An ‘Opus Nobile’ not in Pliny: the Barberini Suppliant
Louvre. "The Barberini Suppliant". Copy or Original of last third of 5c BC. Subject much debated. Next to the Boston MFA statue from Vasciano it looks original, but the flat eyeball suggests that it is not.
When I was last at the Louvre, one of the prettiest enigmas was missing from her pedestal. She used to reside just between the gallery with Parthenon sculpture and that with good copies of fifth-century sculpture. Perhaps she was just being cleaned, but I suspected that she also was being reconsidered.
Be that as it may, I’d like to know if someone among my readers has been to the Louvre in the last decade and has seen this work exhibited in a different place, perhaps not nearly so close to Parthenonian work.
I have gathered a limited number of images in a Picasa STUDY Album. With the exception of two, more than 80 years old, from the album made by Chevejon for Jean Charbonneaux (1930), they are all my own and, for what they’re worth, may be used freely.
“Suppliant” is the label given her because of her expressive character, but whom she is beseeching or why is unknown. She wears a single sandal, and her chiton bares one shoulder, but her free hand is missing. It is tempting to chase down all the ingenious interpretations of this work, but I won’t do so here, regarding them as distractions from the real questions.
When was the statue made? Which sculptural school does it represent?
Besides its emotional character, it is pictorial. That is, it is not statuesque. It is not clear that her seat is the remains of an altar, where a victim or suppliant would have asylum. Sculptural representations of stories are not confined to pediments, but the question has repeatedly arisen, whether even the fleeing and dying Niobid children, found in Rome, were originally meant for a pediment, even if they eventually were used for one in Rome. The Early Hellenistic Niobids are usually restored (in drawings or in casts) as a freestanding narrative group. It is very hard to imagine the Barberini Suppliant as Classical architectural sculpture, and we do not really know much about what kind of narrative, pictorial sculpture may have been dedicated in sanctuaries, especially outside of Athens, in the Classical period. And, by the way, Pausanias did not notice this work, but neither did he cover all of Greece.
The proportions of the girl’s face are a little surprising, with her small, sharp chin. The somewhat cursory treatment of her hair, however, is not too surprising in a work in marble. It is the execution of her eyes that is extremely troubling, since it is a means of creating a shaded eye that seems to be suggested by the execution of shaded eyes in painting; Classical work has rounded (convex) eyeballs, naturally; they would insert eyelashes or add color in paint if they needed to shade them. It is in the Empire period that tilted, flat eyes, made to be painted and (most extreme) concave, hollowed out eyes are commonly seen (until such time as the abandonment of optical effects altogether leads to incised and inlaid irises and drilled pupils take their place). This has been pointed out to me by the experts that I most respect, and with good reason respect. When I was young I greatly admired the Barberini Suppliant, for its delicacy, for its genuine sentiment. I had to be taught its problems. In sum, it just doesn’t add up.
The “ribbon” drapery of the chiton (easily done in real life by pleating hand-woven linen between the fingernails) is seen on one of the Nereids from the Nereid tomb at Xanthos, but not on a figure like this one. The solidity of the supporting arm does not find corresponding solidity in the rest of the body. And even when I most admired it, when I first visited the Louvre in the 1960s, I could see that there was nothing I could think of that was quite like it. Closest for relative dating are the Louvre’s pair (though not exactly alike) of very nice copies of the Leaning Aphrodite, also a little less than lifesize. If these pertain to the Aphrodite in the Gardens, for which Alkamenes was named as the sculptor, they show that small work in marble might differ very noticeably from major bronzes (and the pointed copies of the latter) attributed to the same artist. For the present purpose, however, it certainly is fair to compare the drapery on the Leaning Aprodite copies with that of the Suppliant, especially the folds of the woolen himation on the back, such as are proper to the 420s BCE. And the delicacy of the Suppliant goes well with these copies (though one is coarser than the other) of the Leaning Aphrodite.
|London, BM. Xanthus in Lydia. Nereid with "ribbon" treatment of linen chiton|
For full-length photos of the Leaning Aphrodites, see Album linked to
No, I do not have an answer.
What then have we learned? If this is Augustan work like the seated woman from Vasciano in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it is, I think, finer than the latter, and one cannot, so far as I can see, prove that it is a special, sensitive kind of Augustan pictorial carving, quite profoundly neo-Attic and not much like the chilly formalism that we think of as Augustan.
So I leave it to you all as an exercise in analysis by connoisseurship, one of the most difficult of the many disciplines needed for art and archaeology. Rules of thumb just don’t work. The ancients knew their techniques and ideals and traditions better than we do! Nor should we go to the other extreme of supposing that everything surprising is not genuine. On the contrary, imitative styles of all sorts, from all regions of Greek civilization, of all periods, tend to be meticulous in obeying the rules, which they understood at least as well as we do.