‘One of the most arresting jobs of ancient – as well as modern – sculptures was to be some kind of antidote to death and loss.’ – How Do We Look by Mary Beard

October 12, 2018 at 1:09 pm (Art, History)

  What a lovely gift to art lovers  and history buffs this book is! Renowned classicist Mary Beard has ranged far and wide to set before our eyes stunning images of ancient art. In some cases, the works and locales are familiar – Greece, Rome, Egypt – but even in these places, she introduces us to previously unseen objects – unseen by me, at any rate. Some examples:

 

This is the mummy of a Greek youth, between the ages of 19 and 21. It is owned by the British Museum. It dates from some time in the second century AD. The inscription on the painted stucco case reads: “Artemidoros – Farewell.”

The Boxer_of_Quirinal, dated somewhere between 330 and 50 BCE

Unlike the heroic, flawless athletes usually depicted in classical sculpture, this boxer is battered by past injuries and seems to be nearing the end of his career as a pugilist.

Boxing was always an important part of the ancient athletic repertoire, and the conceit of this sculpture is that the man must once have had a fit and toned body – but it has really suffered. The anonymous artist has focused on a wreck of a human being, devoting all his skill to a broken nose and cauliflower ears, flabby from all those blows. In fact, he appears to be still bleeding from fresh wounds. The blood is shown in copper and the bruises on his cheeks are brought out by a slightly different colour of a slightly different bronze alloy. It is almost as if the  bronze has become the mans skin.

Mary Beard, in How Do We Look

Compare him, for instance, to the Belvedere Apollo, the subject of Johann Winkelmann‘s rapturous description:

In gazing upon this masterpiece of art, I forget all else, and I myself adopt an elevated stance, in order to be worthy of gazing upon it. My chest seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those I have seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and to the Lycian groves, places Apollo honored with his presence—for my figure seems to take on life and movement, like Pygmalion’s beauty.

Back to  the subject of rough sport: Behold the Olmec Wrestler:

Made of basalt and described as nearly life size, this piece was found  by a farmer in 1933 in Veracruz, Mexico. (One is tempted to imagine his astonishment when, upon turning up a clod of earth, he finds himself confronted by this strange, otherworldly object.) There being little or no archaeological context with which to work, the Wrestler is extremely difficult to date – anywhere from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. He is called a wrestler for lack of anything else to call him. He may not be a wrestler. He may even be a fake. If he is, he’s a mighty compelling one.

Probably the single most amazing surviving art from the Olmec culture – and certifiably genuine – is represented by the gigantic heads:

These heads, seventeen of which have this far been recovered, vary in height from between four and five feet to just over eleven feet. At least one weighs as much as fifty tons.

Above you see one of the the La Venta Heads. There are three more, located at La Venta Park, a premier archaeological site in Mexico.

Again, Mary Beard:

It is hard not to feel just a little bit moved by the close encounter with an image of a person from the distant past. Despite that distance in time, and despite the fact that he is, after all, just a face of stone, it is hard not to feel some sense of shared humanity.

But oh, the questions raised and not answered by this strange artifact of a remote time and place:

Ever since it was rediscovered in 1939, it has defied explanation. Why is it so big? Was he a ruler or perhaps a god? Was it a portrait of a particular individual, or something much less specific than that?Why is it just a head – and not even a complete one at that, but severed at the chin? And what on earth was the image for? It was carved using only stone tools, out of a single block of basalt that came from more than fifty miles away from where the head was found. It could not have been made without huge amounts of time, effort and human resources. But why?

Many other such phenomena are surveyed in this slender volume, packed as it is with riches. How Do We Look is a companion to the tv series Civilizations: From the Ancient to the Modern:

Episode Two featuring Mary Beard can be viewed in its entirety here.

 

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