A Journey Back To The Golden Age Of Bronze

A remarkable Florentine exhibition has brought together many of the few surviving Hellenistic sculptures

Art Classics Italy
Neo-archaic “impostor”?  This Hellenistic “Statue of Apollo (Kouros)” imitates the style of six centuries earlier

“Speak, damn you, speak!” The Florentine sculptor Donatello commanded one of his own bronzes to talk in the early 15th century. A very similar emotion was felt by a Greek poet nearly 2,000 years earlier as he contemplated a recently-cast bronze statue around the year 350BC: “This bronze,” he wrote, “resembles someone who is about to speak: he is so imbued with character, and seems so alive.”

Walking round the statues exhibited at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, you understand that reaction. Many have an uncannily realistic appearance, especially the ones whose eyes are intact. Some of them may even have begun as plaster casts that were created directly from live male bodies. There are no female nudes in the exhibition, although there are a few women, mostly in the shape of goddesses such as Athena, but occasionally appearing as queens or aristocrats. The absence of the naked female form in bronze is the result of chance: there were bronzes depicting female nakedness in antiquity, and some of the marble sculptures that survive of Venus in various stages of undress were copies of bronze statues. But none of those original bronzes have survived.

Very few ancient bronzes have. It is one of the most remarkable achievements of this exhibition to have brought together more than 50 of them in a single space: they are usually scattered in museums ranging from Los Angeles to Tbilisi. By far the majority of antique bronzes have disappeared, although in antiquity, there were more of them than there were marble statues: at the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, for instance, there are almost three times as many works in bronze as there are in marble.

Bronze was the medium of choice for statues not just in private spaces but in public ones too. Different metals, such as copper and silver, could be used to make the lips and teeth of a bronze statue a different colour. Precious stones were used for the eyes. Today, when all bronze statues have lost their golden gleam and become a patchwork of shades of brown, purple and green, it is not easy to realise that it was bronze’s glitter that so attracted the ancients.

The exhibition explicitly restricts itself to bronzes that date from the Hellenistic age: a period which is loosely defined as the era from the fourth to the first century BC, and sometimes more precisely as running from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the Battle of Actium in 31 AD, when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and established himself as sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, having praised extravagantly the work of the classical age in Greece, dismissed the painting and sculpture of the subsequent period with the brusque and damning phrase “and then art stopped”.

Pliny was quite wrong. While there is a lot of derivative work from the Hellenistic Age, there is more original sculpture, and it has a very distinctive style. It is emotionally more intense, more “baroque” than its classical antecedents. Its figures are more individual, less formulaic, less perfect. The strange, twisted pose of The Dancing Satyr is a good example of the sort of novelties Hellenistic artists introduced. The Dancing Satyr is a long way from the cool classicism characteristic of the Parthenon frieze, for example, even when Pheidias and his assistants are depicting centaurs doing battle with people.

So is the strangely moving statue of The Seated Boxer, which was discovered during excavations on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885. For reasons no one understands, this bronze was deliberately buried in antiquity. It was a public statue made to honour an individual athlete, whose identity would have been given by the inscription on its now-lost base. And yet its effect is not to celebrate either the individual or the sport of boxing. To modern eyes, it seems more like a salutary warning against the dangers inherent in a career as a boxer. The fighter is shown as past his prime. He is covered in bruises and wounds, bloodied and exhausted. He evokes pity rather than respect. The artist seems to have been much more interested in evoking the truth of what boxing did to a man’s body, and the effects of a life of constant bludgeoning both on his physique and on his character, than in depicting the sportsman as hero.

Many bronzes made to stand as life-size or larger than life-size figures survive only as heads. Some of these have unusually intense expressions. The power of the gaze in the portrait of Seuthes III is astonishing. With flowing beard and longer hair than would be seen in any classical portrait, he looks more barbarian than regal. But then that’s probably what the Greek sculptor thought he was.

There is also the wonderful Worried Man. He was a citizen, rather than a king, from the island of Delos, and he looks extremely anxious. But his expression, according to R.R.R. Smith’s valuable essay in the show’s readable and erudite catalogue, would have conveyed to its original audience not anxiety but his intense concern for the public good.

Being accorded a bronze statue by a city was a very high honour for an individual citizen, and it was usually the result of a spectacular act of public service, such as the donation of funds for a public building. While the city granted the honour, it did not pay for the statue: the person who was going to be immortalised in bronze was expected to foot the bill for that. And the bill was big: 3,000 drachmas was the standard price in the 3rd century BC, about ten times the annual wage of a labourer and a very substantial sum even for a rich citizen.

