Ahead of Defining Beauty, a new exhibition of Greek sculpture at the British Museum, Alastair Sooke explains how the Ancient Greeks changed the course of art history.
Summer, 1972: a holidaymaker from Rome is snorkelling off the coast of southern Italy. Idly scanning the seabed, he suddenly spots a hand sticking out of the sand. Convinced that it belongs to a corpse, he swims down to take a closer look. Touching it, he realises that it is made of metal.
In fact, the hand was part of a bronze statue of an athletic, naked, bearded warrior. A week later, the sculpture was brought to the surface along with a second, similar bronze found nearby. Very few ancient life-size bronzes survive. What were these spectacular creations?
One thing was certain: everything about them – the sensuous nudity, the aura of heroism, the virtuoso workmanship – identified them as products of ancient Greece. Art historians dated them to the middle of the fifth century BC.
Known today as the Riace bronzes, named after the coastal town closest to the point of their discovery, they are on permanent display in a museum in Reggio di Calabria around 50 miles farther south.
Recently, I saw the bronzes for the first time while filming a new television series about the art of ancient Greece that will be shown on BBC Four next month. The programme will form part of The Age of Heroes: Ancient Greece Uncovered, a BBC season timed to coincide with Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art, a major new exhibition opening at the British Museum on March 26.
The Riace bronzes (which, sadly, will not be travelling to Britain) exude poise and glamour, like film stars on a red carpet. Their details are extraordinary: veins snaking across muscles, intricate locks of hair, copper nipples, silver teeth – even foil eyelashes. They are masterpieces of Classical art.
But perhaps the most fascinating thing about them is that even one generation earlier, they couldn’t have been made – because, at that point, Greek artists still weren’t capable of fashioning art of such quality.
Greek art made in the century and a half before the Classical period (479BC-323BC) is commonly described as “Archaic”. Blocky and formal, it can also be ferociously powerful. But you would never call it “realistic” or “naturalistic”, as you would the Riace bronzes. One of the most common forms of Archaic art that survives is the standing male nude youth known as the kouros. Modelled on Egyptian sculpture, kouroi were erected as grave markers or as offerings to the gods. Each took up to a year to make, carved from a large block of marble.
Some were massive, such as the colossal 15ft kouros excavated in 1980 from the sanctuary of the goddess Hera on the island of Samos. Samos was one of a sprawling network of rival Greek city states and colonies scattered around the shores of the Mediterranean like “frogs around a pond”, as the philosopher Plato put it. By the end of the sixth century BC, roughly 20,000 kouroi lined their cemeteries and sanctuaries.
But then, at the turn of the fifth century BC, something remarkable happened. Greek artists became very good, fast. The icy, Archaic kouroi, standing stiffly to attention, began to thaw, as sculptors invigorated them with a new and believable sense of flesh and blood. Suddenly, dazzling, lifelike statues such as the Riace bronzes were possible.
Then, in 438BC, not long after the Riace warriors were cast, the Parthenon – a great temple to the goddess Athena – was erected on the Athenian Acropolis. It was a flashy expression of the wealth and power of democratic Athens under the outstanding statesman Pericles.
Grand sculptures of the gods, including the personification of the river Ilissos now in the British Museum, occupied the eastern and western pediments. Running around the building’s inner block was an elaborate frieze. And inside was a colossal statue of Athena, 40ft high, designed by Phidias, the master-artist who oversaw the temple’s decoration.
The transformation of Greek art during the fifth century BC, when artists pioneered a heightened, idealised naturalism, was so extraordinary and irrevocable that it has come to be known as the “Greek Miracle” or “Greek Revolution”. Yet, even now, nobody knows exactly why it happened when it did, in that particular place.
One popular theory credits the change to an advance in technique. Kouroi had always been carved out of marble, whereas the Riace warriors were cast in bronze, a more fluid, forgiving material that encourages greater freedom to experiment with poses and articulate fine details. Small-scale bronzes were common throughout the Mediterranean by about 900BC – but there is little evidence for life-size bronzes before the end of the sixth century BC, shortly before the Classical period began.
“By then, the capacity existed to produce large bronzes in complicated or subtle poses – beyond what was possible in stone or terracotta,” explains Peter Stewart, director of the Classical Art Research Centre at the University of Oxford. “Arguably this lent itself to the representation of athletes or dynamic warriors and heroes.”
At the same time, Stewart continues, “bronze-casting skill can’t be the cause of the stylistic change. But it went hand-in-hand with it, and may have facilitated it – maybe even encouraged patrons and artists to think what could be done.”
Of course, it is also possible that the leap forward in technique merely reflected wider social changes stimulating the Greek Revolution. Traditionally, the Classical style has often been yoked together with Athenian democracy, which began to emerge in 508BC. Was the golden age of Greek politics responsible for the great awakening in Greek art?
