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
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
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."