BMCR 2003.06.40

Sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Translated by Dr. David Hardy. Kapon Editions 2002

, , Sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. 375 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 31 cm. ISBN 0892366869 $100.00.

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens, one of the most important collections of classical sculpture in the world, is presently closed while undergoing refurbishing and will not reopen until Summer 2004. Almost by way of compensation, this hefty volume provides excellent photographs for most of the objects, including occasional details, as well as basic bibliography for each entry. A special bonus is the addition of six items previously unpublished1 and of five more that have received single mentions in specialized publications.2

To find such a wealth of sculptural information and illustrations, the interested reader must go back to the massive work by I. N. Svoronos, first published in Greek (1903) and then in German ( Das Athener Nationalmuseum, 1908-1919), which includes veritable essays and is accompanied by 240 plates. Successive catalogues were less informative: one by V. S. Staïs is as early as 1910, and earlier ones—by P. Kavvadias (in Greek, 1890-1892) and P. Kastriotis (1908)—could not contain many of the more recent finds. Semni Papaspyridi, in 1927, published a Guide du Musée National d’Athènes (Marbres, bronzes et vases) that provides bibliography and even a short history of the Museum as it evolved from its inception, but descriptions are brief and discussion is limited. The same author, as director of the institution, then produced a very helpful catalogue of the sculptures, first in Greek (1967), later in various other languages,3 that has remained a mainstay of reference for the field, but entries are even shorter, bibliography is omitted, and plates are relatively few. Like her previous work, however, the book had the advantage of being portable and of following the order of display in the various rooms of the newly renovated building, a plan of which was included for the visitor’s convenience; it therefore provided a true guide to the collections.

Later publications have been better illustrated but less authoritative, much more selective and aiming at the tourist trade. Conversely, some specialized studies addressed only the scholarly readership: e.g., E. Lattanzi, Ritratti di cosmeti nel Museo Nazionale (1968), or A. Datsouli-Stavridi, Roman Portraits in the National Archaeological Museum (in Greek, 1985). In 1997, then Director Katerina Rhomiopoulou published the Graeco-Roman sculptures, following their display in newly arranged galleries, but omitted the previous exhibits. Now, for the first time, we have a comprehensive volume that encompasses the entire range of material, from the Dadedalic to the Late Antique period, and is bound to represent the basic starting point for any study involving pieces in the Athens National Museum.

Nikolaos Kaltsas is the current director of this venerable institution. He has already put the scholarly world in his debt by publishing—at last—two outstanding Archaic statues uncovered in 1972.4 Both sculptures had been on open display in the National Museum and had become immediately famous (notably the female figure, Phrasikleia), but had not yet received official description and discussion by their excavator (now deceased) and therefore could not be properly cited and illustrated by others. That impasse is now broken, and in exemplary fashion: excellent black-and-white and color plates, reconstruction of the original coloring, stylistic analysis, and perceptive attention to all details attest to the high standards set by the author.

By its very nature, the catalogue of a major collection cannot devote as much depth and space to entries and photographs. Yet the question arises as to the intended purpose of the volume under review. Its first edition, in Greek, and “an improved second edition enriched with coloured illustrations” were published “as a result of a —perhaps impetuous— private initiative” by Moses and Rachel Kapon (p. 7). The results prompted the J. Paul Getty Museum to invite them to collaborate on an English translation, which was initially intended for November 2002 but was postponed to May 2003. The publicity blurb states that the text is written “not only for the experts but also for the general public.” Entries are therefore preceded by an Introduction with chapters on the various phases of Greek sculpture, including the Roman period, that take into account monuments housed elsewhere in the world. The catalogue is said to be arranged not only chronologically, but also by category, in order to facilitate comparisons and correlations. Yet the entries seem to follow the order of display within the Museum building (at least, as it was at the time of my last visit, in Summer 2000). This means that Archaistic works are treated together with genuinely Archaic pieces but without adequate explanation, that chronological sequence is occasionally scrambled, and that Roman copies of alleged Greek originals are unhesitatingly included among fifth- and fourth-century pieces (although their later manufacture is duly acknowledged). This arrangement would be well justified if the reader could carry the volume along during a visit to the Museum, but its size and weight seem prohibitive for this purpose, making it possible only as a library item or for coffee-table display.

Ambivalence as to the intended readership may also be responsible for the steadily laudatory tone of the descriptions and, especially, of the historical survey. I consider myself one of the most sincere admirers of Greek artistic achievement, yet I am somewhat disturbed by the lyrical praise of the sculptures and their masters, with an emphasis on attributions that seems to me both tenuous and old-fashioned. To be sure, English is a much more sober language than Greek, and what could have sounded inspirational in the original version may have lost its appeal in translation.5 Yet I would have expected a more current approach, one that only occasionally surfaces in a few entries acknowledging disagreement in interpretation.

