by Richard P. Townsend
An unprecedented exhibition looking at ancient Sicily—the crossroads of the Mediterranean—is on view in the perfect venue, the J. Paul Getty Museum ‘s Villa in Malibu, itself a recreation of a product of Southern Italian Antiquity. Go now and see it in Los Angeles, as the turbulence that claimed a number of the museum’s most important antiquities several years ago—and which we thought had ended—has broken out again. The Sicilian cultural authorities have in effect cancelled the other American venue on the tour, the Cleveland Museum of Art, by threatening to withdraw star objects like the Mozia Charioteer, citing their long absence.
This sculpture, surely one of the most beautiful, compelling and innovative statues to survive from the Classical Age, dominates this exceptional show. As a lynch pin it sums up the diverse strands of influence and power on the island, embodying the exhibition’s premise. For its title—Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome—refers not only to a sort of geographical placement, but a cultural and even ideological space that conveys the transition from Greece’s cultural and political supremacy to Rome’s burgeoning empire.
The exhibition’s timeframe is bracketed more or less by the emergence of Greek city-states in Sicily and the Greek victory in 480 BC at Himera over the Carthaginians—the Phoenician culture in North Africa—and the ascendant Romans and their sack of Syracuse, the most prominent of the Sicilian cities, in 212 BC. It would have been fascinating if the exhibition had examined more in depth the Carthaginian influence (after all they dominated the western half of the island) and on the other hand, looked more closely at the indigenous ethnic groups which eventually were integrated into the Greek-colonized city-states. Nevertheless, these disparate groups ultimately assumed a collective identity as “Sikeliotes” or Greek Sicilians. Like Aeneas—who came from Troy in the East, sailing west to Sicily, on to Carthage and finally settling on the Italian peninsula to found the city of Rome—Sicily is the bridge between cultures and empires.
Sicilian Greek culture in turn serves as a wellspring of inspiration for the Romans—their most immediate source of Classical Greek culture, which the Romans then claimed as their own, expedited by the influx of precious objects from Marcellus’ conquest of Syracuse in 212 BC and the completion of the Roman conquest of the entire island, becoming its first overseas province. As lead organizing curator Claire Lyons has stated, “Stand in Syracuse and look east to Athens and north to Italy.” It is this compass that guides the exhibition and informs its content.
This story is told through the exhibition’s three sections: civic formation, religion and secular culture, mainly literature and theatre. Sicilian cities like Syracuse, Selinous, Himera and Akragas were full participants in the life of the Greek homeland, sending athletes to compete in the Panhellenic and Panathenaic games and gifts and votives to the treasuries and sanctuaries in Athens, Olympia and Delphi.
Exemplary of these glorious pursuits is the Mozia Charioteer (470—460 BC; Museo G. Whitaker, Mozia, Sicily), and the absolute zenith of the exhibition. It is so called for it was excavated on the island of Mozia, at the western end of the island, the ancient site of Motya. As for the figure’s debated identity, it probably represents a charioteer, part of a sculptural group of a quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses and a key game of the ancient Olympiad. The white marble figure, while ostensibly an athlete, is quite simply one of the most elegant and sensual figures handed down from Antiquity. The play of the charioteer’s clinging chiton against his musculature; the sway of the drapery across his back; the insouciance of the left arm akimbo; and the pressure of his fingers sinking into his body, all combine to make this a tour-de-force of observation and technical mastery.
It is instructive to compare the Mozia Charioteer to two other renowned male-figure sculptures from the Golden Age of Greece, the Classical period of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. They are highly rare surviving life-size bronzes. The first is the famed Charioteer of Delphi—of the same subject and also having Sicilian origins—commissioned by Heiron I of Syracuse doubtless to commemorate his victory at the Pythian Games at Delphi in either 482 or 478 BC. The Sicilians took the chariot race both times; later Hieron’s brother Polyzalos co-opted the votive sculpture, scratching out Hieron’s name from the statue’s base. The wealth and prominence of Sicilian Greeks is clearly indicated not only by the documented fact that they could field winners at the Delphic games, but then memorialize these victories with extravagant gifts to the Sanctuary of Apollo.
At any rate, both the marble and the bronze charioteers were made around the same time, at the cusp of a new artistic style. While the Mozia youth’s face betrays the earlier Archaic style, his sense of movement is highly inventive. On the other hand, the bronze charioteer’s chiton displays a rectitude of pose and rigidity in the chiton’s folds. Despite its austere beauty, the Delphi charioteer has none of the sophisticated movement—both of body and fabric—that the Mozia Charioteer possesses. The latter is absolutely remarkable as a work doubtless carved—probably by a Greek artist, and possibly one who had settled in Sicily—halfway across the Mediterranean on an island we would have considered provincial prior to this exhibition.
The other Greek bronze happens to be in the Getty’s own collection, the Victorious Youth datable between 300-100 BC. Moving between the Classical Age and the Hellenistic period, it demonstrates figural representation’s direction in its increasing naturalism, and later exaggerated realism. In turn, a Herakles (256-200 BC; Museo Archaeological Regionale Paolo Orsi, Syracuse) in the exhibition makes a solid, stylistic comparison to the Getty bronze. Both evoke the Age of Alexander the Great and the work of his own artist, the famed Lysippos. This marvelous marble statuette and the Getty bronze show a finesse of visage as well as athletic muscularity, if more refined in the bronze.
The trajectory of this line up of male figures shows the evolution from the late Archaic, early Severe bronze charioteer’s rectitude to the Mozia youth’s sinewy if slightly exaggerated stance to finally the relaxed realism and easy grace of the Victorious Youth and the muscularity of the Herakles. This matters precisely because it conveys an increasing sophistication in world view as reflected in the arts, a more perfect understanding of the workings of the natural world and our place in it.
