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The Political Uses of a Figure of Male Beauty from Antiquity

One of the most celebrated statues from antiquity, the “Discobolus” remains a cautionary tale about the ways in which we speak about ideal bodies through the art we curate and display.

The Lancellotti Discobolus and a fragmentary statue of the Lancellotti type, both Roman copies of Myron’s original, second century CE, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome (photograph by Carole Raddato via Flickr)

One of the most celebrated statues from antiquity remains the “Discobolus of Myron,” praised as the personification of equilibrium, strength, and athletic beauty. Although only Roman, white marble copies of Myron’s bronze, Greek original survive today (except for a miniature bronze statuette in the Munich Glyptothek), the statue has been a metric for beauty since antiquity. From Hadrian to Hitler, its display was often manipulated to project the ideals of the men who exhibited the discus thrower.

To understand the original “Discobolos” or “Discobolus of Myron,” we must first understand why it was likely created. Many of the statues of athletes that survive from antiquity were originally understood as markers of a victory. Triumphant athletes who competed in Greek agones (athletic competitions) like the Olympics were often awarded the right to erect a bronze statue of themselves at both the place where they competed and also in their hometown — if they had the funds to pay for it. Few of these life-sized bronze sculptures exist today, but a likely example is the Hellenistic “Statue of a Victorious Youth” that now resides, clad as he was during the competition (i.e. in the buff save for a now mostly missing olive wreath), in the Getty Villa in Malibu.

Myron was a celebrated sculptor born in the early fifth century BCE, in the Greek city of Eleusis, on the border of Attica. He was extraordinarily good at casting bronze for his sculptures and preferred to sculpt gods, animals, and athletes as his subjects. We may know him best for the equilibrium and beauty with which he created his “Discobolus,” but many in Athens knew him best for his life-like bronze cow sculpture on display in the polis. (Sadly, this cow does not survive today.) His athletic statues in particular were seen as balanced, with an impressive symmetry that pointed to a honed body containing a sharp mind.

Unknown artist, “Victorious Youth” Greece; (300–100 B.C.) bronze with inlaid copper; 151.5 × 70 × 27.9 cm, 64.4108 kg (59 5/8 × 27 9/16 × 11 in., 142 lbs), the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, on display at the Getty Villa (image via the Getty Open Content program)

Tales of Myron’s naturalistic work were told well into Roman antiquity — along with stories of famed Greek artists like Phidias, Polykleitos, and Praxiteles. The Eleusian is casually referred to by the likes of Lucian and Quintilian, and became shorthand for the artistic rendering of life through art. In the Neronian-era satire the Satyricon written by Petronius, it is noted that Myron “almost caught the very soul of men and beasts in bronze.”

Dropping the name of famed artists in rhetorical and literary treatises was a sign of refinement then as now, but so was displaying copies of their work in your villa. Domestic display of art intended to nod at the intellectual and social stature of the owner has been an aspiration since antiquity. It is likely why Hadrian chose to display copies of the “Discobolus” in his villa at Tivoli, outside of the city of Rome. These statues emphasized to visitors his appreciation for Greek culture and advertised his conviction in the innate beauty of the male form.

The “Discobolus’s” basic shape appears to have been aesthetically familiar to most Romans in the same manner that the Statue of Liberty or Rodin’s “The Thinker” (1904) is to us. This is evidenced by the fact that it could be found in both private homes like Hadrian’s and in public baths, like the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Ancient art historian Lea M. Stirling noted recently in a volume on Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption that only 20 life-sized versions and seven statuettes survive. Most of these copies date to the second century CE, near to or during the time of the emperor Hadrian.

Attic red-figure kylix with the inscription “Kleomelos Kalos” (525-475 BCE); the “beautiful youth Kleomelos” is practicing throwing a discus in a gymnasium and marking the length of his throw with a stick. The ceramic is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris (image by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia)

Despite its celebration in Classical Antiquity, the naked form fell out of favor in the early Christian period, and many appear to have been removed from display during Late Antiquity. Although literary knowledge of the work remained, it would be centuries before the birthday suited Roman copies of Myron’s masterpiece would resurface and be put on display following the increase in funded archaeological excavations that seized Rome and other parts of Italy (such as Pompeii) during the 18th century.

In 1781, a marble discus-thrower 1.55 meters in height was excavated from Rome’s Esquiline Hill at the Villa Palombara. This would be dubbed the “Lancellotti Discobolus,” which is today displayed beside another copy of the statue, the “Discobolus of Castelporziano,” whose head and several parts of limbs are missing from the athlete’s body. The aristocratic Massimo family would place the “Lancellotti Discobolus” in its own room in their Roman Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne. Later it was moved to the Palazzo Lancellotti ai Coronari in Rome.

Not long after the discovery of the “Lancellotti Discobolus,” excavations at Hadrian’s Villa in 1791 turned up a first, and then second “Discobolus” statue. The first would be dubbed the “Townley Discobolus” and can be seen today at the British Museum in London. After being acquired by art dealer Thomas Jenkins, it was sold, after a rather misguided restoration, to Charles Townley. It was billed to Townley as a statue comparable to the prized one held by the Massimo family — word of which had spread throughout Europe among both art dealers and wealthy elites. However, this one had been restored incorrectly, with his head facing downward instead of looking back at the discus as in the Massimo statue’s example.

