Hellenistic Bronzes: Pride ... and Prejudices

Jens Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles have curated the most extraordinarily brilliant exhibition on Hellenistic Bronzes, currently at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, of which both they and the museum should be immensely proud. The catalogue for the Italian portion of the exhibition also looks fabulous, although my copies were immediately ‘borrowed’ by friends, so I have not yet been able to read the essays by many luminaries of the field, although Lapatin, Carol C. Mattusch and Sophie Descamps-Lequime very kindly let me tag along as they went around it. (Obviously any dubious ideas or dodgy theories are entirely my own, and not their fault).

The exhibition is full of exquisite sculptures which would make any ancient Greek proud of their bronzes, but in this first blog post about the exhibition I’d like to discuss some of the more banal works – sculptures against which I admit I tend to be slightly prejudiced. Other posts will discuss the greater works in the Palazzo Strozzi show, and then during the summer works which will join the exhibition in California.

Sleeping Eros. III-II C BC, bronze, cm 41,9 x 85,2 x 35,6, cm 45,7, with base. New York, 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund 1943, 43.11.4 
(in the Palazzo Strozzi exhibiton; image courtesy of them)
My first ‘prejudice’ is a personal one, and against these sleeping cupids or putti. When I first went around the exhibition I ignored it. The reason why is simple; whilst Michelangelo is known to have made copies of ancient sculptures, every country house in England seems to have a badly re-carved ancient one of these in marble, which they now insist is not Hadrianic but by the great Michelangelo. It gets a little boring. This bronze in the Met is however a beautiful sculpture well worth looking at again, with the feathers of Cupid’s wings, and his tubby little sleeping limbs showing how good Hellenistic bronzes from high quality workshops could be.
When it comes to ancient statues of “famous” types reworked in the later Hellenistic and Roman periods, the quality can be highly variable. Scholars from the Renaissance period onwards tended to read Pliny and see them as fabulous works, sculptures that could be lost originals or at least help us restore their original appearance. Nowadays they are being recongnised as having been less “great art” and more furniture, decorative pastiches of the often kitsch variety still produced for “interior designers” of little taste today, and that would not have looked out of place in Saddam’s or Gadhafi's palaces. 
Two archaising bronze Apollos, brought together for the first time, illustrate this point perfectly, and that is why I have, unusually, chosen to first blog about the pieces in the exhibition that I dislike ... but which were also the most interesting from an educational point of view.

Apollo (Apollo di Piombino). ca 120-100 BC; bronze, copper, silver; cm 117 x 42 x 42. Paris, Musée du Louvre, département  des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines, inv. Br 2 (in the Palazzo Strozzi exhibiton; image courtesy of them)

The earlier and finer of these two archaising “Apollos” is the Piombino Apollo found in the sea in 1832, and which entered the Louvre in 1835.

When the mud and assorted marine excretions were removed there, an even more startling discovery – one so unexpected that it was at the time dismissed as fakery by the archaeologist – was made: a lead strip, now broken into three pieces, was removed via the statue’s eyes naming in Greek the sculptors who had created it:

The diagram comes from p. 357 of Sterling Dow’s old Hesperia article available here.
the style of the letters seems to suggest the first century BC, and in conjunction with better understanding of both techniques and styles of ancient bronzes we now know that the Piombino is not an Archaic original as once thought, but rather a good quality later Hellenistic imitation made by a known school of Rhodian sculptors. The silvered inscription on the foot suggests that it was originally dedicated to Athena soon after being made, and was being shipped to Italy at some later period when the ship carrying it sank. We know from examples excavated around Vesuvius as well as literary references that ancient Greek bronzes were also faked and sold off to Romans as genuine “Archaic” sculptures too, so there is a possibility that the ancient Roman buyer of this piece thought he was buying a ‘kosher’ ancient sculpture and not just an Archaising work of the later period.

In 1977 a similar statue of an archaising Apollo was found at Pompeii in the villa of C. Julius Polybius, and based on photographs the two were soon ‘associated’ ... the slight scandal of the Pompeian piece is that it was excavated with tendrils which probably held a wooden tray, and so its nature as a piece of decorative furniture in a fancy Roman house could not be denied.

Apollo (Kouros). 1st century BC or AD; bronze, copper, bone, dark stone, glass; cm 128 x 33 x 38. Pompei, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia, inv. 22924 (in the Palazzo Strozzi exhibiton; image courtesy of them)

Bringing the two statues together, which are of slightly different heights and stylistically not quite as similar as they initially were assumed to be, is one of the great joys of an exhibition such as this one. When the two Apollos stand next to each other, it is clear that they differ enough to not be assigned to the same workshop, and they show how one (the Piombino example) could have been made as a votive offering for a Greek sanctuary, but that the other was clearly made as a slightly ostentatious decorative ‘objet’ for a Roman who wanted the decorative ‘style’ of ancient Greece, not ‘art’ necessarily. This was sculpture one could probably order by the set, whether for the house or the garden, the ancient equivalent of buying books by the yard for their decorative bindings.

