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First in a series of posts examining the Riace Bronzes
In 1972, an amateur diver swimming off the coast of Riace in Calabria made the discovery of a lifetime. Jutting from the sand of the seafloor was an arm in bronze. Stefano Mariottini had found the first of two magnificent statues dating from the dawn of the classical age of ancient Greek sculpture.
The Riace warriors, or Riace bronzes, as they have come to be known, depict two heavily muscled warriors standing in martial contrapposto. Their intended subjects a mystery, they are known simply as Statue A and Statue B. Both depict men in the fullness of maturity, with thick beards hinting at long decades of battle and fighting form maintained even into late middle age. They were fashioned sometime between 460 and 420 B.C.
The discovery of these sculptures sent immediate ripples through the worlds of art and archaeology. The mystery of their origin, the mastery of their fabrication, and their fearsome appearance has provoked a peculiar kind of fascination from professionals and public alike, inspiring postage stamps, full-size reproductions, derivative artworks, and a great deal of speculation and reaction. In 1986 a sculptor called Elizabeth Frink, reacting to their "sinister" nature, created a set of statues inspired by the Riaces; four men rendered in impressionistic strokes, as if slapped together from clay-like slurry, the crudeness of their proportions intending to suggest vulnerability. Distinguished art critic Martin Gayford wrote that they came from a "violent and terrible world." Peter Hitchens, in a famous review of the popular book and television series A Song of Ice and Fire, lingers on the Riace Bronzes as an image of savagery to which he compares the bleak pseudo-medieval society of George R. R. Martin, saying "... these two images, the Riace Bronzes, suggest that this lost society may well have been violent and cruel quite beyond our ability to imagine."
Rather than thinking these reactions exaggerated, I find them understandable, if not appropriate, because these contemporary observers have been MOGGED.
To understand these reactions, we must first attempt to see the Bronzes through the eyes of the ancient Greeks. Standing six feet nine inches tall, and completely nude, they are indeed monumental. One is immediately struck by the exactness of their musculature. In proportion, though the physiques are heroic, there is no exaggeration. Where sculptors of later ages, including the Renaissance, might have exaggerated poses or over-emphasized certain musculatures in virtuosic displays, the Riace Bronzes maintain the restraint and idealization of the archaic period of Greek sculpture, with the added natural depiction of human form which had been perfected at the beginning of the Classical age. The effect is one of great power and gravity suggesting, rather than the artistic longing and reaching of later ages of art, the unmovable tenacity of the hoplite front rank. When looking at the Riace Bronzes we can easily imagine the advantage offered in formation combat by warriors possessed of similar powers of inertia on the defense, and crushing bodily mass on the attack. These, then, are not mere objects of decoration, which is how contemporary viewers experience them, but models for immediate inspiration of fighting men!
Indeed, that warriors should not only observe, but emulate statues like the Bronzes is apparent when one examines the particulars of warfare and armament in the Greek classical age. City states of this era fought land battles in formations of warriors known as the phalanx. Each man, or hoplite, was responsible for providing his own arms and armor, which included spear, shield, helmet, and thorax, or breastplate. The thorax, for those who had the means, would be made from bronze, weighing between 30 and 40 pounds, exactly fitted to the torso of each wearer for comfort and protection. Typically, the bronze thorax would be fashioned with a depiction of idealized musculature, including pectorals and well-conditioned abdominals. Therefore, one would see the Greek warrior armed for battle as half man and half statue, an animated being of blood and metal. The warrior in donning his armor replaces his skin with a hard surface adapted for close combat, and becomes like the bronze gods enshrined in the high temples of the city.
Indeed, an understanding of fluid metamorphosis between man and statue is central to the Greek imagination, demonstrating a fascination with the artist's power to create lifelike images but perhaps also an uneasiness with the ability of rendered form to emulate the qualities of life. To the archaic mind, the development of the ability to render lifelike human figures, so unprecedented and unique in the ancient world, must have seemed a form of magic. Greek myth abounds with stories of mortals changed into statues and back again, or statues aquiring the powers of not only of form but life and movement. The most typical of these is Talos, the legendary bronze automaton of Cretan myth, but also there are the many life-like creations of the god Hephaestus, and of course Pygmalion, who achieved the dream of every anime enthusiast, which is to shun women of flesh and blood, create a waifu, and marry her. Then there is one of the oldest and most enduringly fascinating Greek myths of all, that of the gorgon Medusa, who had the power to cast men into stone, and whose image, still possessed of its typifying power, became a talisman and symbol of terror throughout the Greek Mediterranean world.
Returning to the Bronzes, we see this interplay between image and life expressed in the form of a union of technical artifice and human physical development. The fullness and idealized precision of the musculature gives a distinctly mechanical effect, like looking at a powerful motorcycle or curving Italian sports car, but the details are fully human. The back muscles of Statue A, for example, are visibly tensed, while the pectorals are relaxed. The subjects themselves are expressive of their individual personalities. Statue A is fierce and grim, a laconic giant about to spit a challenge, while Statue B is older, somewhat softer but more massive in limb, and has a contemplative, even kind, expression. We imagine: "Did they face each other? Were they rivals? Were they frens?" We can only conjecture.
