Christopher Allen visits the Hellenic Museum
Gods, Myths & Mortals: Greek Treasures Across the Millennia Hellenic Museum, Melbourne Riace Warriors Archaeological Museum, Reggio di Calabria, Italy
THERE are a few places in the world — and many of them are in Italy — that are worth visiting for one or two buildings, sculptures or paintings. The most extreme case is perhaps the little Tuscan village of Monterchi, notable only for having a masterpiece by Piero della Francesca, the Madonna del Parto. You get off a bus in the middle of nowhere and walk for a half-hour along country roads, but it’s well worth the effort.
The city of Messina, destroyed in the earthquake of 1908, then badly bombed during World War II, is the gateway to Sicily when crossing from the mainland, but otherwise is mainly of interest for a regional museum that holds two late paintings by Caravaggio: the beautiful Adoration of the Shepherds and one of the artist’s greatest works, The Raising of Lazarus, in which among other things he recalls the Christ of The Calling of St Matthew in Rome.
Across the strait is a city that has even less to recommend it than Messina: Reggio di Calabria, once the Greek Rhegion, ally of Athens during the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, but today a testimony to unplanned and too often unfinished urban development.
Yet Reggio has a single artistic attraction that makes it more than worth the visit: the socalled Riace Warriors.
These two bronze statues were discovered by chance by an amateur diver in 1972 and are now newly exhibited after a long restoration. We are still not sure where they were made or installed, why they were moved or where they were going — although the chances are that they were on their way from Greece or southern Italy to Rome or perhaps from Rome to Constantinople — but it seems that the ship went down in a storm and they lay undisturbed on the seabed for the next 15 to 20 centuries.
The significance of the discovery is hard to exaggerate. Most of the great freestanding statues of the classical period, unlike the Archaic kouroi and temple reliefs that continued to be executed in marble, were cast in bronze.
In due course a great many of these were acquired by the Romans and moved to Italy. After the fall of Rome, the barbarians saw in these masterpieces merely a source of a valuable alloy, and almost all were melted down. Today, only a handful of large bronze statues of the classical period survive.
Fortunately, the popularity of these great works ensured that marble copies were made in the Roman period, and in most cases these are what we have to rely on today. Such copies are naturally variable in their skill and sensitivity: some are full of life and feeling, others leaden and inert. But even in the best cases, it is like reading poetry in translation. One gets the general idea and some sense of the imagery and themes, but subtlety of verbal music and the micro-thoughts that arise from the precise choice of words and syntactic order are necessarily lost.
The contrast between these two figures and the Doryphoros in the Archaeological Museum at Naples is telling, especially as the latter represents, if not an advance in any simplistic sense, at least a more mature and complete expression of the classical ideal of the figure. For while in each of the Riace figures the weight is dropped on to one leg, thus achieving the formal unity of a single centre of gravity and a single serpentine line from head to foot, the sculptors who made them hesitated to embrace the consequences of this formal innovation.
In fact, when we drop our weight on to one leg, the pelvic girdle tends to turn away towards the non-weight-bearing leg. But the upper part of the torso tends to turn back, in compensation, to face in the same direction as the weight-bearing leg, thus creating the gentle twist — the offsetting of the axes of pelvic and shoulder girdles — known as contrapposto.
One of two Riace Warrior bronzes, on display in Reggio di