Florence: Edizioni Polistampa, 234 pp., €34.00 (paper)
Getty Publications, 368 pp., $65.00
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…
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