BMCR 2015.09.02

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World

, , Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015. 368. ISBN 9781606064399. $65.00.

1 Responses


See responses to this review at BMCR 2016.02.29 and 2016.02.47

Among traveling exhibitions of recent years, the one accompanied by the eponymous catalogue under review (simultaneously published in English and Italian) must rank as one of the best and most significant. Sponsored by the Bank of America, and with the collaboration of authorities in several countries (primarily Italy and Greece), the show opened in Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, on March 14, until June 21, 2015. It is now in Los Angeles, at the J. Paul Getty Museum (July 28-November 1) and will end at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (December 6, 2015-March 20, 2016).

Because the genesis of the book is the Exhibition, yet the result is far too heavy to be carried around on inspection, I focus on the catalogue, with notes often referencing the various essays where relevant.

The volume begins with a List of Lenders (34 museums in 13 countries on four continents), a Foreword signed by the directors of the three exhibition galleries and the Archaeological Soprintendente for Tuscany, lengthy “Acknowledgments” by the two editors (both Associate Curators at the Getty Museum and well-published scholars), and a wonderful Map showing the findspots of the exhibits, with anchor symbols marking underwater discoveries. Eleven essays follow, pertinent to issues of Hellenistic bronzes and assigned to some of the best-known specialists in the field. The Catalogue proper, which includes some spectacular and famous masterpieces, is divided into six thematic sections comprising 55 entries by various authors— many of them by either of the editors and a few by three contributors to the essays.1 An Appendix (prepared by J. Maish) lists the alloy compositions of 22 of the exhibits. A lengthy Bibliography, information about the essay writers, an Index, and “Illustration Credits” conclude the volume. The last item deserves special attention, because scattered throughout the book wonderful photographs supplement and complement the catalogued items, thus making this publication a stunning visual pleasure—indeed, its entire layout seems formatted to privilege the images, with half pages often left empty of text.

Yet this is far from being a typical “coffee-table” book. Both the essays and the individual entries—especially the latter—break new ground and advance new theories, with a laudable objectivity that can occasionally counterbalance the natural tendency to identify facial features as portraits of specific personages, or to attribute works to the hand of major masters.2 Dates, with few exceptions, are correspondingly wide-ranging, for some items encompassing more than one century.3 Moreover, the meaning of “Hellenistic” oscillates between chronology (traditionally 323-31 BC) and modes of expression, thus allowing for the inclusion of a coin with a bust of the Emperor Nero,4 and of some Etruscan and Roman subjects as well as Roman “creations”.5

Not all catalogued bronzes are life-size or over. Nine are statuettes, but look monumental in their pose and appearance in large photographs without measuring scale, and contribute to define expressive tendencies of the period. A few are even anomalous in their mixture of styles, in which Greek elements mingle with foreign traits and techniques, as in two door attachments from Yemen showing Erotes riding felines.6 Noteworthy are also a head and hand of Aphrodite from Satala (formerly Armenia), a male torso from Vani (Republic of Georgia), and the statue of a boy from Hierapetra (Crete), an island that has yielded this sole intact bronze for the period.7

Quite impressive are the early dates of discovery for most pieces, the earliest being that of the famous Spinario (Cat. 54) “first documented in the eleventh century.” Several items once belonged to the Medici or other collections (15 th, 16 th, 17 th centuries), a few of more uncertain provenience were still acquired during the 19 th century and only two entries (Cat. 11 and 30) cite no origin. Some of the more recent finds (2004) are the bronzes rescued from the sea (e.g., Cat. 14) and the extraordinary head of an Odrysian ruler, Seuthes III, excavated from the Golyama Kosmatka tumulus in modern Bulgaria (Cat. 9).8

Among the 10 (perhaps 11) underwater finds included in the Catalogue, two are still unpublished: Cat. 5, a male head wearing the kausia, perhaps a portrait, and Cat. 14, the headless statue of a young man, but several other little-known discoveries from the Aegean are discussed and illustrated in the important essay by G. Koutsouflakis and A. Simosi.9

