Giacobbe Giusti: Jens M Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin, the co-curators of Power and Pathos
1. Head of Athlete Holding a Strigil (Ephebe Apoxyomenos from Ephesos),
AD 1-50. 205cm x 78.7cm x 77.5cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Jens M Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin, the co-curators of Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, explain the thinking behind their stunning
In the winter of 2000, two bronze statues in the Berlin Antikensammlung, the so-called Praying Boy and the headless Salamis Youth, were joined by two other bronzes lent from Florence and Los Angeles, the statue of an ephebe called the Idolino and the victorious athlete known as the Getty Bronze. They had been brought to Germany to undergo scientific testing at the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (Bundesanstalt für Materialprüfung, BAM), particularly CT scanning to measure and visualise the thickness of the casts. While they were there, the curators in Berlin seized the rare opportunity to display these four sculptures, two Greek and two Roman, side by side in the rotunda of the Altes Museum.
2. Bronze portrait head of a man,
1st century BC. 29.5cm x 21.6cm x 21.6cm.
The J Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection.
3. Ephebe (Idolino from Pesaro) circa 30 BC, bronze with copper inlays and lead. National Archaeological Museum, Florence.
4. Apollo-Kouros, 1st century BC to 1st century AD, bronze, copper, bone, dark stone, glass.
128cm x 33cm x 38cm.
5. The head of Apollo-Kouros.Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei.
The coming together of four life-size male nudes in bronze was unprecedented, inviting direct comparison – exploration without scientific equipment – in which topics such as the body as rendered in bronze, various depictions of age and degrees of realism, and the Classical versus classicising, all powerfully came to the fore. The two Greek athletes from around 300 BC and the two Roman youths of the Augustan age, produced three centuries later, made a quartet framing the beginning and the end of the Hellenistic epoch, yet depicting
very much the same subject in the same medium. This temporary installation in Berlin also highlighted persistent challenges in comparing large-scale ancient bronzes: as rare survivors from antiquity, they usually exist in ‘splendid isolation’ at their home institutions, which seldom possess more than one in their collections. Such statues are usually granted a questionable status as unique masterpieces of ancient art. This means being able to see and study more than one or two bronze sculptures at a time is exceptional, but in our exhibition visitors are able to do just that.
Marble sculpture, by contrast, exists in relative abundance, filling galleries and storerooms in museums worldwide. There is a solid, highly evolved set of critical methods for comparing and making sense of marbles, based on the quantity of available specimens and centuries of perceptive experience with the medium that is shared by lay and expert viewers. An equivalent ‘toolbox’ for seeing and understanding bronze statues in direct juxtaposition does not exist, or, simply put, we lack the familiarity of seeing them side by side. This affects not only aesthetic questions such as the assessment of style, but also the interpretation of bronze-specific surface phenomena such as corrosion, intentional patinas – both ancient and modern – and the cleaning methods employed in earlier restorations.
One of bronze’s principal characteristics is that, like any metal, it can be melted down and reused. Ancient bronze statues therefore survive in numbers far smaller than their counterparts in more dur-able marble. In fact, with the exception of very few sculptures that seem never to have been lost and subsequently recovered, the ancient bronze images that are so greatly admired today have been preserved largely by chance – whether they were discovered accidentally or unearthed during carefully planned and executed scientific excavations. Given the law of supply and demand, the rarity of ancient bronzes has elevated their value and status. So, although scarce in museum galleries, they are prevalent both in our textbooks and in popular consciousness.
Greek and Latin literary sources and the fact that bronzes were transported as booty, but also as scrap, leave no doubt that the statues were valued. But were they valued more highly than those fashioned from other materials? Certainlynot more than images of gold and ivory, whose materials alone placed them in a different class altogether. But since the Renaissance, when scholars sought to connect surviving artefacts with works mentioned in ancient texts, bronze statues have come to be prized as ‘originals’, frequently in contrast to marble ‘copies’, and they have frequently been considered Greek rather than Roman.