The Townley Discobolus on display now at the British Museum in London, originally excavated outside Rome, at Hadrian’s Villa. His head remains incorrectly facing downward per his 18th-century restoration (Image by Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons)

Although he had died by the time the variant examples of the “Discobolus” were unearthed, the famed “father of art history” Johann Joachim Winckelmann would still have an impact on the “Discobolus’s” interpretation. Carlo Fea, the renowned archaeologist attributed with discovery of the “Discobolus” on the Esquiline, did an edition of Winckelmann’s book in Italian, Storia Delle Arti del Disegno Volume II that referenced the statue and tied it to the literary references for Myron. In Fea’s updated edition, he underscored the Greek beauty conveyed in the marble Roman copy of the discus thrower. This “high beauty” was something that had similarly been pointed to by Winckelmann in regard to the “Apollo of the Belvedere”; a statue that had only come back into the light during the 15th-century Renaissance. Although the Apollo may have been the ideal of masculine beauty at rest, the “Discobolus” became the peak example of athletic beauty in action.

Art that illustrated Greek male beauty and athletic prowess were coveted and indeed worshipped in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1885, when the “Boxer at Rest” was excavated on the Quirinal Hill in Rome, the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani noted the he had never beheld such a sight, remarking that it was a “magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete, coming slowly out of the ground, as if awakening from a long repose after his gallant fights.” The early modern European museum was coming into being at this time, in the process showcasing the aesthetic and athletic ideals to aspire to.

“The Apollo of the Belvedere” in its niche at the Vatican Museum; the 2nd century CE statue is likely a marble copy of a 4th century BCE bronze Greek original by Leochares (image by Francisco Anzola via Flickr)

In 1937, the “Lancellotti Discobolus” would catch the eye of none other than Adolph Hitler. Hitler had long been obsessed with ancient Greece, particularly in respect to their athletic prowess and Spartan ideas of “racial” purity. This was evident in his institution of the torch relay for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. As the stamps issued for the 10th Olympiad in Los Angeles four years earlier illustrate, the “Discobolus” was already being used as a symbol of the games. But Hitler didn’t want just a copy or a drawing, he wanted to own the real thing.

For the 10th modern Olympiad, held in Los Angeles, the city chose the Discobolus for the five-cent stamp issued in the US by the US Postal Service in 1932 (image via Wikimedia).

Hitler’s obsession with the art of the classical Mediterranean and his belief in taking statues “from stone to flesh” by using Greek art as a model for modern German men are recounted in a new book by Johann Chapoutot, Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe’s Classical Past. In the Nazi film Olympia, the umbilical cord between ancient Greece and Nazi Germany is constructed. Chapoutot notes that renowned Greek statues, like the “Venus de Milo” and then the “Discobolus,” come to life in the film: “tracing a path to Berlin via the relay of the torch that brings the Olympic flame to the Reich’s capital.”

By the time of the film’s release on the führer’s birthday on April 20, 1938, Hitler had finally acquired the “Lancellotti Discobolus” for the sum of five million lire. The statue actually arrived in Germany in June of 1938, where it was then exhibited in the Glyptothek museum in Munich. Hitler noted the necessity of seeing the statue in person: “you will see how splendid man used to be in the beauty of his body … and you will realize that we can speak of progress only when we have not only attained such beauty, but even, if possible, when we have surpassed it.” As Chapoutot notes, “It was thus also important to incarnate the Nordic physical archetype for posterity; the Germans of the Third Reich would live on for all eternity just like the Greeks, who had bequeathed them a vision of perfection.” The “Discobolus” was not only an object of beauty within Nazi eugenics and mythology: it was the metric.

Following the conclusion of World War II and the death of Hitler in 1945, the “Lancellotti Discobolus” would be repatriated. On November 16, 1948, the statue became Italy’s once again and was later displayed in Rome at the Museo Nazionale in 1953. It can still be seen in Rome today, at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, the palace-turned-museum that sits on a corner near the Baths of Diocletian and Termini Station. I have stood before this statue many times with my camera raised in awe and admiration, but without ever really knowing how or why it was used by powerful predecessors who had owned the piece.

Plaster cast of the Townley Discobolus now on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Even today, the “Discobolus” is a familiar form to Americans. In the United States, plaster casts of the statue(s) largely created and sold during the neoclassical plaster craze in the late-19th and early-20th centuries allowed local museum audiences in America to take in the athletic beauty of the “Discobolus” and marvel at his poised muscles. Myron’s dark bronze original has been duplicated in white marble, in plaster, in 3D models, and even in Lego. It has been remarked on by hundreds of authors who have tried to create a facsimile with words rather than with stone.

Yet like the “Apollo of the Belvedere,” the “Discobolus” remains a cautionary tale about the ways in which we speak about ideal bodies through the art we curate and display. To Hadrian, the “Discobolus” likely advertised his love of men, Hellenism, and athletic competition; to Hitler, the “Discobolus” advertised both racial superiority and legitimacy through appropriation of ancient culture.

Whether it is the “Apollo of the Belvedere” or the “Discobolus,” understanding the history of an artwork’s re-contextualization is just as important as understanding the object. Few ancient sculptures retain their original color, context, or meaning, but working to reconstruct how these elements changed over time can perhaps allow modern audiences to understand how people like Hitler manipulated the classical world in order to pursue his own political agenda. Understanding the manipulation of the Discobolus can perhaps help to steel us against the ideological reuse of classical art today.

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