In Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, opened last week at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, more Greek bronzes are assembled than ever before in the modern age. The exhibition involves around 50 full figures and fragments from museums around the world, traveling to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in July and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in December.
Curated by Jens Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin, both antiquities curators at the Getty, and organized by the two American museums with the Soprintendenza Archeologica della Toscana, the exhibition is through the Getty’s cultural agreement with the Republic of Italy and the National Archaeological Museum of Florence and Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany. Power and Pathos centers on the Hellenistic period, dating roughly between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the downfall of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE. It’s difficult to estimate how many bronzes exist as tallying methods vary (does a single hand count as one, or just a full statue?), but there are only between around 100 and 200 in the world, and most museums just have a handful if any at all.
“What is remarkable is that we know that there were literally tens of thousands of ancient bronze statues dedicated in ancient sanctuaries, erected in civic centers to honor kings, benefactors, and citizens, and set up elsewhere,” curator Lapatin explained to Hyperallergic. “We know this from both ancient texts and surviving statue bases. But as bronze was valuable as a metal and could be reused, the vast majority — I would venture something like 99% — has been melted down for its metal. Statues of pagan gods and nude heroes, moreover, were not popular in the Middle Ages.”
Those that survived were on the whole buried treasures, whether lost in shipwrecks, covered in a landslide or by a volcano, or obliterated with a sacked city. For example, in 1996 a diver discovered the incredibly intact “Croatian Apoxyomenos” featured in Power and Pathos, depicting a young athlete scraping the sweat from his body with a strigil. These sometimes candid, often naturalistic moments were the highlight of the Hellenistic era, and one of the reasons the curators gave it their focus. “In the Hellenistic period artists explored new genres of art with great skill, inventing, for example, expressive, realistic portraits of the kind we recognize today,” Lapatin said. “Thus we seem to see not only the convincing physical forms of specific individuals, but also something of their interior lives.”
We’re much more familiar with the ghosts of bronzes through marble replicas by the Romans, but Power and Pathos celebrates this period as the start of an art market where bronzes were rapidly produced from molds. As the exhibition moves from Florence to LA and DC, it will alter slightly based on what can travel, but objects will include those from an impressive lineup of lenders such as the British Museum, Louvre, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, Boston MFA, Houston MFA, Vatican Museums, Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, and national museums of Greece, Georgia, and Tunisia. Some of the pieces may be familiar as icons of their institutions, such as the Met’s serenely sleeping Eros or the National Museum of Rome’s Terme Boxer with his battered face.
This is the first time most have been seen together, giving a new perspective on how art so ancient can still evoke such immediate emotions. As Lapatin stated: “What we have learned already in just a few days about the development of technique and the manipulation of style, is remarkable, and I think that everyone who sees the show will certainly be surprised and moved by the expressive quality of the outstanding works, millennia old.”
Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World continues at Palazzo Strozzi (Piazza degli Strozzi, Florence, Italy) through June 21. After Florence, it is at the J. Paul Getty Museum (1200 Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles, California) July 28 to November 1, then the National Gallery of Art (6th & Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC) December 6 to March 20, 2016.