What is inescapably clear is that the culture that produced the Bronzes possessed complete mastery of mathematical proportion, sculpture, metal-casting, and human physical development. Indeed the artistry and discipline, to say nothing of the expenditure of resources required to craft lifelike bronze statuary was the same required to maintain an arms industry, and these capabilities as well are the same required to maintain a program of human development capable of forming the idea of the ideal physique. Bronze makes weapons and gods who inspire men, and men in turn make themselves into the image of the gods. There is no division between any of these domains of excellence; they are united in pursuit of the same goal.
The classical Greek bronze industries would be complemented with a society-wide training regime which raised physical development to the status of religious expression. In every Greek city state of the classical age, intense physical training for all citizens began at a young age, and continued into maturity. Running, gymnastics, lifting, rowing, and calisthenics were routine, as was combat training which included wrestling, boxing, and exercises with arms and armor. Standards of physical development were enforced with periodic inspections in which men were required to stand naked and submit their physiques for judgement. The soft, fat, or underdeveloped would be fined and shamed. At the apex of Greek physical culture were the Olympic games, which were not merely athletic competitions, but religious festivals held in honor of Zeus, the great sky-father.
The Greek society-wide program of physical culture accounts for the extraordinary accuracy of the musculature exhibited by the Riace Bronzes, and the modern appearance of their physiques. I will explain further. When looking at Renaissance sculpture, the musculature, though rendered with great skill, is sometimes unbalanced and gives the modern viewer a sense of historical distance which mars the effect. For example Cellini's Perseus, for all its genius, has underdeveloped shoulders and neck compared to the mass of the torso. The Bronzes, in contrast, have the wide shoulders and prominent deltoids of a champion javelin thrower or boxer; the silhouette is familiar from our experience with watching modern sports. This greatly enhances their lifelike effect and contributes to the "shock of recognition" many viewers experience when seeing them for the first time, in the split second where the mind is fooled and one sees them as living beings. Indeed the 'sinister nature' alluded to by art critics depends on this ambiguity. One imagines "What if these statue were to come to life? Would they CHIMP????" In this respect, if it was the intention of the artist to create a work that blurs the boundary between inert matter and life, the Bronzes remain entirely successful.
Here it must be noted a second problem presented by the Riace Bronzes for modern viewers. Confronted with representatives of this demanding physical culture, viewers will be made aware of their own bodies. Those who admire the Bronzes will be inspired, but those prone to feelings of inadequacy and hateful memories of gym class will tend to reflect feelings of self-disgust as resentment directed back at the statues. They are intolerably hard and beautiful for many in this present age.
The reason for the accuracy of the Bronze's physiques then, as BAP points out, is in part the ubiquitous physical culture of the classical Greeks, which, beginning for reasons of defense, imposed regimes of development across as many men as possible within the polis, resulting in the necessary abundance of models required for artists to typify the ideal physique. Correspondingly, the culture of pursuit of the ideal, which was driven by competition and a tendency to compare and form judgements, placed the question of strength and aesthetic development at the very center of social concern, providing impetus for the expression and depiction of the ideal form. Therefore the Bronzes are a symbol of union: only a society which unified all programs of development to the degree exhibited by the classical Greeks could have been capable of producing objects such as the Bronzes, in which human elements are joined to such an excellent degree with a rational program of techne.
Incidentally, these cycles of mutual development in classical Greece; in the arts of arms production, statuary, metallurgy, mathematics, physical culture, and warfare, suggest a relationship with technology that drove individual human advancement rather than abolishing it. The corrosive effects of modern technology are beyond the scope of this discussion (see the excellent work by James Poulos) but for those who are interested in restoring a mutually beneficial relationship between technology and man, the culture of the Greeks can point the way. Structuralist thinkers will tend to believe that the material conditions of the Greek peninsula led inevitably to advancement. The theory being that city-states separated by rough geography were subjected to extreme pressures of competition, especially militarily, leading to impetus for innovation and eventually their ascendancy. However, while it is true that structural forces set the stage and provided incentives for development, the success of Greek culture was by no means a foregone conclusion. Why, for example, did this culture not simply implode from infighting, or languish in obscurity? Why did it not arise someplace else with similar conditions? How were the Greeks during this period able to unite their programs of development across so many domains, a feat that we today, though possessed of so many powers unavailable to them, are not able to replicate? I say the answer lies in the Greek genius for fundamental understanding. Their probing philosophy, which was always concerned with categorization and recognition of Arete, created a program of organization in which all the arts were subordinated and unified to the ideal of their civilization. If this is true, our path forward consists in a similar fundamental understanding and reorganization, and should be similarly possible irrespective of material conditions.
