Monday, February 24, 2014

The Dying Gaul: Everlasting

Dignity in Defeat
Dying Gaul, Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), *
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

Certain figurative images last. Often emblematic of a universally valued quality, they are held in high esteem by different cultures over long periods of time. Such is the case of the Dying Gaul, a Greek 3rd century BC bronze sculpture known only through copies.

I was reminded of this on a visit to Oregon's Portland Museum of Art, this past summer.   Coming out of a gallery devoted to Renaissance and Baroque paintings,  I came across John DeAndrea's hyperrealistic life-size sculpture, Dying Gaul. 

John DeAndrea (b. 1941), Dying Gaul, 1984,
polyvinyl and polychrome with pigment
29 ½ x 31 x 62 in. (74.9 x 78.7 x 157.5 cm)
Portland Art MuseumPortland, Oregon
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

So real was the rendering, it might have been a performance piece. Subject to no idealism, this soulful contemporary reveals all wrinkles and flaws.  Although the artist set his model in the famed Hellenistic pose, tragic heroism has been replaced by emotional reflection.  The figure's import would suffer without the ancient warrior allusion. 

Thoughts turned to the marble Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museum, Rome.  This superb 1st or 2nd century AD Roman copy of a Greek bronze original is considered one of the masterpieces of ancient art. The sculpture is presently on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in the exhibition, The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline MuseumRome.

The sculpture was most likely discovered in Rome in the early 1620s during the construction of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi's villa and gardens. The first reference to the work is found in the 1623 inventory of the Cardinal's collection.  Acclaimed immediately, its renown  spread across Europe helped no doubt by a French artist's etching published in Rome in 1638.  Pope Clement  XII purchased the sculpture in 1737 and placed it in the Musei Capitolini.  Until the mid-nineteenth century, the well-educated were expected to be familiar with the work, stopping to see it on their Grand Tour.

Napoleonic troops took the treasured marble to France in 1797.  The work was returned to Rome in 1816 after Napoleon's final defeat.  It remained in Italy for some 200 years until its present visit to the National Gallery.

The sculpture has been drawn, painted, etched and engraved, cast in a variety of sizes and materials including plaster as well as bronze and noted in prose and poems.  The Marble Faun by  Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) opens with a description of the main characters looking at the Dying Gaul in the Musei Capitolini's sculpture gallery.  In the novel, Hawthorne described the marble as that "... noble and most pathetic figure.... just sinking into his death-swoon."

Francesco Faraone Aquila (1676-1740), Dying Gladiator (Dying Gaul), 
plate LXV, 1704,
engraving, 13.4 x 9.8 in. (34 x 24.8 cm)
Photo:  ARTstor

Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691 - 1765), Ancient Rome , 1757,
67 3/4 x 90 1/2 in. (172.1 x 229.9 cm), oil on canvas,
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The sculpture was initially thought to represent a dying gladiator.  In the eighteenth century, the figure was identified as a Gaul, a member of the fierce fighting Celtic tribes.  The Gauls invaded much of Western Europe and Asia Minor.  Ancient texts described them as mustached warriors with thick, long, matted hair.**  They fought in the nude and wore tight-fitting necklaces as a symbol of rank and a reward for bravery.  Their power peaked in the 3rd century BC. and were eventually conquered by Julius Caesar. The Greeks and Romans considered them barbarians.*** 

Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: McClatchy DC, December 12, 2013

About 220 BC, the Gauls attacked Pergamon but were repelled by the Pergamon king, Attalus I.  As a tribute to his victory and an acknowledgement of the opponent's valor, Attalus I erected a monument with bronze statues by Greek artists at the sanctuary of Athena.  The Dying Gaul is thought to have come from that memorial. Scholars believe the Greek bronze was brought to Rome either by Julius Caesar in the first century BC or by Emporer Nero in the first century AD.  Both rulers wanted to celebrate Rome's victory over Gallic uprisings.  Romans had marble copies made of Greek bronzes as the metal sculptures were usually melted down to supply weapon material. Caesar was more likely to have taken the bronze original since the Capitoline Museum's marble copy was unearthed on property that once belonged to him.  

The Dying Gaul has long been praised as the embodiment of stoic heroism, eliciting feelings of compassion for the defeated.  No matter what pain the Gaul suffers, his face expresses no outward cry. Triumphs over such brave fighters flatter the victors.  Mighty must the winners be to overcome such valiant foes.

The work does not photograph well.  The visceral impact of confronting a life-size figure, over six feet tall, is lost in two-dimensional reproductions.  A single vantage point misses details.  In the case of the Dying Gaul, one view can not encompass all the warrior's belongings which are clues to his character. The statue must be approached in the round.  Having said this, what follows is this writer's attempt to overcome photographic  constraints. 

The warrior reclines on his shield on which also lies a large trumpet and part of a broken smaller one. 


Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

His right arm supports the weight of his torso.  His left hand rests on his right thigh.  Blood drips down his side from a chest wound.

Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

On the ground to his right are his sword, belt and part of the broken small trumpet. The pommel of the sword is carved with a lion's head whose mane recalls the warrior's own leonine locks.

Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton
Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton
Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

At one time the statue was identified as a herald - trumpeter.  During battles, trumpets were used to communicate orders to troops. This warrior's two trumpets - the smaller, high pitched, the larger, low pitched - could have conveyed a variety of commands.  The smaller one appears to have been split in two:  its top, mouthpiece part, is still fastened by cord to a loop attachment near the bell section of the larger horn.  The remainder of the smaller instrument appears on the ground near the Gaul's right thigh between the edge of his shield and his sword's blade.

From every angle, the figure's lifelike appearance astounds.

 Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

The carving of the right foot is particularly noteworthy.

 Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

The statue still has unknowns.  Scholars are perplexed about the circular diagram engraved on the  lower right surface of the work's base next to the shield.  It may have been an aide for the sculptor in positioning the figure.  The meaning remains unclear. 


Dying Gaul (Detail), Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, marble, 
37 x 73 7/16 x 35 1/16 in. (94 × 186.5 × 89 cm), 
Sovrintendenza Capitolina - Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

The Dying Gaul turns up in unlikely imagery.  

 Port Jackson Painter, A Native wounded while asleep
between 1788 and 1797, water color and ink, 
tondo 6.8 in. (17.3 cm) in diameter,
 on laid paper 8.2 x 7.4 in. (20.8 x 18.7 cm),  
Natural History Museum, London, UK 
Photo:  ARTstor

It continues to be quoted by contemporary artists.

Judy Fox (b. 1957), Dying Gaul , 1995, 
hydrostone, casein, original terra cotta, casein,
18 1/2 x 24 1/2 x 16 1/2 in. (47 x 62.2 x 41.9 cm)
Photo:  Larry Qualls/ARTstor

The Dying Gaul may very well be everlasting.    

*All photographs of the Dying Gaul which appear in this blog post were taken in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC at the exhibition, The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline MuseumRome.
**Scholars have concluded that the Dying Gaul's hair was trimmed in the seventeenth century.  His thick locks may have been a foot longer than they appear at present.
***Greeks and Romans were clean shaven and wore their hair short as distinguished from barbarians who wore their hair long and were not clean shaven.  In addition, barbarians were depicted with large genitalia.  The manhood of a Greek or Roman was not as prominent.  

The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome 
December 12, 2013 – March 16, 2014
West Building Rotunda 
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Hours:
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December 25 and January 1