The Shock of the Old

April 2015

The following extract, about a statue of a Greek warrior in the archaeological museum of Agrigento in Sicily, is taken from Mediterranean Winter by Robert D. Kaplan: ‘All that remains of this statue is a helmeted head and torso. The arms are missing, and, except for part of a thigh, so are the legs. Yet the statue evokes all the horror of the Iliad. It captures the process of falling, mortally wounded, in a manner that takes one’s breath away. The torso, full of vigorous muscular mass, shows a contracted abdomen. The eyes seem set for one last effort before death.’ There is indeed little left of this work, and if the experts had not found a way of exhibiting it so as to make clear its subject — a warrior at the moment of being slain in battle — I doubt whether I could have made much of it at all. The fragments are held by wire in a suggestive relation with each other and at a particular angle to the ground. Looking at the reconstruction I was convinced by Kaplan’s view, and my breath was duly taken away. I wonder, though, how much its fragmentary nature added to the sense of pathos. The damage done by centuries buried in the earth, the loss of so much, rhymes perfectly with the statue’s concentration on mortality and defeat. We (perhaps I should say ‘I’) have a taste for ruins and fragments, and their suggestive melancholy.

    We also view ancient statues and buildings through the lens of our expectations and assumptions; it cannot be otherwise, but new knowledge can make us revise and modify how we look. One of the great shifts in understanding of the ancient world was achieved by the eighteenth-century German archaeologist and art historian, Winckelmann, who established by careful examination for the first time the difference between Greek, Greco-Roman and Roman sculptures. Unusually in an age which assumed Roman culture to be ne plus ultra, he regarded the Greek works that he found in the Papal collections (the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön, and the Belvedere Torso, for example), as the perfection of ancient statuary and art. Bare white marble was seen as the characteristic material for ancient statues and temples.

   During the years of the Grand Tour British visitors to Italy bought and took home an enormous collection of classical statues; some were genuine, some were reconstructions, some good copies, others were fakes; many of them were casts, lovingly exact plaster copies of original works, made with great care and skill. After standing in the corridors and galleries of stately homes, these casts fell from favour, and many of them have been for decades gathering dust in the back rooms of museums. Last year the V&A drew attention to its wonderful collection of these objects by reopening its Cast Gallery, to great acclaim. Why go to Florence when you can see Michelangelo’s ‘David’ in South Kensington?

   And now there are two exhibitions devoted to ancient sculptures, and both of them are aimed at revising our ways of thinking about their subject, and at challenging the white marble view of ancient statuary. Gods in Colour is at the Cast Gallery of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum (free, till June). It has long been understood in a general way that ancient statues in their original state were not white, bleached and weathered. German scholars have spent the last two decades analysing microscopic traces on their surfaces to recreate as accurately as possible how they might have looked when covered in bright paint. Public statues in the ancient world were usually seen from afar (rather than studied close-up in museums), so they were designed to be as eye-catching as possible in the polychrome brilliance. The reconstructions on show are quite shockingly colourful, indeed thoroughly garish, seeming more suitable for the fairground than a temple or a public square.

   Larger in scope and aim is Defining Beauty at the British Museum (till 5 July). Here too I gather that one aim is to introduce us to Gods in Colour. And here we can also see the Belvedere Torso, lent by the Vatican Galleries, which Winckelmann and Michelangelo so admired, just as much a battered, off-white fragment as the warrior in Agrigento, and just as movingly evocative of human strength and endurance, and the remorseless passage of time.