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Neo-archaic “impostor”?  This Hellenistic “Statue of Apollo (Kouros)” imitates the style of six centuries earlier

“Speak, damn you, speak!” The Florentine sculptor Donatello commanded one of his own bronzes to talk in the early 15th century. A very similar emotion was felt by a Greek poet nearly 2,000 years earlier as he contemplated a recently-cast bronze statue around the year 350BC: “This bronze,” he wrote, “resembles someone who is about to speak: he is so imbued with character, and seems so alive.”

Walking round the statues exhibited at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, you understand that reaction. Many have an uncannily realistic appearance, especially the ones whose eyes are intact. Some of them may even have begun as plaster casts that were created directly from live male bodies. There are no female nudes in the exhibition, although there are a few women, mostly in the shape of goddesses such as Athena, but occasionally appearing as queens or aristocrats. The absence of the naked female form in bronze is the result of chance: there were bronzes depicting female nakedness in antiquity, and some of the marble sculptures that survive of Venus in various stages of undress were copies of bronze statues. But none of those original bronzes have survived.

Very few ancient bronzes have. It is one of the most remarkable achievements of this exhibition to have brought together more than 50 of them in a single space: they are usually scattered in museums ranging from Los Angeles to Tbilisi. By far the majority of antique bronzes have disappeared, although in antiquity, there were more of them than there were marble statues: at the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, for instance, there are almost three times as many works in bronze as there are in marble.

Bronze was the medium of choice for statues not just in private spaces but in public ones too. Different metals, such as copper and silver, could be used to make the lips and teeth of a bronze statue a different colour. Precious stones were used for the eyes. Today, when all bronze statues have lost their golden gleam and become a patchwork of shades of brown, purple and green, it is not easy to realise that it was bronze’s glitter that so attracted the ancients.

The exhibition explicitly restricts itself to bronzes that date from the Hellenistic age: a period which is loosely defined as the era from the fourth to the first century BC, and sometimes more precisely as running from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the Battle of Actium in 31 AD, when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and established himself as sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, having praised extravagantly the work of the classical age in Greece, dismissed the painting and sculpture of the subsequent period with the brusque and damning phrase “and then art stopped”.

Pliny was quite wrong. While there is a lot of derivative work from the Hellenistic Age, there is more original sculpture, and it has a very distinctive style. It is emotionally more intense, more “baroque” than its classical antecedents. Its figures are more individual, less formulaic, less perfect. The strange, twisted pose of The Dancing Satyr is a good example of the sort of novelties Hellenistic artists introduced. The Dancing Satyr is a long way from the cool classicism characteristic of the Parthenon frieze, for example, even when Pheidias and his assistants are depicting centaurs doing battle with people.

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