Monday, July 8th, 2013
He’s sitting, actually, and he’s in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not in a clearing, but he definitely carries the reminders of a million gloves that laid him down or cut him til he cried out in his anger and his shame “I am leaving, I am leaving” but the fighter still remains … until July 15th. After that, he leaves New York and goes home to the National Museum of Rome.
Boxer at Rest is a Hellenistic bronze sculpture from the 4th century B.C. which was discovered during construction of the now-defunct National Dramatic Theater on the Quirinal Hill in 1885. Before the excavation began, Rodolfo Lanciani, Rome’s first post-Unification lead archaeologist, was warned by Giuseppe Gagliardi, an old antiquities digger who had made major finds excavating the city over the course of decades, to be very careful because even though he had never had the opportunity to dig down far enough, he was sure there were important bronzes buried deep under the site.
His instincts were dead on. On February 7th, a workman discovered the extended forearm of a bronze statue on its back. The statue was found 17 feet below an artificial platform on which the Temple of the Sun was built by the Emperor Aurelian to commemorate his victory over the kingdom of Palmyra and the capture of its formidable Queen Zenobia in the 3rd century A.D. This temple was enormous. Just to give you an idea, there were 44 columns in the peristyle, each of them seven feet eight inches in diameter and 65 feet high. Obviously the structure needed a massive undercarriage to support its weight, thus underneath the platform were concrete foundation walls 92 feet high and six feet thick.
The foundation walls followed the shape of the peristyle colonnade. They intersect each other at right angles in various places, creating large rooms 92 feet deep. These spaces were filled with rubble and earth, and 17 feet down into that fill was the bronze statue. It’s a heroic sculpture seven feet four inches high and was first thought to be an athlete, but historians now believe it represents a Hellenistic prince, possibly Attalus II of Pergamon or a Roman dignitary depicted as a Hellenistic prince, possibly Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus which would make sense because he conquered Macedonia and this statue’s posture is based on a famous portrait sculpture of Alexander the Great carved by Lysippos. It dates to the 2nd century B.C.
Lanciani wasn’t present when the statue was excavated, much to his chagrin. The discovery was made around sunset and the workers just kept going through the night without supervision. He got a second chance to see an ancient marvel rise from its context just over a month later. This one was found 18 feet under the platform and it was clear from how it was placed that it had been buried there in antiquity with meticulous care. The head appeared first, revealing the broken nose and cauliflower ears of a boxer. As the workers dug down, they found he was in a sitting position and that to ensure his stability, whoever buried the boxer had put a Doric capital under his butt so he could sit comfortably. The ancients who hid him down there dug a trench under the lower foundations so he could be safe from prying eyes and filled the trench with sifted earth to keep the bronze from being abraded by any rocks or grit.
Rodolfo Lanciani wrote about this exceptional discovery in his 1888 book Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries (a genuinely riveting book which any Romanophile or anyone with an interest in the rise of professional archaeology simply must read).
I have witnessed, in my long career in the active field of archaeology, many discoveries; I have experienced surprise after surprise; I have sometimes and most unexpectedly met with real masterpieces; but I have never felt such an extraordinary impression as the one created by the sight of this magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete, coming slowly out of the ground, as if awakening from a long repose after his gallant fights. His body is bent slightly forward; his elbows rest on his knees; his attitude is that of a boxer (pankratiastes) exhausted by the numerous blows received, the traces of which are visible all over his body. The face, of the type of Hercules, is turned towards the left; the mouth is half open; the lips seem to quiver, as if speaking to some one; in fact, there is no doubt that the statue belongs to a group. Every detail is absolutely realistic: the nose is swollen with the effects of the last blow received; the ears resemble a flat and shapeless piece of leather; the neck, the shoulders, the breast, are seamed with scars. The modelling of the muscles of the arms and of the back is simply wonderful. The gallant champion is panting from sheer fatigue, but he is ready to start up again at the first call. The details of the fur-lined boxing-gloves are also interesting, and one wonders how any human being, no matter how strong and powerful, could stand the blows from such weapons as these gloves, made of four or five thicknesses of leather and fortified with brass buckles.
The Boxer at Rest is a Greek original dating to around 330 B.C. Both statues were probably taken from Baths of Constantine, the last public baths built in Rome. Figures of athletes were decoration characteristic of Roman baths, and Constantine’s baths were right next door to the Temple of the Sun. People seeking to spare these statues from the fate of so many of their brethren — destruction during invasions, theft by Byzantine emperors (Constans II, the first emperor to visit the city in 200 years, looted Rome worse than the Ostrogoths when he spent 12 days there in 663 A.D.), being melted down for their metal value — went to an enormous amount of trouble to remove them from the baths and secrete them deep in the foundations of the temple.
This is the first time the boxer has ever been to the United States. You have until Monday to take advantage of this rare opportunity and hightail it to New York.