The Beauty Myth: Why Do We Idealise the Human Figure? We Are Biologically Driven to Exaggerate Bodily Areas That We Value, Argues the Classical Art Specialist Nigel Spivey

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Reggio Calabria is not, in general, a splendid place. Poised on the pointy toe of Italy's high-heeled boot, it makes no claims to urban elegance. In 1908 an earthquake levelled the city, whose origins lie in the eighth century BC. It is a short ferry passage across to Sicily, with its almond blossom and honey-toned temples. And yet Reggio makes an imperative call on any traveller in southern Italy, for it is home to "the greatest statues ever made". It's a bold claim and, at first sight, an unlikely one. As catalogued objets d'art, these statues hardly quicken the pulse. No one knows who made them; no one knows their original identity. They stand apart in Reggio's archaeological museum, upon unsympathetic bases designed to withstand future seismic spasms. Known simply as Statue A and Statue B, they are two bronzes from Riace, probably created around 450BC.

And Riace is no great archaeological site. It is merely a village on the Calabrian coastline. But it was in the waters off Riace, during August 1972, that an amateur scuba-diver made what he at first thought to be a grotesque discovery. A human hand was reaching out from the seabed, roughly 30 feet below. Could it belong to a half-buried corpse? (We are, after all, in Mafioso territory.) The diver--Stefano Mariottini, a Roman chemist on his holidays--plunged down to investigate. To his relief, he found the hand was made of bronze. And to his amazement, he realised that the hand was part of a statue; and this statue was not alone. Another figure, no less lifelike, lay encrusted in the sand nearby.

Thus was the accidental discovery of the Riace Bronzes made. Subsequently, they were raised from the ocean floor and restored to something like their former splendour. The most likely explanation as to how they came to be submerged in the Straits of Messina is that some ancient Roman connoisseur of Greek art--perhaps Emperor Nero--intended them to grace the walkways of his villa or palace. The vessel transporting the statues ran into trouble; the artworks went down, and were not salvaged until espied through the goggles of Mariottini.

Modern connoisseurs cannot agree which "great name" of classical Greek sculpture may have produced the figures. One suggestion is Pheidias, mastermind of the decoration of the Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis. Another is Myron, whose discus-thrower was admired and copied by the Romans. A further candidate is Polykleitos, creator of the "canonical" body in Greek sculpture, and also highly popular with Roman collectors. The problem is that while Greek sculptors of the fifth (and fourth) century BC preferred hollow-cast bronze as a medium for free-standing statues, very few of such statues have survived. Ancient descriptions of Olympia, for example, indicate that the site was once congested with gleaming brazen images--but later predators broke them up and melted them down. The chances are that it was in a large Greek sanctuary such as Olympia or Delphi that the Riace Bronzes originally stood, perhaps as part of a larger group.


Statue A once wore a tipped-up helmet on his head, which may have signified his status as a general. Both figures once carried large round shields, and weapons, too: they were certainly warrior types. Their nudity is not remarkable for the period: similarly taut and jutting male physiques are flaunted on the marble frieze of the Parthenon. So what is so definitively marvellous and magnetic about this mysterious pair?

The answer lurks in an aesthetic paradox. Within seconds of stepping into their presence, you realise why Mariottini immediately thought he glimpsed a human body. Relaxed in stance, and with their lips slightly apart--as if in conversation, or taking breath--the Riace Bronzes initially appear perfectly realistic. Cast in metal, they none the less seem light on their feet; imposing, but not ponderous. The veins on their arms and hands are unnervingly subtle, pulsing and proud--a highly delicate finishing feature of ancient bronze working technique whose degree of difficulty is judged by some modern sculptors to be unattainable today. …