Some bronze furnishings based on Greek sculptures in the Roman period were of high quality, and can be evidence for the now lost original masterpieces, but others were not. Although connoisseurship is currently out of fashion, and the trend is to study all archaeology as "material culture" and being equally important ... differentiating good and bad copies is key to reconstructing the originals, as is accepting that bronzes could be and were mass produced in Antiquity. We know these "copies" varied and since bronzes were easier for workshops to adapt than marbles as well as easier to produce, this should also be taken into account.

Another good example of kitsch archaising furnishings a la Romaine - and of my own prejudices - is the Gaza Apollo (not in the exhibition). It first came to attention when (possibly Hamas) tried to list it for sale on eBay (with local collection only!). The story told - that it had been found in the sea - was clearly false, and my own prejudice against it was mostly because of that (ie if they're lying about where it came from, what else where they lying about?). The furniture aspect was another prejudice - so the Gaza Apollo probably is a genuine Roman bronze of archaising style, and probably served some sort of decorative function in a Roman seaside villa, but it is more likely to have been found whilst digging into the ground there than in the sea. Another strange story associated with this Gaza bronze was the finger being hacked off and taken to a jeweler as they thought it was made of gold - this is probably as many ancient bronzes were gilded to enhance their bling factor, and we can thus assume that some of the gold survived on this example.

With lower quality Roman replicas it is easy to identify them; the problems are greater when it comes to higher quality ones, as then too many scholars make the assumption that the higher the quality, the earlier the date ... an assumption that this Hellenistic Bronzes exhibition shows is clearly erroneous.

The Marathon Boy in Athens (not in the exhibition) is a good example of the issue. The bronze is a work of high quality, so since it was found in 1925 it has been labelled a Greek 'original' of the 330s BC.

His left hand is however slightly problematic.

"Obviously" this is "original" and he held a phiale in his hand was one explanation; another is that he was reworked by those naughty Romans and the hole to hold something dates from their barbarity ... The more I look at it, the more I suspect that it was a first century BC or later Greek work based on an earlier Greek sculpture, rather than a 4th century original, created by a Greek workshop for the flourishing export market. Whilst when it comes to marble copies we acknowledge that Greeks had a thriving market producing and exporting imitations of earlier works, for some reason we still seem to have a mental "block" when it comes to bronzes in assuming they didn't do the same thing with them. If anything bronze was easier to produce copies in, and Pliny's (probably slightly hyperbolic) statistics suggests that there were thousands of these in Roman cities.

The Marathon Boy is a nice sculpture, but I believe that Greek bronzes were exceptional not just 'good' - as the finds being made by the Underwater Ephoria show increasingly - and that makes me question the date and wonder whether this quality might not be Roman instead.

The famous 'Idolino' in the Palazzo Strozzi show is a good example of a work once considered an ancient original of genius, but now seen as interesting for having been found in the Renaissance and been influential on many artists - for example the Bronzino drawing below - but now considered a nice Roman copy of a Greek Ephebe but little more.

Ephebe (Idolino di Pesaro), 30 BC circa; bronze, con agemine in lamina di rame e aggiunte in piombo; cm 148. Firenze, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, inv. 1637 (in the Palazzo Strozzi exhibiton; image courtesy of them)

The statue still stands on its huge Renaissance base, looking ridiculously important ... but oddly enough the Palazzo Strozzi chose not to exhibit it with the various bronze attachments found with it (photo below). The attachments below, which were associated with his left hand, and probably formed a garland around him like the similar but much smaller Ephebe found in the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus at Pompeii, make it clear that he was more slightly cheesy interior design in the house of a slightly nouveau Roman and less 'great' art ... I suspect that's why the Florence Archaeological Museum insisted on keeping him on his elaborate Renaissance base, but not sending along these integral ancient parts of the 'work' to the Palazzo Strozzi:

Without the attachments, the Idolino is a "work of art" presented on the base to show how it has been greatly appreciated since it was found in 1530. With those attachments, it is clear that it was just a decorative knick-knack to the Romans, in the same genre as this tree-shaped bronze candelabrum, a detail of which shows that it too was of high quality, and would probably have been ordered from the same sorts of craftsmen that produced those Apollo tray-holders.

I realise that covering the exhibits I liked least in the exhibition is a little like children eating their vegetables first to get them "out of the way" but ... in many ways I found this aspect of the exhibition the most illuminating. More blog posts will cover the better bronzes.

The exhibition runs until the 15th June at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence: Potere e Pathos. It will transfer to The Getty as Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World with slightly different items included from July 28–November 1, 2015, before moving on to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The English and Italian editions of the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition catalogue do not appear to be easy to order online, but the Getty edition with the same photographs and text can be pre-ordered from the usual places: Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World (Amazon UK), Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World (Amazon US) etc.

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