A touring exhibit arrived recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. showcasing an assemblage of ancient sculptures previously believed to have been lost. "Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World" features about 50 rare bronze sculptures that date from the fourth century BCE to the first century CE, each of which was thought to have been melted down or lost in fires, earthquakes, or shipwrecks. These are about a quarter of the known bronze statues from this era.
"The ones that we don’t have and we haven’t found are gone forever because they were melted down," exhibit co-creator Kenneth Lapatin told PBS NewsHour, "and that’s the vast majority—thousands and thousands." Because bronze was often used to make weaponry and other objects, many thousands of sculptures from the classical world were sacrificed. Lapatin tells PBS that around 20 percent of the sculptures in the exhibition were found in shipwrecks, lost during trade expeditions or looting voyages. Others were buried, preserved underground. That's how the statue of a running boy survived one of the most famous volcanic eruptions of all time—Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, which destroyed Pompeii.
In the video, art historian Carol Mattusch tells Jeffrey Brown that bronze sculptures were often made in workshops (using molds), which may change the way some people understand the ancient art form. "The best way to describe them is that they were mass-produced or produced in editions," Mattusch explained. "And so the question is, are they really originals when we know there are so many of them? We thought so—until we started finding two or three of the same things made in bronze."
Among the other treasures in the exhibition is something that isn't bronze at all: a stone base signed by the sculptor Lysippos. The artist was a favorite of Alexander the Great, and while he produced an incredible amount of work (around 1500 statues), all have been lost.
The exhibit, which initially opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, opened on December 15 and runs through March 20.
Banner image via the National Gallery of Art