On several occasions I’ve extolled Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibitions for their original and creative approach. The current one on Hellenistic bronzes is no exception. It is simply stupendous and anyone who wanders near Florence and misses it is missing a great deal.
There was a time when art students and lovers poured over classical marble sculpture or their plaster of Paris reproductions. The Apollo Belvederes and Laocoons of the ancient world were worshipped for their ideal forms of beauty and they formed the basis of art education in the world’s academies.
Today we are somewhat more sceptical of such judgements. Is there such a thing as ideal beauty? Can it really be defined? Of course not! That’s why the often weakly late Roman copies of Greek marble masterpieces have been overtaken in many estimations by the amazing discovery of more and more bronze statues, sometimes hidden in remote sites, sometimes accidentally found by fishing boats at the bottom of the ocean in places as far afield as the Black Sea. The Riaci bronzes, now in the museum of Reggio Calabria, were only unearthed (or unseaed?) in 1972:
Bronze, with its glorious patina, is able to define detail even more incisively than marble. Moreover, it is capable of more faithful duplication. Using two types of Cire perdu methods – the direct and the indirect whereby perfect copies could be made from an original mould – means that what we see today is truly what the artist envisaged and not what some second-rate hack copied from the original. It’s really the start of what today has developed into three-D printing, if you like.
Furthermore, bronze can develop into a multimedia approach. Precious stones can be used to define life-like eyes and other previous metals brought in to adorn the bronze statue. (One has to realise, of course, that even classical marble statues were not originally all shiny-white but were painted in often garish colours- as was the norm with gothic tombs and statues).
Head of a Man with Kausia (classical equivalent of cloth-cap). Third century BC
Strozzi’s exhibition “power and pathos: Bronzes of the Hellenistic world” brings together some of the finest examples of Hellenistic bronze sculptures gleaned from the best collections in the USA, Australia, Crete, the UK, Spain and, of course, Italy. It finishes on June 21st and forms part of this country’s portentous Expo 2015 year.
In the exhibition are bronzes gods, destined for distant sanctuaries (perhaps that’s why they were found at the bottom of the ocean, victims of a violent tempest),
mythological heroes (illustrating the power),
muscular athletes, famous politicians, personal family portraits, touching cupids (illustrating the pathos)
and loved animals.
Here is a further selection of what one can meet with in the Palazzo Strozzi:
I was often stunned by the detail relating to clothes and boots worn by athletes which were much more focused that those found on standard marble statues. Dynamic realism in these works pointed towards future development in sculpture. Just look at these details from one of the athletes portrayed.
It’s also possible to play a game during the exhibition whereby one chooses to become an archaeologist, a collector or a fraudster in search of a missing statue. Cabinets, combination locks, manuscripts and maps turn one into a seasoned seeker and the results can be written up into an account which may win one a holiday in a prime European archaeological site. (We are still searching for our missing statue, by the way!)
At the same time as the Strozzi exhibition, Florence’s fabulous archaeological museum is hosting an exhibition entitled “mall and large bronzes: masterpieces of Greek, Etruscan and Roman bronzes” which we didn’t have time to visit – a return visit, however, is a must.
2015 is World Year of Archaeology (how ironic that fanatic forces are at this moment destroying unique archaeological sites in that cradle of our civilization the Tigris-Euphrates valley!). The Palazzo Strozzi exhibition is contributing to the celebration of this special year in a truly spectacular manner…