Saturday, July 31, 2010

"The Barberini Faun"

Under his oculus in the Glyptothek in Munich, "The Barberini Faun"
(there being lots of others called Sleeping Satyrs),
a Pergamene masterpiece, whether a copy or the original.
With a blog title like opera nobilia it is good to emphasize early on that in Pliny this term means rather 'notable' works than works of 'noble' sentiments. The Faun scores so low on the scale of bourgeois noble sentiments that, when I was young, the 1st edition of H. W. Janson's History of Art showed only the upper half of it in order to ensure that it could be used in middle American college courses.
On the whole, it is well preserved, and the rather egregious early modern restorations have been removed, the tip of a nose and, for example, the elbow being defensible. When I lectured on Hellenistic art, I always prefaced this by showing it side by side with the Belvedere Torso, which Michelangelo saw newly excavated and marveled at, saying, "If only Michelangelo could have seen this." What is at work here is the raising of a profound understanding of musculature (but relaxed in sleep) to a level that competes with the greatest abstract sculpture. For the relaxed abandonment of sleep is essential to the sculptor's exploitation of muscular forms, both expressively and formally. It is rare indeed in Hellenistic work to see formal and intellectual mastery surpass mere correct imitation of nature. In the Parthenon pedimental sculptures that magisterial art made divinity out of nature. In this statue it makes poetry out of a subject that, without such art, could be base. For, deliberately, the satyr's (faunus is just the Latin for satyros) self-abandonment to exhaustion from physical indulgences means that he bares his genitalia mindlessly and, in effect, exhibits himself. Ancient athletic nudity, even casual nudity, were one thing, and this is another. Sometimes, teaching the freshmen, I used to wish that I had a statue equally good, of the same time and place, that was less distracting in front view. But I would not omit the "Faun": though being sexy doesn't make something Art, neither does it diminish its artistic value.
A fine clay reduced-scale model, photographed in the
Altes Museum in Berlin in 2002, was made by the restorer
to show the ancient parts of the work.

The "Faun" from behind, not quite so well lit on this side but showing the same
fine chisel work and the same thinking through of muscular forms
as in a front view.

The face of the Barberini Faun is often taken for granted, but, in fact, it may be the statue's most remarkably distinctive part. For purposes of pigeionholing, the Faun is a genre statue, the genre being in this instance the not fully human, the nature-child character of satyrs and pans and nymphs. Now, the hair, the slightly equine ears, the little tail are purely generic, but the face looks like a portrait. That is, not like what we call a Hellenistic Portrait, of an Attalid or Pontic or Seleucid or Ptolemaic ruler (or of a Ptolemaic queen), but a study from a living model. Immediately we think of Phryne, traditionally the model for the Aphrodite of Knidos, or later of Antinoos, shown in the guise of every remotely suitable god. This is different, since the favorite of an Attalos (we should think) would hardly be cast in this way, though, on the other hand, here we are nearly half a millennium earlier than Hadrian. Would Alexander or Philip have this done, to order? I think not. The face does look like something from life, though, and from an individual. We have no clue as to the motivation or any particular identity.
We do not have any ancient copies of the Barberini Faun, leaving aside the real possibility that this statue is itself a copy of a bronze, as its finding place, the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, does suggest, but its existence seems to have inspired the pose of other sleeping figures, all of which, if the "Faun" was created no later than c. 200 BCE (R. R. R. Smith, in the Oxford History of Classical Art, no. 209), such as the Ariadne terracotta figurine in the Louvre, postdate it.

Paris, Louvre. Terracotta figurine of Ariadne (or a female in any case,
possibly a nymph) asleep on a rock

Naples, Museo Nazionale Archeologico
Bronze boy satyr on a rock.

The "Faun" could have inspired the sleepy boy satyr from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, but this, like the other bronzes there, for a Late Hellenistic Epicurean (though much of this kind of art was not specific to a particular class or philosophy), has been made decorous enough for a Victorian country house. I should not wish to differ from R. R. R. Smith's succinct characterization (loc. cit.) of the Munich statue; it is brilliantly and frankly homoerotic, so much so that it is still shocking to many. This frankness and the genius of its creator are what lead me to agree tentatively (we know nothing) with those who think it was likely Pergamene palace art. Also, such a work in such a place could be influential, as this sleeping pose certainly was, without getting into the repertory of the commercial ateliers (those required piece molds that were taken, at least initially, from the statue). What is so shocking is seldom mentioned: the pose offers not only the sight of genitals but a view straight through to the buttocks; abandonment of decorum can go no further than that. And, out of concern virginibus puerisque, I leave that view to parental discretion.

Also, I should not like to date it more closely than Smith does or decide whether it really is itself a copy; he adds a question mark.

1 comment:

  1. This is all great! It revives my interest in Greek and Roman art which I studied for my history minor, many years ago. Bring on the coins!