Christo­pher Allen vis­its the Hel­lenic Mu­seum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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

Cal­abria, Italy

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