BMCR 1996.12.06

1996.12.06, Classical Bronzes: The Art and Craft of Greek and Roman Statuary

, Classical Bronzes: The Art and Craft of Greek and Roman Statuary. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. 280. $45.00.

New discoveries and excavations throughout the ancient Mediterranean world have greatly augmented the small number of extant Greek and Roman bronze statues. Recent publications of this material, such as the exemplary joint publication of the Riace warriors, Due Bronzi da Riace, Rinvenimento, restauro, analisi ed ipotesi di interpretazione, Bolletino d’arte, serie speciale 3 (Rome 1984) and W.-D. Heilmeyer, Der J√ľngling von Salamis (Mainz 1996) to name only two, adhere to a new standard of scholarship that combines scientific analyses with careful, systematic visual inspection of bronzes. These publications, as well as Carol Mattusch’s previous book, Greek Bronze Statuary, From the Beginnings through the Fifth Century B.C. (Ithaca 1988), have shown that an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Greek and Roman bronzes is more comprehensive than stylistic analysis alone. They have demonstrated the need to re-examine many bronzes whose technical aspects were not well-documented in early excavation reports. Mattusch’s new work makes a significant contribution in this respect with many new first-hand technical observations. More importantly, she offers a persuasive new model for our understanding of how bronze statues were produced in antiquity.

As its title suggests, this book is concerned primarily with the production of free-standing, large-scale bronze sculpture throughout classical antiquity. Needless to say, only a selection of bronzes are discussed from this broad period. The book is divided into seven chapters that deal with different groups of material and a variety of evidence for the serial production of large-scale bronze statuary. The first chapter, entitled “Art, Market, and Product”, cites the early interest of Greek artisans in repetitious designs as exemplified by Geometric vases, thousands of bronze votive figurines, and large-scale Archaic kouroi and korai. The popularity of select types of bronze statuettes and their production in series can be documented before the sixth century B.C. Mattusch notes several instances where two figures from the same series are preserved. While there are relatively few extant classical bronze statues, she argues that we must see surviving works as part of a major industry, rather than the unique objects of art that they have become today.

In the second chapter, entitled “Repeated Images”, the author discusses statue groups and how they were produced. Monumental bronze groups were commonly used for political and military monuments that often had a commemorative or documentary purpose. Few of these monuments are preserved above their stone bases. Mattusch discusses in detail two well-known Athenian statue groups: the monument of the Eponymous Heroes and the Tyrant Slayers, both of which were popular in antiquity and represent types that were repeated over and over in a variety of media. She astutely points out that the very nature of ancient statuary groups invites repetition and variation on a theme. Such needs are particularly well-suited to the technique of indirect lost wax casting in which the sculptor may easily create a series of figures based on one master model.

The third chapter, “Portraits”, and the fourth, “Bronzes of Uncertain Date”, present new technical commentary on a selection of bronzes that Mattusch has examined first-hand. The author stresses the limitations for dating a statue on the basis of style alone, especially given the nature of bronze as a medium and the ability of sculptors to copy and manipulate earlier sculptural styles by means of the indirect lost wax process.

In the fifth chapter, “A Greek Bronze Original?”, Mattusch attacks the traditional method of studying classical sculpture known as Kopienkritik. She argues that the idea of a “Greek original” or a “Roman copy” is a construct of modern society. This is especially true of bronze sculpture, as it is the product of an additive process that can rely on a simple mold for reproduction. To illustrate her point, she discusses several different sculptural types, such as the Hypnos, Sleeping Eros, and Dionysos herm. For example, she argues that the many examples of the Sleeping Eros type do not necessarily refer to a prototype; rather they are representative of a genre of sculpture that was popular in antiquity.

The sixth chapter, “Torsos”, examines three statues that represent a very common classical type, the standing nude male. Two of the torsos are unquestionably direct copies of other ancient bronzes. Her technical examination of the surfaces revealed “ghost patches”, that is cast impressions of hammered patches made from a mold taken directly from another bronze statue. A third torso from Vani in the Chulcis region demonstrates other complexities in determining the date and stylistic nature of classical bronzes.

In the concluding chapter, “Tools of the Trade”, Mattusch pursues several topics including the ancient definition of the term techne and the meaning of artists’ signatures. Returning to the physical manufacture of statues, the author argues that many of the difficulties involved came in production rather than conception. She emphasizes the production line nature of the ancient bronze industry which manufactured large numbers of relatively few conventional types. These types, she argues, did not necessarily depend on a single original work of sculpture or on a particular artist.

This book does much to commend itself. Its discussions relating to bronze-working techniques are clear and offer new insights into the method of manufacture of individual works. An index allows scholars to get at that information quickly. Copious illustrations and detailed references supplement the text and enable further research. The central thesis of the work, that large-scale bronze statues were produced in series in classical antiquity, much as they are often produced by artists today, will no doubt cause a stir among scholars of ancient sculpture as it contradicts many of the fundamental assumptions behind the scholarship of the last century. However, the model is plausible, and the author supports her argument with several clear examples. Future scholarship on classical bronzes will have to take into consideration the compelling new research presented in this book.