6. Bronze statuette of Alexander the Great on horseback, 1st century BC. 49cm x 47cm x 29cm. National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
There are several paradoxes here: first, the devaluing of marble, which was a primary, natural, local medium for the Greeks and always had to be carved by hand. Second, and more significantly, that bronze, a material that lends itself to the serial reproduction of similar, if not identical statues through the use of moulds and the indirect lost-wax technique, should be regarded as the premier material for the creation of unique, original works of art.
Such is the allure of ancient bronzes that there has been an irresistible urge among scholars to attribute them to famous sculptors – a trend that continues to this day in an almost predictable pattern: the head of a boxer from Olympia has been attributed to Silanion; the Getty Athlete and the Terme Boxer, both to Lysippos; and the Mazara Satyr declared to be an original by Praxiteles. The latest example is the bronze version of the Apollo Sauroktonos in Cleveland, also believed by some to have been cast by Praxiteles himself, or at least by
Indeed, scholars hardly agree on what distinguishes a direct from an indirect casting or how to determine whether surface details were executed in the wax or as part of the cold work after casting. Yet these distinctions are often considered particularly important in the hope of establishing how original a given bronze is, and deemed crucial in any effort to find Greek sculptural ‘originals’.
The number of statue bases whose cuttings indicate that they supported bronze statues preserved in cities and sanctuaries across the Mediterranean world certainly demonstrates the popularity and status of bronze as a medium, as do their inscriptions and other ancient documents recording with varying specificity what achievements those depicted had accomplished or benefactions they had granted in order to merit such
7. Bronze head of Apollo, 1st century BC to 1st century AD. 51cm x 40cm x 38cm. Provincial Archaeological Museum, Salerno.
But was bronze always to be preferred over marble? Surviving statues demonstrate that Hellenistic marble carvers were no less skilled than their colleagues who modelled wax and cast bronze, even if the inherent characteristics of bronze, including its greater tensile strength, allowed sculptors to achieve dramatic visual effects less readily realised in other materials. Marbles, too, were enhanced by added colour, and extreme poses could be depicted.
The truth of the matter is that throughout antiquity marble appears to have remained the preferred material for images of gods, for funerary statues, and, as we might expect, for architectural sculpture. But in the Hellenistic period, as the social currency of honorific statuary became even more important than it had been in preceding centuries, bronze became pre-eminent, and the metal contributed its own economic, mythological, and ideological qualities to its unique physical ones.
Exaggerated or not, the fact that Lysippos is credited with having made 1500 bronze statues (Pliny, Natural History, 34.37), of which not one has survived, is a cogent reminder of the known unknowns regarding bronze sculpture at the very outset of the Hellenistic period. More than a Socratic statement of ignorance, the empty statue base from Corinth – inscribed with the name of Lysippos and with cuttings for the feet of a bronze figure – emphasises not only the pervasive loss of Hellenistic bronze statuary, but also the difficulties of reconstructing the original functions of those works that have survived in secondary if not tertiary contexts such as shipwrecks, warehouses, or intentional burials. Wherever statues have escaped re-melting and recycling, the ancient markets for art and metal have often ‘interfered’ in their lives and thus complicated the record. Ironically, it is largely due to the trade in works of art – and the accidents that occurred during such transitions – that bronzes have survived at all.
The relatively small corpus of large-scale Hellenistic bronze sculptures known today has grown slowly but steadily over the past centuries. To this day, however, there is no comprehensive survey of the material, comprising physical, iconographical, and textual evidence. Despite manageable quantities of works and fragments, the obvious challenges lie in defining ‘large scale’ and identifying what belongs to the Hellenistic period, including the vexed question of what may be casts of earlier models or Roman casts after Hellenistic models.
Our exhibition, Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, features both Hellenistic works and Roman bronzes in a Hellenistic tradition, including some representative medium and small-scale examples. So it seems worthwhile to offer some historiographical perspective and mention some of the landmark discoveries that have shaped our current knowledge and understanding of Hellenistic bronze statuary.