Actually, it’s hard to tie the two together persuasively without sounding woolly or misty-eyed about the intrinsic “nobility” of the Greeks. “We love democracy, we love naturalistic Greek art, and coincidentally the two things happened about the same time, give or take 30 years,” explains Stewart. “So there might be a connection. But this is a very idealising view of Greek art – and these days, this view is considered old-fashioned.”
Still, the political pre-eminence of Athens during the fifth century BC certainly had an important part to play in the progress of the Greek Revolution. In the final decades of the Archaic age, the great enemy of the Greeks was Persia. In 490BC, the Persians set foot on mainland Greece – resulting in the Battle of Marathon, which the Greeks won against the odds. In 480BC, though, the Persians returned, and this time they made it all the way to Athens, which they sacked. After the Persians were finally defeated, in 479BC, Athenian self-confidence soared. Under Pericles, the citizens of Athens decided to rebuild the devastated Acropolis, which was like an Athenian Ground Zero. Building began on the mammoth project of the Parthenon.
This is where Greek art comes in. The Athenians needed a way to define themselves in opposition to the “barbaric” Persians – and if you look at the sculptures of the Parthenon, this is their overriding purpose. Sculpted panels on the exterior of the building showed mythological scenes including gods fighting giants and heroes clashing with Amazons. In each case, Athenians would have understood that the “goodies” were proxies for Athenians, while the “baddies” represented the (vanquished) Persian menace.
Then there is the famous Parthenon Frieze. One of the most surprising things about it is that although we can see that it dramatises a great procession mingling citizens and gods, its precise significance still eludes art historians. But in the broadest sense, its message is clear.
The giveaway is the manner in which the figures have been sculpted. Look at the faces of the skilful horsemen who once thundered along the northern side of the temple. They are all remarkably similar: blank, uniformly beautiful, and idealised – the epitome of the Classical style. They aren’t portraits of individuals but a vision of a well-drilled community with a powerful new sense of identity. In other words, this was art as a glorious statement of political togetherness.
Technical experimentation and politics are two strong contenders as causes of the Greek Revolution. But there is another possible factor – and that is the ancient Greek obsession with the naked male body. In antiquity, Greek men raised eyebrows among non-Greeks because of their custom of exercising nude in public.
So perhaps the Greek Revolution was inspired by a desire to depict the male form in an ever more splendid, vigorous, and animated fashion. The Greeks loved to stage athletic contests at sanctuaries such as the famous Games held at Olympia every four years from 776BC. Victorious athletes were commemorated with statues, and some of these were strikingly innovative in artistic terms.
One famous Classical example was Myron’s fifth-century bronze Discobolus, or “discus-thrower”. Its spiralling composition, as a naked athlete prepares to hurl a discus, implies a payload of soon-to-be-released energy. A Roman marble copy of the lost original known as the Townley Discobolus is in the collection of the British Museum, where it will star in Defining Beauty.
Another wonderful example is the Motya charioteer, discovered on a small island off the western coast of Sicily in 1979. Only one word begins to do justice to this sculpture of a victorious charioteer revelling in his recent triumph: swagger. Fully aware of his sexual charisma, he’s dripping with attitude, like a strutting peacock.
In this case, he isn’t actually naked, but he might as well be: his diaphanous, high-belted charioteer’s robe shrink-wraps his muscles to emphasise every last contour and swelling – leaving very little to the imagination. Dating from the early years of the fifth century, the charioteer is a glorious apparition announcing the sudden victory of the Greek Revolution.
A few decades later, around 440-430BC, Polykleitos of Argos, one of the leading artists of his day, created a celebrated statue of a naked man known as the Doryphoros, or “spear-bearer”. Like Myron’s Discobolus, his lost original is known only through Roman copies. But a bronze reconstruction, cast at the start of the 1920s, will appear in the British Museum exhibition.
Polykleitos calibrated his sculpture using a complex system of measurements that he set down in a (lost) treatise known as the Canon. “Perfection,” he wrote, “arises in detail through many numbers.” In other words, the Doryphoros was an essay in proportion, balance, rhythm, symmetry and harmony – all hallmarks of Classical Greek art. It provided a blueprint for how a nude youth should look, so as to be as pleasing as possible to the Greek eye.
Art historians used to argue that the Greek Revolution grew directly out of the triumph of Athenian democracy. The truth is surely more complex. As well as political change and an exhilarating new sense of unique Greek identity, Greek art was influenced by technical innovations and a novel, sensuous awareness of the human body.
Moreover, it wasn’t only Greek athletes who competed: Greek artists were fierce rivals too, and terrific competitiveness spurred them on. Ultimately, their tussling one-upmanship helped to stimulate one of the greatest moments in the history of Western art.