Happy 40th anniversary, Riace Bronzes!

Riace ARiace BOn August 16, 1972, Stefano Mariottini, a Roman chemist on vacation in Calabria, was dive fishing in waters just 26 feet deep off the Ionian Sea coast of Riace, Italy (the toe of the boot) when he saw what appeared to be a human arm in the sand. It was so realistic he thought it belonged to a dead person at first. On closer inspection he saw it was attached to a statue on its side and that there was another statue on its back lying next to it. He alerted authorities and police divers returned with oxygen-filled balloons to carefully lift the statues out of the seabed.

Crowds flock to the bronze as it's recovered from the sea, 1972The find caused a sensation. Very few ancient bronzes have survived because they were frequently melted down in later eras for their metal. Most of the Greek bronzes we know of no longer exist in their original form and are only known from Roman copies in marble. Two intact, larger-than-life Greek bronzes are not often found in shallow coastal waters or anywhere else, for that matter.

Eye of Riace B before and after the final removal of eye concretionsThey were sent to the National Museum in Reggio Calabria for cleaning and restoration. Experts confirmed at that point that they were original Greek bronzes from the 5th century B.C. Early Classical period. Preliminary conservation continued in Reggio Calabria until 1975, after which the statues were sent to Florence for further work in its better equipped restoration labs. Once the concretions, particularly dense around their heads and faces, were fully removed, restorers found exquisite details like individual silver eyelashes, copper lips and nipples, silver teeth and eyes inlaid with ivory and glass.

Riace A head detailWe don’t know who they represent. Many theories have been bruited covering pretty much every named hero in the Greek literary corpus. Both of the bronzes used to hold shields and spears, so they were probably warriors. The one with parted lips, silver teeth and long, flowing curls is known as Riace A; the one with the helmet and wide eyes is known as Riace B. Based solely on A’s open mouth and featured teeth — unique in surviving Greek statuary — and B’s wide-open eyes, one theory posits that they are Tydeus and Amphiaraus, two warriors enlisted by Polynices to attack Thebes in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. Riace B head detailStatue A would be Tydeus, who ate the brains of the defender who had mortally wounded him, hence the prominent silver teeth. Statue B would be Amphiaraus who was a seer, a role often represented by wide eyes.

Restoration was complete in 1980 whereupon the Bronzes of Riace went on display in Florence and Rome on their way back to Reggio Calabria. I had the good fortune to see them in Rome when I was a whiny kid whose complaints my parents expertly ignored (thanks again, Mom and Dad!). The crowds were insane. My parents still have the posters of each warrior we got at the gift shop framed on the wall. Good thing we took advantage of that opportunity, because they haven’t been allowed to travel since due to their fragility.

By the early 1990s, the statues were showing signs of further degradation. The Florentine restorers had conservatively left remnants of the organic cores used to cast the statues in antiquity inside the statues. Their continuing decay was causing trouble for the bronze shell, so another restoration in 1995 cleaned out the casting cores in their entirety. (The organic materials — charred wood, vegetable matter, animal hair — were preserved for dating purposes but provided no conclusive results.)

The Riace Bronzes arrive at Palazzo Campanella in 2009In 2009, Reggio Calabria’s National Museum started a major overhaul of their facilities. In order to keep the bronzes safe and to take advantage of the break, they were moved to Palazzo Campanella where they underwent extensive diagnostic analyses and further conservation in a large climate-controlled room behind glass but still on public display.

The project was supposed to be over by March 2011 so they could return to their National Museum home in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Italian unification, but the restoration of the statues wasn’t complete until the end of 2011, and the renovations at the museum still aren’t complete.

So for now they remain in their climate-controlled quarters in the Palazzo Campanella. The museum renovations have been held up by budget cutbacks, but the last six million euros have just been transferred so the museum hopes to be ready for the boys to come home by December of this year.

This video is in Italian, but watch even if you can’t understand the language just to see how they moved the Bronzes of Riace out of the National Museum to the Palazzo Campanella in 2009. A few salient points from the interviews: Simonetta Bonomi, Archaeology Superintendent of Calabria, notes that the restoration campaign is tied to the 2011 celebrations of Italian unification and that even though the planning for the move had to be careful and deliberate, when the time came the execution had to be swift to minimize the stress on the statues.

Pasquale Dapoto, Directing Archaeologist of the Restoration Laboratory, rather poetically juxtaposes the statues as symbols of vigorous strength with their actual fragility as a result of the shipwreck that put them at the bottom of the sea and the 2500 or so years spent in corrosive salt water. He also describes the challenge of detaching the statues from their anti-seismic bases to which they were anchored by stakes running from the mechanism in the base up through the feet and legs into the body.


14 thoughts on “Happy 40th anniversary, Riace Bronzes!

  1. Truly astounding. To think that these statues were made 2,500 years ago. It’s one thing to chip away on a stone; it is altogether another thing to cast in bronze. I never knew a thing of such magnificent beauty could have been made so long ago. What a treat it must have been to see this in person.

    1. They are intensely beautiful, and even though I was a little ingrate at the time, I feel my good fortune in having had the opportunity to see them in person very keenly today.

  2. The 40th anniversary of the discovery of the Riace Bronzes has been all over the Italian media–and the general impression is that the ANSA report is clearer and more positive than the local reality on the ground. Facts, however, are in short supply, Italy being Italy. How much money is really needed to reopen the museum in Reggio Calabria (which is only one of a cluster of cultural projects there that were not ready for 2011 either)? According to the story yesterday in “La Nazione” (here in Florence)the current hope is to open a room for them in the museum as soon as possible(while presumably opening nothing else). Meanwhile, there is a lot of hot air about the impact on (generally slight) tourism in Calabria. This is supposed to be their Michelangelo’s David or Leonardo’s Last Supper, after all. In regard to ANSA’s figure of 130,000 admiring visitors to the Riace Bronzes every year, it seems that the figure is from 2008 and only 50,085 of them paid for tickets! They are packing in the school groups, in other words!–which is fine, as far as it goes…

    1. I saw that article the other day and almost blogged about it, but couldn’t find any good pictures of the lion or any pictures at all of the other finds. I’m keeping my eyes open for follow-ups, though.

  3. I have read about the lion and the armour, and also that they sealed off the site. An interesting point now might be if all this belongs to one single accident and where the ship was heading to originally. My guess: ‘Magna Graecia’ 😀

  4. My heart aches to think of all the beauty melted into cannons and chamber pots, God forgive them. And I am very relieved the bronzes are now in the hands of obviously caring and skilled conservators. But, I really have to say it – baby got back (and gorgeous calves) and that hair! Thanks for the link,Raimo.Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that they have found the original wreck and more muscular goodness will be extant.

  5. We had the pleasure of seeing these statues in 2011. Remarkable how they had the technology to make bronze and to be able to cast two magnifent statues. They were found just off the coast where my cousins own a home in Riace.

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