Three marine finds validate one of the most important purposes of the entire exhibition: the easy replication of bronze types and therefore their relative lack of “originality” in our sense of the term—a position long championed by the foundational research of Carol Mattusch—and here exemplified by comparative display.10 The first item—the Herm of Dionysos from the Mahdia shipwreck (Cat. 45) signed by Boethos of Kalchedon, is shown for the first time side by side with a very similar herm now in the Getty Museum (Cat. 46). Although the latter seems less sharp, less elaborate than the former, analysis of both alloys has demonstrated their connection, with inclusion of unusual trace elements that goes beyond any possible coincidence. The Getty herm must therefore be attributed to the same workshop, perhaps even the same pour that created the signed specimen.11 A second unprecedented juxtaposition places Cat. 47, the Apollo found in 1832 off the coast of Piombino (Italy), next to the basically similar servant-statue, Cat. 48, excavated in 1977 from the House of Gaius Iulius Polybius in Pompeii. In a forthcoming publication by N. Badoud, the Piombino bronze will be considered a votive offering to Athena Lindia on Rhodes, but several of its details may still suggest that it was meant as an ancient forgery. The Pompeian statue joins a group of comparable adolescent figures with utilitarian purposes, popular in wealthy Roman villas, to which tentatively even the famous Marathon Boy in Athens, usually considered Praxitelean, may be added.12

The third example offers the most spectacular comparison of all. The bronze athlete (Cat. 41) found in the Northern Adriatic Sea near Croatia in 1997/1999 was immediately recognized as a replica of the so-called Apoxyomenos (Cat. 40) found at Ephesos in 1896, whose many fragments were recomposed into a complete figure on the basis of a marble replica in Florence (Cat. 43). 13 The almost intact statue in Zagreb has also served to rehabilitate a bronze head in Fort Worth (Cat.42) which had been considered a Renaissance work because of later restorations, now removed. Beyond a long history that attests its existence since the 16 th century, the method of attachment of this head—along a line running from the nape to the underside of the chin—is duplicated in the Croatian athlete, yet was unknown to early Italian artists.

The three bronze heads have a distinctive rendering of the short curls across the forehead, as if brushed down by a sweaty hand, thus confirming the faithfulness of each to the same prototype. On the evidence of the complete bodies, several more replicas of the type have been tentatively identified, all in stone: five in reduced version and five at full scale, one of which (Cat. 44), in Egyptian basanite, imitates the shiny dark surface of aged or patinated bronze.14 Given the apparent popularity of this athletic type, as against the single known marble version of the Vatican Apoxyomenos, Mattusch now suggests that the Ephesos/Croatia prototype should be identified with Lysippos’ celebrated creation.15 If accepted, this proposition raises an interesting point about the almost Polykleitan stance of the bronzes, as contrasted with the rotating pose of the Vatican figure that has given rise to much speculation about Lysippan torsion.

The chronology suggested for the Roman use of basanite adds its contribution to recent studies of quarries in antiquity and their implication for the dating of sculpture.16 Analyses of alloys and casting techniques are equally important, but much depends on the types of technology used by the various laboratories, the selection of the samples, and the possibility that bronze, so easily and repeatedly melted down, mixed and reused, may produce an unclear picture. Hence the cautious warnings prefacing the Appendix in this volume, and especially the important essay by A. Giumlia Mair, “Techno-Chronology? Alloy Composition and the Use of Technical Features for the Dating of Ancient Bronzes” (pp. 166-81). Beyond the authoritative assertions that the Chimaera of Arezzo is a “Greek” bronze datable to the late 5th/early 4th century BC (p. 168),and the Capitoline She-Wolf is Medieval (p. 172), a startling statement is that the choice of alloys without or with small amounts of lead, contrary to previous theories, is a chronological characteristic of early bronzes—Greek, Italic, or Roman—and not a regional one (p. 169), with a shift in tradition toward increasing lead amounts occurring around 400 BC.

