Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Myron at Liebieghaus


The photographs in this essay are my own.
The Liebieghaus, the museum of ancient sculpture at Frankfurt am Main, is not the only owner of this bronze group (Copenhagen has one in the park of its Botanical Museum, and the one illustrated in the big picture book, by Boardman, Dörig, Fuchs, and Hirmer, who wrote on the coins as well as making the photos and publishing the German edition, hereafter BDFH*, was captioned 'formerly in Stettin', which city is now in Poland but is easier to spell in German). By now, in the Opera Nobilia blog, we know that first-edition modern bronze casts are all equally original, in this case casts of the reconstruction made under the supervision of Johannes Sieveking. It is one of a number of wonderfully instructive reconstructions created for study between the two 20th-century European wars. I don't know how many exist, but Liebieghaus takes very good care of theirs. Their marble Athena from this group is the principal model for the goddess in the reconstruction.
We have a number of small representations of the group, or something quite like it, but none of the full-size copies were found together as a pair. That they belong together the written sources, also, make plain enough. The group, furthermore, Pausanias Bk. I.24.1, tells us (but see J. J. Pollitt, The Art of Greece, Sources and Documents, 2nd ed., 1990, p. 49, note 6, and the bibliography cited, for 28c, there) was on the Acropolis of Athens. Though born at Eleutherai, Myron certainly was as Athenian as Desiderio da Settignano was Florentine. Though watertight proof is impossible, I stand by the usual identification of this group as that by the famous Myron, not least because of those small 'quotations' of it in other media both the 5th century and in succeeding periods, some of which I can show here, others being shown in G. M. A. Richter's Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks (using the prevalent 3rd edition of 1950), hereafter ScSc. I am not so confident of Dörig's judgemnt, but I trust John Boardman, Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period, 1983, figs. 60–64, a great deal, and he accepts, too, what I regard as the obvious attribution (which, therefore, I shall not discuss as such but take for granted).
Also, you can find a wonderful literature on Marsyas. He is no common satyr and evidently in Asia Minor had a cult of his own. In Athenian storytelling, however, he is a foil to Athens' goddess, born from the brow of Zeus, mistress of the Acrocoplis, and all the rest, a true Panaghia, the young virgin goddess who leans on her spear and reads sadly the list of her fallen warriors on a votive stele from the Acropolis where, incidentally, she is dressed as simply as the Liebieghaus Athena (Boardman, Sc:Cl, fig. 41, earlier, smaller, very delicate). Set against her idea, Marsyas is a willful nature spirit. His basic motif seems to have been hybris, a deficient self-knowlege, which in his homeland's myth got him flayed alive by a Scythian slave when he vied with Apollo. The Early Classical Athenian idea is not so fierce: she, simply, holds him in contempt (she even threw away the reed flutes because inflating her girlish cheeks was too gross), because he doesn't hesitate to play them himself. A little oinochoe in Berlin shows the pair of flutes being thrown to the ground (ScSc, fig. 587—and see the coin fig. 588); both of these also show how, startled, he raises his right arm). These flutes, by the way, with double reeds, were the ancestors of oboes and were not confined to Greece. Need I add that you can also find arrant nonsense about Marsyas, about whose myth and cult we really know very little in detail.

So, let us begin with our Athena. Naturally the bronze looks like the marble pointed copy. The molds to make the Athena in the bronze reconstruction were taken from her, just as molds from the original of the 5th century were used to make the plaster-of-Paris model for making the pointed copy. Only, in Sieveking's day, the inset eyes with lashes were based on many fewer surviving examples than we now have, though they did exist. Since it seems always to be rainy when I go to Frankfurt, the statuary is wet, but it would catch light quite differently from the marble, even dry. Here and there the ridge of a drapery fold is discretely restored (sometimes with help from another copy) but nothing more. The slender young goddess as I said is as disdainful as only a maiden girl can be (at least, I think, that is the idea, whether today we'd characterize a noble young girl in those terms).

She is, as I said, dressed very plainly: a woollen peplos of moderate yardage, sensibly overgirt, not with some elaborately embroidered girdle or with one of her Acropolis snakes (and, of course, she is not dressed for war of any kind; she has no aegis) but with a soft belt of the same wool, just like a bathrobe sash, simply knotted in front. What a way to dress a great goddess. There is philosophical and theological thought behind something like this. A goddess dressed not like a girl for a festival or as a bride but in her house-dress, so to speak. Of course, this garb is far more difficult for the foundry workers. I can think of no ancient drapery more difficult to cast than this is, so it had to mean enough to justify the difficulty. I won't get into undocumented Social Studies but merely observe that Myron had to have the stature and respect to get it done: mastery of everyday, casually draped and girded cloth was, to his artistic mind, more important than any other kind of richness. Myron is making high art out of ordinary clothing just as with athletes they make high art out of nakedness. The idea is to really see what is before your eyes. That's quite rare.

