BMCR 1998.07.05

The Victorious Youth


In the introduction to her new monograph in the Getty Museum Studies on Art series, Carol Mattusch warns the reader that “this study of the Victorious Youth will not be conducted in the traditional manner” (p. 1). This beautifully presented paperback constitutes the first volume in this series to treat an ancient work of art, but Mattusch must intend to contrast her study not with the rest of this series, but with the 1978 Getty publication on the very same statue [Jiri Frel, The Getty Bronze ]. The contrast between the two treatments is indeed great. The most original (and enjoyable) part of Mattusch’s study may be the section near the end entitled “The Public’s Questions” (82-83), in which remarks made by undergraduate students and surreptitiously observed Getty Museum visitors are reported. The fact that not all of the public’s questions are silly has led Mattusch to forsake some of the material we find in the earlier monograph (chronology, extensive comparanda, and attribution to the big name sculptor Lysippos) in favor of an exploration of where the Getty statue came from, why and how he was made, and who he might be.

The Victorious Youth is a lifesize, bronze nude male figure found in the 1960s in the sea off Fano on Italy’s Adriatic coast and acquired by the Getty Museum in 1977. Mattusch begins her monograph with a general discussion (“Rescued from the Sea: Shipwrecks and Chance Finds”, 3-21) which places the Victorious Youth within the context of better-known underwater bronze finds at Antikythera (1900), Mahdia (1907), Marathon (1925), Cape Artemision (1926), Riace Marina (1972) and Brindisi (1992). Teachers of survey courses on Greek art or Greek sculpture will find this section useful for its capsule summaries of the circumstances surrounding these memorable 20th century archaeological discoveries.

Sections entitled “Statues for Civic Pride” (23-35) and “Statues for Victors” (36-51) establish contexts for the production of large-scale bronze statues in the Greco-Roman world. Mattusch enumerates the uses to which such statues were originally put using ancient literary sources as her guide. The fact that almost none of the famous bronzes mentioned by the sources has left any archaeological trace effectively demonstrates the importance of chance finds such as the Getty’s Victorious Youth. In the course of these sections, Mattusch introduces in a lively and painless manner some of the major concepts governing the study of Greek and Roman sculpture by Classical archaeologists, including her own work on the serial production of bronze “originals” from reusable clay molds over the centuries fully developed in Classical Bronzes [Ithaca, NY 1996].

Since Panhellenic Greek sanctuaries like Delphi and Olympia were primary locations for the display of large-scale bronze statues, we should imagine the Victorious Youth being produced for this context, but more precise indications of his origins and identity do not come until after a brief discussion of “Collectors in Antiquity” (52-60). The way in which the Victorious Youth’s ankles and feet have been broken off indicates that he was removed (not very carefully) from a stone base to be transported (unsuccessfully) to Italy. Without any evidence for a shipwreck other than the statue itself, we have no way of knowing whether he was destined to end up in the hands of a good Roman collector like Cicero or a bad Roman collector like Mummius, Sulla, Verres, or Nero, or even in a scrap metal heap. Mattusch’s treatment of ancient sculptural collecting focuses on Cicero and what we know of his motives, tastes, and methods from his 68-67 B.C.E. letters to Atticus. This and the previous sections read well because the detailed references geared toward specialist readers are pushed to long endnotes; my only quibble about this particular section is that its content recalls an article not included in either the endnotes or the selected bibliography [Miranda Marvin, “Copying in Roman Sculpture: The Replica Series” in Retaining the Original: Multiple Originals, Copies, and Reproductions (Studies in the History of Art 20, Washington DC 1989) 29-45].

The title of Mattusch’s monograph springs from the reasonable hypothesis that the Getty bronze represents an athlete, and a two-part justification for this identification takes the place of the self-contained formal analysis we might expect (49-51 and 84-91). The statue’s right hand touches an olive wreath on his head, an attribute most readily connected with the victor’s crown awarded in the Olympic games. He holds his left arm down at his side; the elbow is cocked to hold a missing attribute in the partially opened left hand. The clearest indications that the statue’s left arm originally held a victor’s palm branch come from a Roman wall painting (fig. 42) and an unfinished Roman-period statue in the Athens National Museum (fig. 60), both of which closely parallel the Getty statue’s pose. These comparanda attest to a late Classical Greek sculptural type, the autostephanoumenos, used for centuries to represent athletic victors in a stereotypical, non-individualized manner. But Mattusch also includes an illustration demonstrating how the same sculptural type might have been adapted to serve a different purpose: figure 62 shows a 2nd century B.C.E. coin representing Demetrios I of Bactria touching a wreath on his head with his right hand like the Victorious Youth, but cradling Herakles’ club and lion skin in his left instead of a palm branch.

Earlier Getty publications have played up the latter possibility (royal portrait) at the expense of the former (victorious athlete). As a specialist reader, I wondered why the idea that the Victorious Youth might have been made to serve as a portrait has been so thoroughly suppressed in this publication, especially because the image on the Bactrian coin is such a dead ringer for the pose and anatomy of the Getty statue. In a book that encourages the reader to look carefully at every one of its beautifully-produced illustrations, I wish that Mattusch had explained further why “victorious youth” is a safer bet than “royal portrait” for the statue’s identity. After all, the final section is called “Reaching a Consensus” (84-91), and throughout the book attentive novices have been encouraged to believe that they too can be part of the stylistic decision making process. The scholars cited by Mattusch in the endnotes have already reached the consensus that the Getty statue is a Lysippos-inspired athletic victor who could date anywhere from the late 4th through the 2nd century B.C.E. In the text itself Mattusch presents observations pointing toward a later date within this range (two-dimensionality and a stylistic disjunction between the statue’s powerful head and its smooth, slight build), cautioning that the use of a Classical period style does not necessitate a date within the Classical period. At the very least, assigning a post-Classical date to the Getty statue makes an identification as a Hellenistic royal portrait possible. Some readers may simply not understand how consensus was reached on either identity or chronology without further clarification in the text.

The section entitled “Collaborators: Artist and Craftsman” (62-77) presents the fruits of 20 years of technical analysis of the Victorious Youth conducted by Getty scientists together with an overview of Mattusch’s work on bronze casting techniques. What is most refreshing here is the emphasis on how scientists and art historians, like ancient artists and craftsmen, are collaborators who must work together to achieve satisfactory results. X-rays show that the separately-cast head was detailed by hand in the wax model before casting even if standard master molds were used to produce the torso and limbs; the awkward effect produced by the juxtaposition of these parts could therefore result from technical difficulties rather than the desire to attach a portrait head to a generic body. Carbon-14 dates derived from the core material do not help to narrow down the Victorious Youth’s date beyond the range already determined by stylistic analysis. The core material also included woven linen fibers, another botanical clue (together with the olive crown) pointing toward Olympia, according to Pausanias the only flax-growing region of Greece, as the original context for the statue.

The questions which we as specialists choose to ask of archaeological artifacts sometimes predetermine the answers we will obtain. If students and visitors to the Getty Museum raise questions we had not thought to ask, answering them may lead the study of Greek sculpture in new directions. In the end, this short and accessible monograph will make Carol Mattusch’s work on the production of ancient bronze sculpture available to an audience outside the field of Classical archaeology, and that may accomplish more than a traditional study of the Getty bronze could have.