Excavated in the 1750s, the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum has yielded the largest number of ancient bronzes ever found at a single site and almost overnight catapulted the study of bronzes from antiquarian pastime to art-historical discipline. Outnumbering the villa’s marble statuary by a ratio of almost 3:1 (63:22), the bronzes belonged to the superlative sculpture collection of late-Republican and Augustan patrons, which included statues and herm busts of gods, heroes, and athletes; portraits of rulers, citizens, and intellectuals as well as animal sculptures and small-scale fountain decorations. Many of these are replicas of opera nobilia of Classical Greek art; others, particularly some of the portraits, reproduce works of the Hellenistic period, yet there are also creations in the Archaic and Severe styles of the early 5th century BC: not actual ‘antiques’ but deliberate imitations, if not outright forgeries. The decorative programme of the villa thus encapsulates many of the aspects relevant to research into Hellenistic bronze explored in this exhibition: replication, imitation, retrospective styles, originality, and the challenges of dating, as well as the tradition of Hellenistic art in a 1st-century BC Roman context.
When two over-life-size statues, known today as the Terme Ruler and the Terme Boxer, were discovered on the Quirinal hill in 1885, it immediately became clear that they survived intact not by chance, but because they were – for reasons still unknown – carefully deposited in antiquity. The find, if not the circumstances of burial, illuminates the fate of many Greek bronzes that were removed from their original locations and transferred to Italy, beginning with the Roman conquests of the Eastern Mediterranean in the mid-2nd century BC. Although we can easily imagine the Quirinal bronzes installed in a Greek sanctuary or civic space, we can only speculate about their function and display in Rome. They may have been part of the city’s collection of Greek works of art, admired by Romans much as we admire them today. In fact, nothing associates these two Greek bronzes within their new cultural context beyond their extraordinary artistic and conceptual qualities. Since the moment of their discovery, the ruler’s heroic image of power and the boxer’s graphically rendered pathos have helped crystallise in the modern mind two paramount phenomena of Hellenistic art.
Like many bronzes found underwater in the Mediterranean, the cache of statues found – on land – at Athens’ port, Piraeus, in 1959 were sculptures in transition. Packed tightly together in two crates, the five bronzes – Athena, Apollo-Kouros, two statues of Artemis, and a tragic mask – must have been destined for shipment from a warehouse in the ancient harbour that burned down in the early 1st century BC. The group highlights the existence of a vibrant market for Greek bronzes, yet how old exactly they are in this case has not been properly determined. The Apollo in Archaic style, now considered a Hellenistic creation, if not an actual Archaic bronze, is the extreme in the group, while the goddesses have been dated either on the face value of their style (with little consideration that they could be bronze copies of older works) or as contemporary casts of a single commission. Regrettably, since their discovery 56 years ago, the Piraeus bronzes have not been systematically analysed or had their casting techniques examined.
But the seductive opportunities to look inside the hollow-cast bronzes with endoscopes and through their walls with x-rays have, at least for a time, sidelined efforts to make sense of their exteriors and of the medium’s specific aesthetics. We know a lot about the chemistry of man-made alloys, minute details of casting, cold-working, and repairs, but still very little about bronze’s role in artistic development, how its use impacted style, or why it was chosen for particular subjects, genres, or iconographic categories. That bronze as an artistic medium has been studied largely from a technological point of view, perhaps more so than other metals, has to do with its complex metallurgy as a copper alloy and the sophistication of the casting process.
8. Bronze portrait head of Arsinoë III Philopator, late 3rd century to early 2nd century BC.
30cm x 20cm x 30cm. Civic Museum, Palazzo Te, Mantua.
Rarely, however, has technical or analytical data allowed us to narrow the date of a bronze sculpture beyond what could be – and mostly had been already – established on stylistic grounds. In no period of Greek and Roman art is this more apparent than in the Hellenistic age: some of the period’s signature bronze sculptures can be placed, with persuasive stylistic arguments, at various points within a 300-year window spanning the entire period, while none of the intensive scientific investigations have yielded viable arguments in favour of an earlier or later date. Like certain styles in Hellenistic sculpture, bronze-casting technologies cannot (so far) be pinned to particular phases or excluded from others within this long period. Even less so once we recognise that some artists not only imitated earlier styles but also chose old-fashioned techniques. Thus the three Hellenistic artists who left their names on lead tablets inside the Piombino Apollo fashioned their statue, basically an Archaic kouros, with copper inlays for the eyebrows – a typical treatment for Archaic bronzes – and silver inlays for the antiquated letters of the dedicatory inscription.
