Thursday, May 07, 2009

Classical Era Greek and Roman Statuary.

Which sounds like a title for a fairly significant research paper, but let's be serious for a minute.

I've been at the art history books again (still slogging through "30,000 Years of Art", which may take me thirty thousand years to read), and in the midst of my bitchings about how even the unbiased books are biased toward western civilization, I actually learned something. Imagine that!

For many years, decades, really, I've looked at statues like this.

And I've wondered why, if the Greeks were supposedly such awesome sculptors, their technique sucked so badly. See that block of marble, between the statue's right hand and his hip? What the hell's up with that? That's essentially holding his arm on. Probably a third (maybe more, I doubt I've done an exhaustive survey) of existing marble statues from the era have little blocks like that, in different places, holding the thing together. Here's another.

This time the block is between her leg and the towel/toga thing she's holding, but it's still holding the statue together. My thinking went something like 'if they're such bloody geniuses, why didn't they plan their statues better??' And for many years, all my life I've been aware of classical statues, I've had rather a bad attitude toward the Greeks and figured the art history people were just freaking out for no reason, sort of like their reaction to Andy Warhol.

And I blew it off.

Then, this week, I'm reading my new, western-biased art history book, and it's full of this freaking statuary, planned really badly with little blocks all over, and it starts talking about how most Greek statues weren't marble. They were bronze.

If they were bronze, why in hell are we looking at all this marble, you may well ask yourself. I did.

Well. Turns out most of the marble statuary we've got isn't really Greek. It's ROMAN. The Romans copied the hell out of Greek statues, and stuck them everywhere. In their houses, in their gardens, in public buildings, as monuments, as decorations, as anything you can think of. And the Romans were copying BRONZE statues, with MARBLE. Well duh. There's the problem right there.

Think about it. Bronze is a METAL. Marble's a ROCK. Different tensile strengths, different failure rates, different, well, everything. OF COURSE the marble copies of the bronzes are gonna need extra mass to hold them together. In fact, given that information, the Romans were actually pretty clever in how they 'left in' marble. It's an easy solution to a complex problem.

Here, this gives a better idea.

Marble on the left, bronze on the right. You can see clearly how and why they left all that clumsy stuff in there.

Finally, it makes sense.

Imagine copying this in marble.

This is Zeus. It's assumed he had a lightning bolt - probably gold and therefore long ago looted - in his right hand, about to be thrown like a javelin. He's in bronze, of course. If you tried to copy him in marble, his arms would fall off. It'd never happen.

Most of the ancient Greek bronzes are gone, and we only know them from their Roman copies. Art history types label a lot of Roman-manufacture copies as Greek statues, and it's extremely confusing - I had to do some careful reading of captions and details to know just where these statues came from. (Most are off Wikipedia Commons.) Long ago, the bronzes were smelted down for the value of their metal, while the marble lingered, often being used as rubble fill for buildings, or other depressing ends for such great craftsmanship. We have recovered enough Greek bronzes, though - often from shipwrecks, when Roman ships were taking looted art to Rome after they'd conquered Greece - to have a pretty good picture of how it all worked.

Maybe the Greek sculptors weren't as lame as I first thought.

Maybe you learned something today.

Hope it wasn't too painful.


Barbara said...

Now that makes perfect sense. You are a fountain of knowledge. I learn something, look at yarn stuff, and get to see cute Goob pix--an all-purpose blog.

Louiz said...

Yaeh, and don't forget the garish colours the Greeks painted their statues in... which paint has faded/flaked off since then. They were a real treat for the eyes originally...

Emily said...

Well, gah. I never thought about it until you brought it up. Boy, I learn something every time I read your blog. I am in total awe of you. (Prostration on floor here.)

Alwen said...

I read too much science fiction. I look at that Roman marble & think "Giant annelid is sucking on the back of his leg! Ahhhh!"

Amy Lane said...

Nope--nothing popped in my head when I read your blog--nothing painful at all! That was pretty awesome!

Donna Lee said...

I love a day when I learn something new. Those connecting bits of marble always made the statue look unfinished to me.

Roxie said...

Romans WERE damn fine engineers! And clever copyists. Thanks for the thought-oid!

When I think of the hours of labor, thought, artistry and expertise needed to make a bronze statue (not to mention the terrifically toxic effects of the smelting process which no doubt took years off every sculptor's life) the conversion of bronze statues into spears or armor or whatever, is a death of sorts.

TinkingBell said...

See? Told you, Never visit you without learning something.