The Cyrene Apollo

Article excerpt

One of the most visually stunning of all the ancient sculptures displayed in the galleries of the British Museum is the colossal marble statue of Apollo found at Cyrene, in modern day Libya. The statue was discovered in January 1861 by Lieutenant Robert Murdoch Smith and Commander Edwin Porcher, whose excavations are recorded in thrilling detail in their monumental site report published in 1864. The Apollo, standing 2.29 metres, was found broken into 121 pieces close to the large stone pedestal on which it originally stood.

Smith and Porcher's investigations in this region of North Africa were undertaken to uncover the legendary city of Cyrene, which was founded by Greek settlers from the island of Thera in 631 BC. The fact that the site had lain unoccupied for over a thousand years instilled in the excavators a sense of hope that many sculptures and buildings would lie undisturbed under metres of soil and lush vegetation and they were not to be disappointed. Investigating the site was not to be an easy task, however, as the local Arab population were suspicious about the intentions of Smith and Porcher; one of whose main anxieties was that any sculptural finds would be destroyed as symbols of pre-Islamic pagan times. This they tried to avoid by setting up camp in one of the numerous rock cut tombs close to the city where they were eventually to re@bury the statues they found for their protection.

In this respect the figure of Apollo was first and foremost in the minds of the excavators, but one of the greatest problems facing them lay in transporting the unwieldy fragments from the temple to the safety of their tomb. Despite all the difficulties in procuring trustworthy workmen to help them move the Apollo, it was the ever@obstinate camel which proved to be the most problematic; refusing to drag the sledge up-hill towards the tomb, so that the workmen had to take over and pull the statue slowly up to the camp. Fortunately the labourers, excavators and the Apollo survived this trauma and the latter was subsequently taken to the British Museum, along with many other sculptures found at the site, where it was reassembled, but not restored.

Much of the massive statue was carved out of one piece of marble, with only the right, raised arm and the left wrist and hand attached separately, but now both missing. The head is finely carved with full, fleshy cheeks and a rounded chin and the mouth is sensitively carved with slightly parted lips. The centrally parted hair waves out over the forehead in thick, ropy strands, then over the ears and is secured in a bun at the back. Two small curls hang in front of the ears and two other, long curls hang onto the shoulders, and the god is crowned with his usual attribute, a laurel crown. On the whole, the hair contrasts dramatically with the polished skin surfaces and with the softly chiselled features.

The god stands with his weight on his right leg whilst the other leg relaxes and is raised slightly onto the big toe. His right arm originally held his lyre whilst his left was raised up and rested on his head. The torso is rendered in a realistic manner with the muscles only lightly indicated and the skin and flesh lying loosely over the underlying surface features. The pectorals and the abdomen are rather flabby and the genitalia almost adolescent in their lack of any pubic hair. This may have been indicated by paint rather than carving, but its absence was perhaps intended to enhance the youthful nature of the god. The hips are also rather feminine in form. The god wears a precariously draped himation (cloak) which has slipped down over his hips and rests on his thighs; on his feet are elaborately carved sandals. The back of the figure is treated in a rather summary fashion compared with the front, with only slight indication of the folds of the cloak. The large support for the lyre consists of a tree stump, concealed by drapery at the front, with a serpent coiled around the trunk, its head pointing up towards the god. …

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