Either our data on the alloys and techniques of Hellenistic bronze sculpture is too limited for making better distinctions, or the casting process and other metallurgical traditions did not change all that much during the period. So unless the decision is between an actual Archaic bronze and an archaistic cast 500 years younger, many analytical test results are found to be merely ‘not inconsistent’ with a Hellenistic attribution of the object
Of course, technological and metallurgical diagnostics ought not to be reduced to the issue of chronology or authenticity: we do understand bronze sculptures better because the analytical lens allows us to comprehend how they were made. As mentioned above, this kind of manufacturing data, like simple measurements, is increasingly becoming part of the common infrastructure for the serious study of ancient bronzes. Yet the investigations could go significantly further when the methodical juxtaposition of actual works – through loans, exhibitions, or parallel conservation treatments – creates opportunities for comparative inquiries, generating and fuelling future analytical questions. In fact, some recent and current analytical explorations already go hand in hand with a new art-historical interest in the aesthetics of bronze surfaces.
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9. Herm of Dionysos (Getty Herm), from the workshop of Boëthos of Kalchedon, bronze, copper, calcitic stone, 2nd century BC. 103cm x 23.5cm x 19.5cm. The J Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection.
The challenges of chronology in Hellenistic sculpture often seem to get compounded when dealing with bronze. In our exhibition, the artworks follow only a broad chronological framework: the image of Alexander – represented not by a contemporary bronze portrait (which has not survived) but by a 1st-century BC equestrian statuette – and portraits of subsequent rulers, among which only the heads of Arsinoë III and Seuthes III of Thrace are plausibly (though not indisputably) identified and hence dated.
The subsequent thematic sections each cut across time and geography. Their topics are a blend of iconographical and aesthetic categories – portraiture, the body, realism, imitation, and replication – setting up a framework to correlate bronze sculpture to cultural trends, artistic tendencies, and stylistic developments in the Hellenistic age. The idea is to identify and describe phenomena specific to bronze and to bring out what bronze as a medium contributes to the period’s sculpture, be it as a vehicle for tradition or a catalyst for change. How are the expression and the expressiveness of portraits impacted by the use of bronze as opposed to marble? How do surface finishes, such as patinas or polychrome details, affect the question of realism?
Particular emphasis is placed on the aspect of replication. The one phenomenon that distinguishes bronze from other media is its reproducibility through casting. Several examples of multiple versions of the same statue are shown in the catalogue, the extraordinary case being the Apoxyomenos of the Ephesos type, for whom there are three bronze versions, all of them probably late Hellenistic or early Roman Imperial copies of a 4th-century BC athlete holding a strigil. The number of bronze replicas extant has now compelled experts to reassess that
Bringing these three bronzes together for the first time in the exhibition will provide an opportunity for comparative study, looking not only at casting and finishing techniques, but also at proportions, details, and styles in order to understand the bronzes’ relation both to one another and to their obviously famous prototype. The two herms of Dionysos, one of which is signed by the 2nd-century BC sculptor Boëthos of Kalchedon, may present a case of multiples produced by the same workshop. The evidence is less clear on this issue for the two archaistic Apollo-Kouroi from Piombino and Pompeii. Although often compared in print, till now neither of these two pairs has previously been displayed side by side.
The idealised sculptures, Idolinos such as the Florentine statue, were made around the time of Augustus, reproducing, refashioning, and sometimes mixing the severe and high-Classical styles of Greek sculpture in the 5th century BC. The Vani torso from ancient Colchis – cast in a local workshop, probably at the height of the Hellenistic period, but in the early Classical idiom of at least 300 years earlier – reminds us that Classicism and other retrospective modes of representation are neither Roman inventions nor exclusive to Italy. Established in Hellenistic art, they fed into the taste for what looks like a Greek revival at the very beginning of the Roman Empire. Bronze certainly was the material of choice that made this period an early ‘age of mechanical reproduction’.