For a work of this vast scope, a review addressing each item in the catalogue is impossible and unproductive. I limit myself to a few comments and bibliographical updates, primary among these latter the very article on Phrasikleia and her sibling (Cat. nos. 45-46) cited in note 4. That same periodical issue includes a discussion of the famous “fourth-century” relief from Epidauros (Cat. no. 354) redating it to the Augustan period on convincing grounds.6 The sphinx from the Kerameikos cemetery Inv. 2891 (Cat. 36) can no longer be considered the crowning of a gravestone, since a matching piece was found in May 2002 and has now been published by W.-D. Niemeier.7 Many of the relevant National Museum holdings are examined in A. Kosmopoulou’s The Iconography of Sculptured Statue Bases in the Archaic and Classical Periods (Madison 2002). My own treatment of Hellenistic sculpture now extends to its end with vols. II (2000) and III (2002), which can provide more extensive summaries of discordant opinions and additional references. And I cannot resist noting with regret that my Archaic Style in Greek Sculpture is still cited in its first (1977) rather than its second, greatly expanded edition (1993).

An article by M. Barbanera, in NumAntCl 21 (1992) 87-103, explains the ship prow on the Stele of Antipatros of Ascalon that has caused much interpretative difficulty and is not even mentioned in the entry (Cat. 376).8 Here the description is somewhat misleading since it includes the pedimented crowning of the gravestone whereas the photograph shows only the relief panel. Misleading is also the identification of the various male figures on Archinos’ votive relief from Oropos (Cat. 425): the tallest personage is improbable as Asklepios since the offering was made to Amphiaraos, also a healing hero; by the same token, the shorter man at the head of the bed cannot be the sanctuary’s owner, who would have been differentiated from the patient by his greater stature.9 Within the same category of votive reliefs, I wonder at the absence of the two well-known panels from Epidauros (Inv. nos. 173-174) showing a seated deity: either Asklepios in both cases, or Apollo and Asklepios, as I believe. Does this mean that they have been removed from display in the Epidauros Gallery? A convenient Concordance (labelled “Index”) between inventory and catalogue numbers on pp. 374-75 allows a rapid check on inclusions and omissions.

On final balance, and despite all the above reservations, this is a splendid volume and we should be grateful to both the author and the publishers who produced it at a time when increased attention to Athens and its riches is bound to occur in conjunction with the Olympic Games scheduled for 2004. Those who peruse this book will know exactly what to look forward to, whether old friend or new acquaintance.


1. Cat. nos. 35, 210, 225, 412, 547, 620—inv. nos. 4871, 4800, 1991, 3457, 1964, 3042 respectively; all illustrated.

2. Cat. nos. 53, 54, 140, 166, 488—inv. nos. 7901, 5826, 4797, 107, 1613 respectively. I have not included in this list items previously published solely in one of the earlier catalogues of the National Museum.

3. English edition: S. Karouzou, National Archaeological Museum. Collection of Sculpture. A Catalogue, (Athens 1968).

4. N. Kaltsas, “Die Kore und der Kuros aus Myrrhinous,” AntP 28 (2002) 7-38.

5. Note, for instance, the “sappy” palmettes (pp. 18, 192 at no. 380, and passim) or acanthus (p. 189 at no. 372); the “melodious treatment of the drapery” on p. 148 at no. 287; and the disturbing mistranslation of “jaw” for “chin” throughout (e.g., p. 244 no. 510, p. 255 no. 533). “Snood” seems awkward for the more familiar “sakkos,” especially since the Greek term could have been included in the Glossary of p. 30 that explains words like “Pegasus” and “xoanon.”

6. E Sauter, “Das Relief aus Epidauros, Athen, Nationalmuseum inv. 1425 und 1425b,” AntP 28 (2002) 125-60.

7. Der Kuros vom Heiligen Tor. Überraschende Neufunde archaischer Skulptur im Kerameikos in Athen (Mainz am Rhein 2002).

8. Barbanera’s article is summarized by Ch. Clairmont, Classical Attic Tombstones Supplementary Volume (1995) 68-69, comments to no. 3.410.

9. In fairness, the same indentifications recur in Karouzou’s Catalogue, although her 1927 Guide correctly named Amphiaraos as the larger figure and Archinos as the thrice-repeated image of a shorter man. This latter is the version followed by most commentators. One therefore wonders whether descriptions in the present Catalogue were largely repeated from Karouzou’s publication, although bibliography was added and expanded, notably with the addition of references in the LIMC. I also caught a few typographical mistakes, none too serious; I mention only that, on p. 83, under no. 144, the “extended right hand” should instead be the left, and, on p. 20, the Dedication of the Achaians should be properly located in Olympia rather than at Delphi.