Mar 312015

What would happen if we came to accept that the great Greek achievement in sculpture from the severe/classical period onwards was based on life casting. Would there be a mass break-down among artists, art historians, and archaeologists? This question is prompted by a splendid new exhibition of Hellenistic bronzes at the Strozzi Palace in Florence.

Pliny told us over 2000 years ago that Lysistratos, the brother of Lysippus invented (or rather perfected the art of casting faces from life and then correcting the distortion that inevitably results from the weight of plaster on the soft flesh of the face). I published an article a mere 13 years ago, that pushed the use of bodily life-casting back to the time of Pheidias because I had found evidence in The Bronzes of Riace that proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that they were modelled over a wax life-cast. The evidence is in the soles of their feet which are formed entirely naturalistically and undoubtedly support the weight of the figure above because the feet are spread and squashed by his weight: note they cannot have been observed in that position as they are firmly on the ground. The soles of course will never be seen by the public. Furthermore, a cast taken from a clay standing model would have no soles, at most a strap or pin to fix the sculpture to a base.

This show is bristling with more evidence as most of the exhibits are life-size, sometimes very large life-size as in the Riace pair. But would one not choose a heroic scale for heroes? There is one proof identical to that of the Riace pair in the Piombino Apollo, which is obviously cast from a child. This pseudo archaic work was immediately questioned by the curator, Jean Letronne when it entered the Louvre in 1834. Ten years later when under restoration a proof in the form of a lead tablet emerged from its interior showing that that it was made by two sculptors of Rhodes. The poor restorer was accused of faking the tablet, there was a private rumpus at the Louvre and the evidence was buried in the archives until 2010 when it was rediscovered and the tablet judged genuine and dated c.330 BC. This sculpture has the same tell-tale soles as the Riace pair, who also get a big spread in the catalogue though not of the Hellenistic period. Yet none of the many experts who contribute to the sumptuous and otherwise highly informative catalogue mention this fact which is obviously central to the way we perceive these works. My article in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology was received in complete silence.

Surely the time has come to recognize the facts and make the necessary adjustments to the history of art. This largest collection of bronzes from the Hellenistic period ever put together, gives an opportunity to appreciate the wonderful workmanship and to hazard that step towards the truth of their production.

Life-casting is clearly a highly emotive subject. My claim to have discovered something that others have missed is based on nearly sixty years of working bronze and wax as a sculptor. I doubt whether any archaeologist could claim the same.

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