Indeed, this unity of arts, despite the merits I have outlined, is precisely at the heart of so much contemporary unease with the Riace Bronzes. Certainly Peter Hitchens is concerned not so much with the form of the statues themselves, but with what they seem to imply about the nature of ancient classical Greece. I think the idea that critics like Hitchens and Gayford are offended and disturbed by is that the absolute epitome of statuary available to us from the golden age of Greek art should be a depiction and glorification of men of war.
For these critics, it is as if an atom bomb with religious markings had been dredged from the bottom of the sea. For that is what these warriors represented: the apex of destructive force in that particular period of history. As a land force, in that time and place, the Greek fighting men in their phalanx were nigh-unstoppable when faced against non-Greek adversaries. Xenophon’s Anabasis gives account of how ten thousand Greek mercenaries, stranded in Asia Minor, made their way home, defeating every hostile tribe in 3,000 miles of brutal march while suffering minimal casualties. Less than 70 years later, Alexander’s phalanxes would emerge from the Greek peninsula to conquer half the world. Therefore, as a symbol of force, the Bronzes are to some degree intolerable. As with atomic bombs, one imagines art critics looking nervously to the Mediterranean and wondering “How many more of these are out there?”
That this symbol of force should be an object of veneration, created as it was with such care and mastery, and placed in a temple for all to see, is unsettling to many in our modern democratic age. Despite the fact that our current world order began with America’s military victories in the Second World War, and is sustained in large part because of the American military’s capacity to guarantee free trade and in many cases coerce global cooperation, force is viewed with abhorrence. Violence is the ultimate inequality. Critics like Gayford and Hitchens, and many others, would seem to prefer a view of society which presents clear horizons, where the unseen violences, and here I allude to not only the military forces but the considerable social and sexual violences that sustain the myths of our age, are hidden beneath the surface. For viewers such as these, the Bronze’s nakedness presents a grave dilemma: their naked strength, the challenge they offer, exposed for all to see, their lack of of shame, indeed their pride in their gifts is unseemly for contemporary viewers. Like Victorian ladies, they are offended that the realities of life might be on full display in a place of worship for everyone to see.
Then there is the issue of their attractive power, a subsequent consequence of their nakedness. Frink acknowledges that the Bronzes are “very beautiful.” Gayford himself calls them the “world’s greatest male nudes.” The Bronzes, as two exquisitely physical men in the prime of life, are symbols of specifically male beauty made all the more powerful by their capacity to attract and reproduce. As I have argued, the statues were templates for warriors, and I extend this idea to say they were fathers to men. They reproduced themselves through a process of emulation. Men strived to take on their appearance and came to resemble them as children do with their progenitors. Despite attempts by modern viewers to co-opt the beauty of the Bronzes into fruitless modes of physical expression that safely re-route their power into forms that are acceptable to the present age, their creative power, and virile power to make claims upon the world endures. The Bronzes will not be subordinated.
This then, is unspoken component of the critic’s uneasiness: that these pieces of art, which lay unknown on the bottom of the sea for two millenia, should force them to accept contradiction. If the Bronzes were misshapen things like Elizabeth Frink’s derivatives, they would be easy to dismiss. But they are not. They are signs of a wholly integrated age of development, expansion, and yes, hierarchy, and because of this (not despite this) they are beautiful, and for this reason they inspire insecurity about the present state of things. Is power in our present age similarly public, similarly venerated, and similarly attractive? To ask the question is to answer it: democratic participation has been in decline around the globe for many decades, the great irony being that democracy originated with the Attic Greeks, just as the Bronzes did. For many in the present age, it is intolerable that our modern, and thus superior, understanding of human nature should be undermined by the past, as the Bronzes seem to threaten to do.
It is for this reason that we see such strenuous attempts to sanitize the ancient world and make it conform to our modern myths. The current scholarly preoccupation (so triumphantly presented 😂) with polychromatic statuary is an example of this. However, the Bronzes show that the ancient world will not cooperate with the present age, will not be re-written as a gay cosmopolitan empire. The Bronzes stand unmoved. They will not be subordinated, and neither will history. Uncomfortable discoveries will continue to be dredged from beneath the surface, and the art and thought of ancient Greece will continue to speak for itself and impose itself upon the world.
To conclude, I propose a new program of meaning for the Riace Bronzes. This is an exhortation for young men. The Bronzes must have their ancient flicker of life rekindled, their latent powers given avenue once again to breathe and move throughout the world. They must make new heroic sons. Our “uncanny old friends” must provide a template for ascent that begins with the body and ends with God, which furthermore is embedded in a program of total integrated development, an Apollo program for the spirit. For those who would dare great things, as the Greeks did, the Bronzes point the way. Remember that they pre-dated Alexander’s conquests by one hundred years. Art such as this once made the men who shook the world. It can (and will!) do so once again.
Part II in this series will explore the Bronzes in relation to monsters that, long restrained, are now escaped