For the last word, Clemente Marconi, in his excellent overview of sculpture in Sicily in the book accompanying the exhibition, himself notes the superiority of the marble Mozia Charioteer over its bronze counterpart in Delphi. (A brief review of the publication: it is decidedly not an exhibition catalogue but an independent resource on the subject. It is not geared to the layperson, but speaks in a scholarly jargon. While Marconi’s essay—due to its informed but easy style— is one of the few “crossover” chapters in the book, overall it is a significant and handsome volume, doubtless one of the few in the English language on the subject. Finally, most—although not all—of the exhibition material is included. Ideally a checklist documenting the exhibition would have provided documentation. I suspect that the difficulty in confirming by press time certain loans made that impractical.)
What we often find compelling in earlier art are those objects that convey a sense of modernity, a link to our own age. This is certainly true with the Mozia Charioteer in the sheer sensuality of his garment—the chiton—which seems to our eyes like a chic French creation. And in point of fact, legendary turn-of-the-20th-century designer Mariano Fortuny was inspired to create his famous sheath—the “Delphos Gown”—ten years after the discovery of the Delphi Charioteer, the Mozia youth’s counterpart.
There is an eye-popping plentitude of luxurious gold and silver objects in the Sicily exhibition. From a solid gold phiale (or libation bowl) and gold and silver jewelry and table ware to silver coinage, Sicily’s wealth, power and status as the hub of the Mediterranean trade routes is much in evidence. Also reflected is the Sicilian city-state’s early development of some aspects of citizenship before those in Athens. The economic implications of a rising advanced polity are reflected in the extraordinary coinage produced in Sicily from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC, the island having produced the world’s first fiduciary currency. The exhibition features examples of these, including the only surviving silver Tetradrachm of Aitna, one of Antiquity’s most precious coins, called the “The Coin of Coins” and the “Zeus Etna” (476-466 BC; Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels).
Among the treasures of Sicily included here is the Hoard of Morgantina (an inland Sikel-Greek city), a cache of silver vessels that were hid in 211 BC during the Roman onslaught of the city. One of the most splendid objects of the hoard and an excellent indication of the luxuriousness of Sicilian culture is a “medallion” from a “medallion cup,” so called because these drinking vessels had incised or sculpted roundels at cup’s bottom. This medallion shows Scylla, the monster inhabiting the Strait of Messina from Homer’s Odyssey who with the whirlpool of Charybdis threatened the lives of passing sailors. The lavish gold and silver repoussé and sculpted figures would be revealed while the drinker swirled his wine—like a whirlpool—in the cup as Scylla lunged up from the bottom, a rather sophisticated entertainment.
Interestingly, a number of controversial objects came from illegal excavations at Morgantina. It was the Italian government’s demand for the silver hoard here on view and over fifty objects in the Getty’s collection that launched the recent discussions about the collecting of antiquities and the repatriation to countries of origin of these disputed objects. The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned the Morgantina treasure and Michael Brand, then-director of the Getty, brilliantly negotiated an agreement that returned a majority of the requests in exchange for loans and exhibitions from Italy, including the Getty’s magnificent Goddess of Morgantina, which is included in the exhibition publication, but unsurprisingly, not in the show itself. The hoard and the Goddess are both now housed in the Museo Archaeologico Regionale in Aidone. In any event, that is why the current contretemps by the Sicilians regarding the length of the loan of the Mozia Charioteer and other pieces is so regrettable, as the conservation and remounting of the charioteer and this groundbreaking exhibition are the happy results of such hard-won efforts on both sides.
Sicily was also a crossroads for the age’s intellectuals and artists, not only such itinerants as the artist of the Mozia Charioteer but no less than Plato himself—fascinated by the uses of power by the military rulers—visited Syracuse twice, advising the tyrants of the city.
The great tragedian Aeschylus also visited several times, first Syracuse and later living and in fact, dying in Gela. His plays help form the basis of Greek—and indeed Western— drama, indicated here by the presence of a stupendous Calyx Krater (mixing vessel) showing the first known depiction of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. Above the head of the former is an inscription that says “Euaion is handsome, the son of Aeschylus.” It is likely an amazing link to the father of tragedy and his actor son Euaion who may have performed the role of Perseus in the Sophocles play (his foot rests on a rocky outcropping, a tantalizing indication of landscape like that in Phidias’ Parthenon freize). This white-ground vase—although made in Athens—was found at the ancient city of Akragas, now Agrigento, Sicily.
The greatest mathematician, scientist, physicist and engineer of the Ancient World—Archimedes—he of “Eureka” fame—was born and worked his entire career in Syracuse, where he was killed in the Roman sack of the city in 212 BC. Archimedes is represented in the present exhibition by the rarest of the rare, a sheet from the oldest surviving manuscript of any of his treatises, the Archimedes Palimpsest (late 10th c. AD; private collection on deposit at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore).
The nude male figure was of great importance to Greek culture not only for its innate beauty but for the glories of both the athletic field and the battlefield which it represented. The exhibition closes with yet another extraordinary male nude sculpture—in this case, a highly sexualized one, the first known large-scale depiction of Priapos, a god of sexuality and fertility (250-200 BC; Museo Archaeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi, Syracuse). This late Sicilian—and like much Hellenistic work, proto-Baroque—sculpture bursts with energy, its aching torsion redolent of the god’s erection. While it reminds me of an architectural element, such as the atlantes or male figures supporting a cornice in the Temple of Zeus at Akragas, given where it was discovered was probably intended as a garden sculpture. Regardless, it is an extraordinary summation of Greek culture on an island that as we learn from Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, may very well have in many ways exceeded its motherland and set the tone followed by ascendant Rome.