Girlish as she is, when you set them among other faces of their generation, the 450s, how similar front views of the Athena's face and that of the Lancelotti Diskobolos (the one with his own head still attached, in the Museo Nazionale Romano) are. For me, this comparison clinches their both being Myron's, notwithstanding both being copies in marble, since both are atypical in just the same ways.
The Athena is not the only helmeted head that shows the cloth that protected the head, and the hair, from the metal helmet, but it is the only one that shows the cloth as sloppy as a little boy's socks or a shirt coming out at the back. Myron makes something out of that cloth.

The Marsyas is a little more complicated in so far as the body is best attested to by two copies in the ex-Lateran collection of the Vatican, and the head and beard by the head (alas, no more than a head ) surviving in the Museo Barracco (you just take the bus up the via Nazionale about as far as Il Gesù, as I recall, to the Museo Barracco). It is a little old palazzo—small for a palazzo. I understand that now the running water is working. If not, they will have moved the sculptures elsewhere. I love it.

Myron did not make the satyr a caricature, but he certainly did study some rustic physiognomy. This image neither mocks nor glorifies the satyr that Athena disdains.
One of the ex-Lateran Marsyas does have its own head, guaranteeing the type of body that the Barracco head once had:

When I last spent an afternoon with the ex-Lateran Marsyas and other fragments, I recall preferring the torso to the whole figure. I cannot with memory and images alone pronounce on them. Of course, no two pointed copies are identical, since they were (at least) finished by hand and probably not at the same time. But the relative fidelity, the shared fidelity, of the Athena and Marsyas copies (though the other Athenas do not have as delightful drapery as the Liebieghaus one (see Liebieghaus Album), are also, in my opinion, some evidence of the fame and importance of the original and its master. Buyers had to pay significantly more for the most painstaking work, I am sure.
When you read about Myron, you will find that most of the testimonia are to the realism of that cow on the Acropolis, all emphasizing the soul, the character, the virtual life (not to say nearly human life) of it—just the kind of blather that tour guides and their disciples use today, and used yesterday: "In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo" (Eliot, Prufrock). Well, it might have been men, only their empty blather would have been in a different key. I think that is why the cow was so famous: it was so easy, rather like talking about Liszt's Les Préludes, to say something or nothing gracefully about it. On the other hand, there can be no doubt about the best observers' admiration, centuries later, for Myron. Lucian, as usual.
I'll try to think of how to manage it. There is a vase-painter, the Penthesileia Painter, usually unlike his famous namepiece (which probably was based on a larger painting). Most of the photos are not mine, but one vase, a skyphos in the Cabinet des Médailles (or wherever now) in Paris, old and not quite sharp, is my own study photo (above).
But just look at the Nike and those three scruffy guys at left on the outside of his cup from Spina. And look at Nike's simple peplos with a sash.
See the other images in the Liebieghaus Album.

*BDFH is The Art and Architecture of Ancient Greece, 1966. It gave Boardman a chance to write on architecture for a change and Hirmer, since he had control of the publication, a chance to write on the coins that he loved so much. Since the photographer-publisher did not have to pay for the use of any of the images (all pre-existing in earlier Hirmer-Verlag books, too), this is one of the glories of the glorious 1960s. Hippies were not the only ones living on the margins of a prosperous society. The great tome was published at a price that most students could afford, too.


  1. Some great photo's as usual. Interesting your juxtaposition of Athena and Marsyas. BDFH was of course a big introduction to the Classical Art World for me.

  2. When I located the essay in
    by Hans-Joachim Hoeft (Jochen) and linked to it at the name Marsyas, above, I found that I had forgotten what an excellent communal contribution was attached to the thread.
    I ought to have used it more prominently in this thread, though the present essay is more on the Athena statue and on the interest of the early-20th-century reconstructions than on the myth of Marsyas. He does tend to dominate any discussion, being extremely interesting. As art, the Marsyas statue is just as great as the Discus Thrower, but for the rarity of its art, in my opinion, the Athena statue type is even greateer.