules went for the crudest of weapons), and behind his back he holds the literal fruits of his final assignment, to bring back the apples of the Hesperides from the ends of the earth. The head he has worn since the Renaissance apparently came from a well in Trastevere, the Roman quarter across the river, but it fits so plausibly that the composite figure quickly took its place among the prime survivals of ancient sculpture.

For two hundred years, the statue stood in the garden of Palazzo Farnese in Rome, but it moved to Naples in the eighteenth century when the son of Elisabetta Farnese became King Charles I of Naples; this is why the full-size replica of the Farnese Hercules in “Portable Classic” is lightweight resin, and comes from one of the stations of the Naples subway (which have become underground art galleries in recent years). Running through the gamut of media from bronze to marble to terra-cotta, the replicas get smaller and smaller, until we reach a six-inch mini-Hercules in porcelain, with rosy cheeks and a rosy belly, more jolly than majestic, lacking every trace of the world-weariness that makes the colossus so affecting. The original, in bronze, was yet another famous work of Lysippos.

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National Archaeological Museum, Athens
‘Marathon Boy,’ from the Bay of Marathon, dated by style to the fourth century BC

Repeating themes guide all these exhibitions and the timely catalog essays that accompany the objects: the presence of multiples in ancient art; the question of copies; the color of bronze; and the remarkable geographical range of the classical world. “Serial Classic” addresses the issue of color by showing what statues might have looked like before weathering set in. The two warriors fished from the sea near Riace in Calabria in 1972 are miraculously well preserved, but the traces of color we still see are nothing like what the originals must have been, with flesh lightened and burnished, black hair, inlaid eyes, lipstick-red lips, and silver teeth. Warrior A is as handsome as a god (he probably is a god), but he always looked mean, and he looks even meaner in his colorized incarnation than he does in his weathered original. Another lost bronze statue, an Apollo with a marble copy now in Kassel, has been reconstructed both as colored bronze and as pure gilt, each version of the sun god more blindingly solar than the other. Meanwhile, outside the window of this exhibition space, Rem Koolhaas has covered an entire pavilion of the Prada complex in gold leaf.

But the strangest and most exotic presence in “Serial Classic” is a fifth-century-BC statue of Penelope mourning her absent husband Odysseus, unaware that he is already on his way home. It is carved in marble from the island of Thasos, a coarse-grained, exceptionally hard stone with crystalline inclusions. Marble this dense must be shaped by polishing as much as by carving, a process that favors clean, simple lines. Penelope’s figure, heavy-breasted with a hint of matronly weight, twinkles and glitters beneath its silken polish, posed with an ineffable grace.

The statue comes, of all places, from Tehran; it was once displayed in the royal palace of Persepolis, where it must have been sent as a gift from the city of Athens sometime after the end of the Persian Wars in 449 BC. A number of later copies of the work are displayed in Milan, but none of them was probably modeled on this particular statue; it must have had an identical, or nearly identical, twin in Athens itself, where it would have been easily accessible to artists. Today, the statue is once again serving the same purpose for which it was carved: to create lasting ties between two powers that have so often come into conflict. “Power and Pathos” has forged similar scholarly relationships; what might have been called the Western classical heritage a generation ago is now rightly termed a heritage that belongs to the world.

Tellingly, however, “Power and Pathos,” “Piccoli Grandi Bronzi,” and “Serial Classic” all begin with a void: in Palazzo Strozzi, with the empty statue base signed Lysippos; in Florence’s National Archeological Museum, with the play of light on miniature statues to cast long shadows of their lost models on the museum walls; in Milan, with blurred images of works that no longer exist in their original form. The classical world was a common point of reference as recently as a generation ago, but it was a classical world understood in ways completely different from the sensibility that animates these exhibitions.

Here East and West, Persian, Greek, and Etruscan meet and mingle without ever losing their individual qualities. A collector in Hadrian’s Rome finds common ground with a painter from Renaissance Venice and the Duke of Liechtenstein (who normally keeps a bronze miniature of Marcus Aurelius on horseback on his desk but lent it out to “Portable Classic”), but also with the Great King of Persia, who accepted an Athenian statue as the seal of peace between his empire and theirs. The works gathered together for these exhibitions represent real meetings of mind and heart that defy, or better transcend, our present political turmoil, just as love for the beauties of these works of human hands has obliterated boundaries of time, language, culture, and geography.

Yet our connection to that ancient world is indescribably delicate, and always has been. The ax-wielding iconoclasts of ISIS may be our most vivid contemporary image of what destroys these slender, vital connections with those who went before us, but the same damage can be done by pouring the foundation slab for a supermarket over an archaeological site, as has just happened in Pompeii and happens continually on the outskirts of Rome. Or we can simply drown out ancient voices in a babble of contemporary chatter.

Sadly, contemporary chatter meant that the opening of “Power and Pathos” marked the swan song for James Bradburne, the volcanically inventive director who turned Palazzo Strozzi into a Florentine landmark, opening its courtyard to the public and bringing a marvelous range of artworks to view, both imports (China, Picasso) and clever presentations of the treasures with which Florence is so hyperbolically endowed (“The Springtime of the Renaissance,” “Money and Beauty,” “Bronzino,” “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino”). Bradburne also invented special itineraries through the exhibitions for families with children, providing them with literal bags of tricks and labels at their eye level.

The cardinal sins of this gifted curator were two: he was born in Canada rather than Tuscany, and he dared to disagree with Matteo Renzi, the onetime Florentine mayor, a brash young politico who has since become the prime minister of Italy. Renzi has often been called Machiavellian, but his is a rough-and-ready Machiavellianism rather than profound study of the master. The Prince advises the lord to avert the damage done by flatterers by

choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him…. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.

When Machiavelli sat down to read the ancient authors, he dressed in his finest robes as a sign of respect. To move through these four exhibitions, meeting the evergreen art of the ancients, is a privilege of a similar order.

  1. *

    Roman boxers, on the other hand, wore blades in their gloves and were professional blood sportsmen, the equivalent of gladiators. Virgil’s Aeneid, book 5, recounts the boxing match between Dares and Entellus, who opt, as heroes should, for Greek himantes rather than Roman gloves.