Yet we can in
greatness of mind
Or of body be like the immortals.
Athens and Sparta brought the brilliant fifth century to a ruinous close. Men
no longer kept faith with their gods. Philosophy and science soared, since the
owl of Athena, wisdom's bird, "flies only with the coming of dusk." But
in that same hour the muses dance off to bed, so the arts declined, though
Great disseminated Greek culture over a vast area by conquest, but he spread it
thin. The older and more opulent civilizations of the Near East mingled with
that of its new Greek rulers; thus Hellenistic art was born. Classical
sculpture had recognized three basic subjects: gods, heroes and athletes.
Hellenistic sculptors of the third and second centuries B.C. multiplied this
repertoire and took the world for their province. In the rich cities of the
eastern Mediterranean a vast inanimate populace sprang into being. In marble,
bronze, porphyry, chalcedony, basalt, ivory, silver, gold and even crystal,
they swarmed the parks and porticoes: a motionless host of kings and beggars,
gods and geese, children and drunkards, hounds, horses, concubines and fauns.
Less than a thousandth part of all this dazzling display remains to us.
It was the time
when the first Statue of Liberty, 105 feet high, bearing a torch, overlooked a
harbor and was known as the Colossus of Rhodes. Hardly less famed were the
Aphrodite of Melos (Venus de Milo, now at the Louvre) and the Laoco�n: a
contorted marble nightmare in which two serpents slay a prophet and his sons
(now at the Vatican Museum). All this is vulgar stuff by classical standards,
though still zestful and elaborately skilled. By lesser standards, including
those of the Renaissance, it remains superb. The flame of Greek art, flickering
lower, could yet work miracles of charm on occasion: witness the Athens Jockey
specific brilliance is a long way indeed from the anonymous intensity of the
Kouros four centuries back. The difference resembles that between a prayer and
a play, so to speak: the Kouros is a spirit poised, and the Jockey is a
personality in action. The latter doubtless was modeled from an actual person.
This merely technical innovation actually marked an important shift in human
thought. The growth of empire had brought about a compensating growth of
individualism. The old communal ideals, built around the free city-state, lay
shattered. So now men sought for truth in themselves and in each other. Art
therefore turned personal, various, naturalistic.
Chances are that
the Jockey once had a horse under him, and formed part of a race-course
monument. But tradition hints that he may really have been a Boy on a Dolphin.
In that case he probably embellished a fountain, perhaps as an outrider for
Poseidon, or for foam-born Aphrodite. But he is racing anyway, swift as the
wind—his tunic is wonderfully wind-whipped. He bestrides his invisible steed
like a very pinwheel of boyish excitement; for him the race is everything.
There seems never
to have been a genuinely "Roman" art, only Greek art commissioned by
Romans. Yet the taste of the consumers prevailed, as usual. Hellenistic
naturalism slowly gave way to Roman realism: a grim adherence to the physical
facts. "Warts and all" sums it up.
About a century
before the time of Christ, for example, Apollonios of Athens produced for a
Roman client a life-size boxer, in bronze, correctly detailed, right down to
the cauliflower ears, split lips and blood-soaked beard. The statue, now at
Rome's Terme Museum, clearly portrayed an actual champion. He was probably a
southpaw, since the right side of his head is the worse battered. Otherwise he
resembles Rocky Marciano, having the same square-knotted build and rippling
back muscles. (The Romans, with characteristic lack of poetry, likened such
muscles to "mice under the skin.")
Yet all this
uncompromising realism is still a world away from life casts and waxwork
dummies. While it presents the facts, it arranges them brilliantly and with
deceptive casualness. One leg of the statue is four inches shorter than the
other, for instance, because the proper length would have seemed too long. Not
slavish imitation but convincing illusion was the hallmark of Apollonios' art.
He was like a conjurer playing with appearances, sure to amaze. Not for him the
visions that can change the world; for him the gods remained invisible. But he
could conjure up what seems a real man of flesh and blood, in metal.
The Boxer, shown
opposite, has a melancholy yet indomitable look. One can picture him seated
like this in his dressing room after a hard fight, fielding reporters'
questions: Well, Champ, how do you feel? O.K., I feel O.K. What did you use for
the knockout? A combination left and right. Did the kid hurt you much? Do you
look forward to fighting him again? Aching, wordless, the champion turns and