The rest of that essay contains many useful diagnostic technical details about gilding, wall thickness, joining, repairs, patches, rendering of eyes, and mounting. Here I personally miss a reference to the peculiar practice of casting a (supporting) foot in two halves and even an omitted toe (to be added later)—a practice attested as early as the late 5th century BC in some bronzes from the Porticello wreck but persisting until at least well into the Imperial period, as attested by the bronzes from the Sebasteion in Boubon. 17

Personal research interests compel me also to single out the outstanding essay by C.H. Hallett “Looking Back: Archaic and Classical Bronzes of the Hellenistic Period” (pp. 126-49). Its author had already devoted some attention to definition of styles. 18 He now confronts the predilection for retrospective renderings in the first century BC-first century AD, with an illuminating insight: that the Romans did not make our modern distinction between Archaic and Early Classical renderings, considering both stylistic phases a continuum. Their demands could thus result in works that to us appear eclectic or hard to pin down as copies of genuine earlier originals, since they borrow traits and polychromy preferences from different phases. Mentioning the judgments of ancient sources about the relative hardness of renderings, and borrowing A. Stewart’s expression of the “hardness scale,” Hallett compares the famous Herculaneum “Dancers” to fifth-century Greek mirror supports, and lists many other works that cross the thin line between genuine creations in retrospective style and actual forgeries to be passed on as bona fide antiques—a practice attested even in the creation of pseudo-history at the time.19 He ends with emphasizing the predilection for bronze copies and ornaments in Roman villas as attested by contemporary wall paintings (figs. 9.11-12) and by describing two gems in Archaizing-Classicizing style (figs. 9.9-10) one of which, in particular, tempts me once again to rehash one of my unpopular theories: that at least the head of Riace Warrior A should be seen as part of this retrospective tendency in late Hellenistic times.20

As it happens, the essay following Hallett’s— A. Descamps-Lequime, “The Color of Bronze. Polychromy and the esthetics of Bronze Surfaces,” (pp.150-65)— has a photograph of Riace A’s head (fig. 10.3; also fig. 2.1 on p.34) that well shows the “terribility” of what seems almost a mask rather than a human face. The entire essay mentions nothing else truly comparable, not even, perhaps,the entire statue of the Seated Boxer in the Terme (Cat.18, with detail photograph on p. 13), but it makes many useful points emphasizing the flexibility of what would seem to be a single-color medium.

Last but by no means least, I must acknowledge the two not-yet-mentioned essays. A. Stewart’s “Why Bronze?” (pp. 34-47) recounts ancient myths about metals and tackles the difficult task of evaluating the expenses and profits of bronze works in Hellenistic centuries, while promising more comments on sculptors’ wealth in a forthcoming study. G. Adornato’s contribution “ Aletheia/Veritas : The New Canon,” (pp. 48-59) uses ancient sources, especially the much-discussed epigram by Poseidippos of Pella, to illuminate a specific new direction in Hellenistic depiction of human forms: the tendency toward “truth.”

At the end of this length survey of the entire volume, this reviewer would urge interested readers to revisit the first essay, by J. M. Daehner and K. Lapatin. They will acquire a renewed understanding of this multifaceted period in ancient art.

[For a response to this review by Beryl Barr-Sharrar, please see BMCR 2016.02.29.]


1. See p. 15 for a complete list of all contributors. Not all items in the catalogue are shown at each venue (p. 4); omitted are: at Palazzo Strozzi, Cat.7, 9, 12, 19, 25, 26, 27, 28, 41; at the Getty Museum, Cat. 8, 19, 23, 43; at the National Gallery, Cat. 8, 9, 18, 19, 23, 41, 43. It is regrettable that Cat. 19, the dramatic Mazara Satyr, will not travel with the show. I am told that Cat. 41, the Croatian Apoxyomenos, will not be at the National Gallery, and that Cat. 13, the Mahdia Eros, did not make it to any venue.

