A Bronze Pantheon's

Ancient Production Line

    Like many of the grand avenues and parks in Washington D.C., scholars say that the cities of ancient Rome and Athens were adorned with life-sized bronze statues of favorite gods, heros and, of course, politicians -- no doubt, they must have also been covered with bird droppings.  However, most of these ancient bronzes were destroyed or recycled to make weapons and kitchen utensils.  Only in rare, catastrophic events, like the eruption of Vesuvius that entombed the city of Pompeii in 79 A.D., were hundreds of these bronze statues ever preserved in one place.  This makes the survivors, unearthed from the ashes of classical Mediterranean cities or found in shipwrecks at sea, appear to be one-of-a-kind masterpieces.
    Now, in a unique amalgam of art and science, curators of the first museum exhibit to focus on large, hollow-cast Greek and Roman statues peered beneath the bronze patina on over 50 of these objects from North American collections, and revealed that most of the so-called masterpieces were copies, mass produced to keep up with market demands for lawn ornaments.
     These surprising conclusions "change the way we view these statues" and the ancient art world, said Carol Mattusch of George Mason University, a leading U.S. authority on classical bronze sculpture and a curator of the exhibit, The Fire of Hephaistos,appropriately named after the mythological Greek god of metalworking.  Many art historians still consider that these statues were extravagant works created by master artists, but "that simply isn't the case," said Henry Lie, a curator and the director of Harvard University's Strauss Center for Conservation and Technical Studies.  The ancient bronze foundry, Lie said, "was a production line, a business arrangement" between consumers and artists, who used the discovery of bronze and the technological advance of lost-wax casting to make mass production a reality, long before Henry Ford came up with the assembly line.  While these bronze statues were common in classical Mediterranean cities, Mattusch said, "they weren't quite pink flamingoes."  But if you went to a garden shop today you'd probably see statues on sale that are very similar to these surviving bronzes, she added.
     The exhibit, which opened this past summer at Harvard University's Sackler Museum, is now at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio until the 5th of January.  From February 2nd until the 13th of April it will show at the Tampa Museum of Art in Tampa, Florida.
      The Fire of Hephaistos is different than most museum exhibits because it focused on how a piece of art was made, rather than on its beauty and style.  By looking in detail at the collection of bronzes in the exhibit, the curators found that all of these hollow statues were assembled by joining pre-cast bronze body parts together.  While smaller statues were regularly cast in one solid piece, the size of larger bronzes made it more practical to cast hollow parts separately.  Using a  doctor's endoscope, more commonly used to look down the human esophagus into the stomach, Lie peered inside the hollow statues to see where molten lead had been poured in order to join parts together, or to repair large flaws in the bronze castings.
     Powerful x-rays of the statues, which penetrated the bronze and highlighted the lead joins, also showed that the walls of the bronze sculptures were very thin.  Thin walls made the statues lighter in weight and saved the artists money, since the main cost in the foundry was the bronze -- an amalgam of copper and tin that is stronger than either metal alone.  Ancient metalworkers learned that lead when added to the bronze allowed the molten metals to flow more easily through the thin walls of the statue.  This is possible because like oil and water, lead separates to form microscopic ball bearings in the molten bronze.  Lie and his colleagues found high amounts of lead in all of the statues from the exhibit.
     These thin-walled statues were often flawed.  But, according to the curators, rather than remelting a miscast piece, classical metalworkers were more likely to save time and money and repair the sculpture by pounding in patches of bronze around the flaws.  Patches were found over joins and imperfections on most of the sculptures; in the more intricate and expensive pieces ugly joins were even covered under separately cast bronze garments.  Then, depending on the depth of the buyers pocketbook, individual statues could be embellished with silver or stone eyes, teeth and nails, as well as copper eyelashes and nipples.
     The lost-wax process made serial production of bronze sculptures possible by allowing many copies to be made from the same original.  For example, three statues of the goddess Aphrodite in the exhibit are so strikingly similar in size and shape that they appear to have been copied from a common masterpiece.  X-rays and analyses of the metals used in each statue, however, showed that each Aphrodite was slightly different.  This suggested to the curators that while they came from a common original, the three similar Aphrodites were probably made by different copy artists at different times.  "There probably weren't many Michaelangelos around who did the original work themselves," said Mattusch.
     One of the rarest objects in The Fire of Hephaistos isn't bronze at all, but a 1500-year-old earthenware vase, called the Foundry Cup, found in an Etruscan tomb.  The painting on the back of this vase shows clear evidence for assembly line production of bronze statues.  On one side of the painting a life-size bronze of a nude athlete lies before a worker who is joining a hand to the statue's wrist with a hammer.  The unattached head lies at the workman's feet and the molds for the hands and feet are behind him on the wall.  Interestingly, while the scene is now interpreted as showing the workings of an ancient bronze foundry, when the vase was first discovered the painting was mistakenly thought to depict a man being cut up for a cannibal's feast.  The painting also reveals that classical artisans used a wide range of sculptural styles at the same time, contrary to the view, favored by many art historians, that style can be used to date these objects from antiquity.  In contrast to the graceful bronze athlete, which would normally be assigned to the 5th century B.C., the other side of the painting is dominated by a colossal bronze of a stiff, mechanical warrior, a more archaic style generally attributed by art historians to an older generation of sculptors.  Together on the Foundry Cup, these bronzes show that the two styles were, in fact, produced at the same time.  Lie said, "we're on shaky ground when we date objects based only on their style."  Evidently ancient artisans were more diversified than we've given them credit for.
     The amalgam of art and science in The Fire of Hephaistos gives visitors a new way of looking at the classical bronze statues, beyond the abstract notion of art.  By adding bits of science to the exhibit, like adding lead to bronze, the curators broke down traditional concepts of what we expect to find in an art exhibit.  Lie said, "what one normally sees on the surface are beautiful figures and patinas, but we suddenly turned this around and looked at the inside surfaces, and the flaws."  Carlos Picone, the director of antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City said, "the more you know how something is made, the more it's bound to enhance your esthetic appreciation of the art."