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Enduring Bronze: Ancient Art, Modern Views

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

Enduring Bronze: Ancient Art, Modern Views

By Carol C. Mattusch. Pp. 168, figs. 113. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2014. $30. ISBN 978-1-60606-326-2 (paper).

Reviewed by

It is a distinct challenge to produce a guide to a museum collection, or as in this case a portion of such a collection, that both gives that corpus of objects the attention it deserves and provides the reader with a thorough, current, and accurate account of the category of artifact under consideration. In this modestly sized but beautifully illustrated volume, Mattusch, the most innovative and important scholar of ancient bronzes today, manages to provide even the most uninitiated reader with a comprehensive understanding of a subject fraught with complexity and controversy. As in her other exemplary publications, she does so by focusing on what we really know about ancient bronzes, how various types of evidence are useful or not, and exactly what evidence can and cannot tell us. Moreover, since about two-thirds of the illustrations that complement her text present objects in the Getty collection, the book serves also as an informative guide to what emerges as a wonderfully representative group of bronzes, both large and small.

A brief introduction presents the most stark and basic realities of ancient bronzes and their study: from the Classical era onward they constituted close to all of freestanding statuary, they were much noticed and admired in antiquity, and despite the well-documented fact that they were both numerous and ubiquitous (single sites were said to have held several thousand), very, very few, especially life-sized or greater, have come down to us today. Like most ancient remains, bronze statues suffered widespread destruction during and after pagan antiquity, but unlike artifacts of stone and clay, bronzes once destroyed retain value through being melted down and reused. Thus most bronzes that remain were long ago hidden away underground or underwater, usually in an earthquake or shipwreck, safe from later reuse. Consequently, for our understanding of bronzes, even more so than is the case for ancient studies generally, we infer much from little, and it is for this reason that Mattusch’s rigor in her evaluation of sources is especially well suited to the topic.

In each subsequent chapter, Mattusch works outward from a central theme through a series of both directly and tangentially connected topics. The first chapter begins with an account of bronze itself, its components, alloys, colors, and the ancient traditions of recognizable regional variations, turning then to subject matter and function. The second goes more deeply into technique, from solid casting and hammering to hollow casting, piecing, and the addition of other metals and materials, such as stone, ivory, and glass for eyes. The third turns to documentary evidence. Useful texts range from myths concerning Hephaistos to the extended encyclopedia entry that is the 34th book of Pliny’s Natural History. There follows a guided tour of the statuary workshop on the Berlin Foundry Cup. A chapter centering on Athens, where Hephaistos was especially revered and his temple surrounded by workshops, presents several prominent monuments of that polis including the Tyrannicides, allowing a convenient aside to the Baiae casts, the ever-enigmatic colossal Athena “Promachos,” and the pitch-plastered Hermes Agoraios, which features in Lucian’s account, in his Zeus Tragoidos, of an argument among the Olympian deities about the relative value in sculpture of material, artistry, and subject matter—the last being of particular interest to those engaged in the discussion. A chapter on Rome and market reprises the issue of reiterative images, beginning with the innovations of classical bronze workers such as Lysistratos and his brother Lysippos, who could cast multiple variant statues after a single model, and culminating in the demands of a Roman market that led to more systematic and efficient means of close replication. Here we encounter two of the major pieces among the Getty collection: the Victorious Youth and the Herm of the Mahdia wreck type.

This review is intended less as epitome of Mattusch’s book than as an outline of its pleasantly meandering tone. The reader is induced to wander, though not without purpose, from monument to context to method to anecdote and back again, encountering both the familiar and the unfamiliar monuments as well as memorable surprises. I, for one, never knew that the figures working among body parts on the Berlin Foundry Cup had once been thought to be not Greek bronze workers but Etruscan cannibals (107). Thus the reader’s experience is not unlike a visit to the Getty bronze collection itself and one to be enjoyed in the company of the most enlightening and entertaining of guides.

Mark D. Fullerton
Departments of History of Art and Classics
The Ohio State University

Book Review of Enduring Bronze: Ancient Art, Modern Views, by Carol C. Mattusch

Reviewed by Mark D. Fullerton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Fullerton

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