2. See, e.g., Cat.2, the Riding Alexander from Herculaneum, which could replicate the Lysippan image from the Granikos commemoration, but, from associated finds, could also be part of a different and later story line; or Cat. 16, the Weary Herakles statuette from Sulmona, whose “extremely high quality” has suggested attribution to the very workshop of Lysippos, but which the entry dates “Third century BC or first century AD (?).” Cf. also other dates and attributions in S. Hemingway’s informative essay, “Contexts of Discovery,” 60-71 and compare the position of the editors in “Reframing Hellenistic Bronze Sculpture,” 20-33, esp. pp. 24-26.

3. E.g., Cat. 12, the Getty Athlete from the Adriatic Sea: “350-150 BC”; Cat. 28, the head of a North African from Cyrene: “300-150 BC”; or the extreme case of the Mazara Satyr from the sea, Cat.19: “Late fourth to mid-first centuries BC.” Several items are dated “First century BC-first century AD.” The date of Cat. 14, the Statue of a Young Man from the Aegean Sea, is erroneously printed as “Third-fourth century BC.”

4. See R.R.R. Smith’s important essay, “ Eikon chalke : Hellenistic Statue Honors in Bronze,” 94-109, esp.108 and fig. 73.F.

5. Etruscans: Cat. 31, 32, 33 (the famous Arringatore). Romans: Cat. 10,11,29(?),35,38,39. For Roman “creations” see below, notes 19-20.

6. Statuettes: e.g., Cat. 4, 15, 17, 36. Erotes from Yemen: Cat.26, inscribed in Qatabanic script. The essay by M. P. Canepa, “Bronze Sculpture in the Hellenistic East,” 82-93, includes several little-known monuments, mentions possible “acrometallic” cult images on armatures of brick and clay, and compiles a helpful bibliography, to which add R. Fleischer, R. Schulz, “Figurale Bronzes ägyptischer und griechisch-römischer Art von Jabal al-‘Awd, Jemen,” Archäologische Berichte aus dem Yemen 13 (2012)1-86.

7. Aphrodite from Satala: Cat. 23; Vani torso: Cat. 49; boy from Hierapetra: Cat. 34, and p. 65. Although this last entry lists “Raftopoulou 1975” in its bibliography, it does not mention that publication’s suggestion that a headless marble statue in Budapest (Arch.Mus. no. 4743) is a copy of the bronze; yet its existence seems important for the theme of replication stressed by the exhibition.

8. See p. 65, fig. 4.4, showing the excavation; and cf. fig. 4.1, p. 60, with the famous Terme Boxer (Cat. 18) still in situ on the Quirinal Hill “looking as if he were just waiting to be found,” as described by Hemingway in his essay (supra, note 2),71. I believe he is the only author citing (p. 62 and note 3) the bronze life-size foot of an elephant found at sea with the Mazara Satyr, exemplifying the kind of statuary connected with Ptolemy II Philadelphos’ procession depicting Dionysos’ Return from India.

9. “Hellenistic Bronze Sculptures from the Aegean Sea: Recent Discoveries (1994-2009),” 74-81, also listing in the endnotes numerous finds from earlier years. It seems surprising that a bronze dolphin (fig. 5.2, p. 75) would have served as support for a larger figure which, in bronze, had no need for extra static help; the suggestion of a fountain (or the attachment to a ship prow?) may be more plausible.

10. As stressed by the editors’ essay (supra, note 2) and in strong contrast to our general conception of the marble “Roman copies.”. Among Mattusch’s groundbreaking publications, see especially Classical Bronzes: The Art and Craft of Greek and Roman Statuary, Ithaca/London 1996; also the essay cited below.