There are some smaller statues in the show of people who were not kings or aristocrats or very wealthy merchants: there is, for instance, a sculpture of someone who seems to be a humble artisan, complete with notebook and short tunic. Hellenistic artists depicted people who, in the classical age, would never have been the subjects of statues: drunken old women, beggars, and cripples. Today, these statues exist only in marble copies, not in the bronze originals, so they are not in the exhibition, but they raise the question of whether, during the Hellenistic period, there was a “democratisation” of art, a deliberate move away from the aristocratic cult of perfection, perhaps a sort of subconscious attempt to compensate for the extinction of actual democracies by the military dictatorships established by Alexander the Great’s generals and their successors.

The Christians of the Dark Ages detested pagan bronzes. Churchmen suspected them of harbouring diabolical powers. Bronze was valuable for the casting of bells and later for cannon, and medieval Christians had no qualms whatever about consigning what would now be considered great masterpieces to furnaces in order to be able to re-use the metal. When the knights and soldiers of the Crusading army burst into Constantinople in 1204, the Venetians appropriated four ancient Greek bronze horses and took them back to place on the balcony of St Mark’s Basilica. But the mainly Frankish army destroyed many hundreds of bronze statues, including a giant statute of Hercules created by Lysippos, one of the greatest sculptors of all antiquity. Lysippos, who worked only in bronze, was Alexander the Great’s personal artist. He produced 1,500 bronzes in the course of a career that may have lasted more than 50 years. Not one of his bronzes has survived.

Many of the bronzes in this glorious exhibition are the result of chance finds by fishermen whose nets got caught on a statue which was then hauled to the surface. That’s how, just 18 years ago, The Dancing Satyr was discovered. The number of bronzes that have been found in the sea is a testament to the ancient trade in statues: the artists were mostly in the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, but from the second century BC, the people with the money to buy them were mostly in Italy. So bronze figures were sent from Greece and Asia Minor to Rome and other Italian cities. Fortunately for us, a few of them were sunk by storms and ended up at the bottom of the Mediterranean, thereby escaping destruction in medieval furnaces. It is amazing how little damage has been done to these works by spending 2,000 years or more at the bottom of the Mediterranean: many of them emerge from restoration miraculously intact.

In the Roman world, the demand for “old master” bronzes outstripped the supply. There is at least one surviving example of a bronze statue which was made to look as if it had been cast in the 5th century BC — right down to using old-fashioned casting techniques — but which analysis of the lead content of the bronze shows must have been created several hundred years later, probably in the first century BC. It is hard to resist the conclusion that it was created as a forgery. As Christopher Hallett argues, in one of the most interesting contributions to the catalogue, the huge sums paid by the Romans for original classical sculptures ensured that the incentives for faking works were at least as strong in the ancient world as they are today.

There are two very beautiful statues of Apollo in the “Archaic” style of the 6th century BC in the exhibition: both portray the god in the stiff pose appropriate to the early period. But both were in fact cast in the first century BC or later. Hallett wonders “how many more Hellenic or Roman ‘imposters’ remain undetected amongst our surviving corpus of Archaic and Classical statuary”. He concludes that no one has any idea.

Does it matter that many of the ancient bronzes seem to have been made with the explicit intention of deceiving people as to their age and provenance? Aesthetically, it is hard to believe that it does. Of course, the ancients would not have appreciated the discovery that they had been fooled any more than we do. Realising that a bronze was not the original “old master” work that it appeared to be would have had the same effect on them that finding out that, say, a Rubens drawing is actually one of Eric Hebborn’s fakes has on us. But today, we can appreciate ancient forgeries for what they are: marvellous works of art. That is something which it is more or less impossible for us to do when confronted by something, no matter how beautiful, which we know to be a contemporary fake. The discovery that a drawing, a painting or a sculpture is a recent forgery is enough to destroy not just its financial but its aesthetic value. Why that should be so is an interesting and puzzling question.

The Hellenistic era was the period of Epicureanism, that most modern of ancient philosophies. The world, according to Epicurus, has no purpose: it is nothing more than atoms randomly moving across the void. There are no gods, there is no soul, and pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the highest, if not the only, goods available to human kind. Might some Hellenistic bronzes be seen as an artistic equivalent of Epicureanism, indulging in aesthetic pleasure for its own sake, untroubled by concerns about the vengeance of the gods? Many Hellenistic sculptures are, as this remarkable show demonstrates, celebrations of the pleasures, and the foibles, of earthly life. They are also the result of the most extraordinary virtuoso skill. If you love art and can get to the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence before June 21, when this exhibition closes, you certainly should. It is also going to the National Gallery in Washington and to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But it is not coming to London — and that is a very great pity.