Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Catch of the Day

Bronze statuary was as ubiquitous in the Classical world as Starbucks are today. Ever since people began to mix copper and tin to create bronze, people shaped that bronze into useful tools or decorative ornaments. Think of bronze as the ancient equivalent to plastic if you will. Weapons, armor, statues, lamps, plumbing and everything in between was fashioned out of bronze in the Greek and Roman world. From an archaeological standpoint, bronze can be a big deal. Bronze coins and fibulae are extremely common finds and can serve as time markers, but bronze statuary is very rare and when one is found it can yield much information. In late antiquity and the middles ages, bronze (in particular bronze statuary) was melted down and turned into something considered more useful at the time. As a result, ancient bronze statues are extremely rare today and any find can greatly increase our knowledge about ancient art.

Just a few days ago in Greece, a fisherman pulled a 2,200 year old bronze horseman out of the water. He did the right thing and contacted authorities immediately. Study of the statue is obviously just beginning, so we'll have to wait quite a while before any detailed information about it's significance is published. Any bronze statue found today is bound to divulge some information that either confirms or reshapes our current hypotheses in regards to art and archaeology. I hope that this statue is not an isolated find and leads to the discovery of a shipwreck. Many such statues that have been pulled from the sea have led to the discovery of new shipwreck sites. Some very famous statues, though, such as the "Victorious Youth" were isolated finds and no subsequent shipwrecks have been found. It is hypothesized that isolated statues such as this were perhaps thrown overboard in a storm. Whether the bronze horseman is an isolated find or not, I'm looking forward to the stories it has to tell about the ancient world.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Ancient World in Technicolor

The most common material associated with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome is marble. Anyone who has ever visited an art museum has seen countless Greek and Roman heads, torsos and full bodied statues in all of their white, shinny austerity. The image of the ancient white marble statue is extremely pervasive and most people don't realize the truth about these magnificent works of art. Ever since artists in the Renaissance began to look at ancient statuary for artistic influence, they utilized not only the themes and styles of ancient art, but the material as well. The statues that surfaced in the Renaissance for the most part were devoid of paint due to the ravages of time, and it's the starkness of marble that inspired artists of that time. In the following centuries though, it began to be understood that these statues were painted. Statues with their paint still intact began to be uncovered and a more complete picture of what the ancient world looked like began to take shape.

Archaeologists and scholars have known for a long time that the ancient world was one of color, not plain white marble. The public, though, to a large degree still imagines a Rome or Athens that was blindingly white in the mid-day sun. There have been some recent efforts to educate the public about ancient statue painting, the most comprehensive and successful being Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture in Classical Antiquity. This exhibit used state of the art technology to uncover the long lost paint and used fully sized and painted replicas of famous statues to get the point across. The result was amazing. Another recent effort is described in the article linked below. In this case, a team of archaeologists and scholars are attempting to reconstruct a statue of a wounded Amazon which has a considerable amount of paint in situ. The results of this team's work is bound to be another important addition to art history and archaeology.