11. Mahdia and Getty Herms: discussed by Mattusch 1994 and summarized in her present essay, “Repeated Images: Beauty with Economy,” 110-25, citing several additional examples. See also the fuller analytical tables for both items, pp. 321-22.

12.Piombino Apollo in the Louvre: Cat. 47a-c includes three fragments of the lead tablet with artists’ signatures originally found inside the statue and later lost but newly found and declared genuine. N. Badoud, Les temps de Rhodes. Une chronologie des inscriptions de la cité fondée sur l’étude de ses institutions Munich, 281, no. 218, is cited in the entry, but the attribution to Athena Lindia is followed by a question mark. For the Apollo’s alloy, see pp. 322-23. Marathon Boy: Mattusch’s essay (supra, note 11), fig. 8.2 and pp.111,124.

13. The marble Apoxymenos in Florence (probably from Rome) is wrongly restored as holding a vessel, but the pose of its arms is close to that of the bronzes. Unfortunately this marble comparison will not be exhibited in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. The head of the Croatian statue, compared to the (restored) Ephesos figure, “is not turned to the left, is inclined further forward, and is somewhat tilted” (p. 274).

14. Cat.44. This dark headless torso from Castel Gandolfo has been misidentified as being in basalt, together with other examples in the same stone, which is however properly described (Cat. 52, p. 301) as coming from Mons basanites in Wadi Hammamat. It is said to have become popular for large scale Roman statuary in the 1st c. BC. The entry for Cat. 44, p. 281, lists possible replicas of the Apoxyomenos type. Cat. 41, p. 275, suggests that all three bronzes came from the eastern Mediterranean, all the stone ones probably from Italy.

15. Vatican Apoxyomenos: p. 122, fig. 8.11. Mattusch’s suggestion: her essay (cited supra, note 11), p. 123; the possible change in attribution is favorably repeated by T. Potts in his entry for Cat. 42, p.276.

16. See, most recently, M. Bruno, D. Attanasio, W. Prochaska, “The Docimium Marble Sculptures of the Grotto of Tiberius at Sperlonga,” AJA 119.3 (July 2015) 375-94, dating all major groups to Tiberian times, with additional references to other quarry chronologies.

17. Porticello Bronzes: C. J. Eiseman, B.S. Ridgway, The Porticello Shipwreck: Mediterranean Merchant Vessel of 415-385 B.C, College Station, Texas A&M Press, 1987; second printing 2012. Feet in two halves: nos. S7/8, figs. 5.35-5.51, and references to comparisons (including Boubon): pp. 95-96 and notes 15-17. It is regrettable that the Porticello bronzes, from a properly excavated wreck,to my knowledge have received little technical attention. B.S.Ridgway, AJA 114 (2010)331-42, adds the second male head from the wreck.

18. See, e.g., Hallett on the reasons for the change from the Severe to the Classical style: JHS 106 (1986) 71-84.

19. On the Archaic and Early Classical continuum: pp.131-33; on the Herculaneum “Dancers”: 133-37; on the “hardness scale” borrowed from Stewart: note 45; on the comparison with mirror stands, note 58 (but would many such 5th c. objects have been extant during Augustan times ?); on forgeries, both in art and history: pp. 144-46. The bronze Spinario Cat. 54 (whose “Severe” head type is known in at least 11 replicas) can here be compared with a marble version (Cat. 55) with proper “Hellenistic” head type.

20. Hallett’s description of the divine heads on gems figs. 9.9-10, p. 139 (with mass of curls “rather improbably staying firm in place”) should be read against my own analysis of Warrior A, in Due Bronzi da Riace, (Bollettino d’Art Serie Speciale 3, Rome 1984) 313-26, reprinted in my Second Chance. Greek Sculptural Studies Revisited The Pindar Press, London 2004, esp. pp. 272-77; see p. 273 about the forehead spiral curls turning “an abrupt corner” without being pulled down by their own weight. ​