The Best Classical Sculpture in the World?

Courtesy of the Servizio Parco archeologico e ambientale presso le isole dello Stagnone e delle aree archeologiche di Marsala e dei Comuni limitrofi–Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi. By permission of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana. Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.

Witness “the most tantalizing marble sculpture in the entire world.” Andrew Graham-Dixon called it that last summer, when the so-called Mozia Charioteer was displayed at the British Museum next to the Elgin Marbles (carved about 30 years later and only in half-relief). Other critics were no less effusive, some rating it the best sculpture-in-the-round of the Classical period. Now you can judge for yourself, for the Charioteer is at the Getty Villa through August 2013. Hardly in dispute is that the statue is the most amazing of the A-list loans the Villa has managed to swing in recent years. It anchors the current loan exhibition, “Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome.”

The Charioteer is relatively new to art history, having been discovered on the tiny island of Mozia (or Motya) in 1979. It has since resided in Mozia’s Guiseppe Whitaker Museum, a.k.a. the Whitaker Villa. Sicilian-born, though of British ancestry, Whitaker was heir to a fortune in Marsala wine vineyards. Having died in 1936, he never saw the Charioteer, and there is nothing comparable in his collection of local archaeology and history. The Whitaker Villa is a day trip by ferry from western Sicily. Even those tourists savvy to Sicily’s riches often pass it up.

The Charioteer embodies Greek classicism in an eclectic way. The head is a throwback to the late-archaic severe style. The body exemplifies the “wet drapery” style also seen in the Parthenon friezes and the ex-Getty Cult Goddess. Think of it as a wet T-shirt contest in stone. When shown in Britain, critics commented on the figure’s erotic charge. In The Telegraph, Graham-Dixon wrote,

“This light and diaphanous garment, which makes the body beneath seem so much more present, so much more voluptuously actual than if it were merely naked, has been worked by the sculptor with breathtaking skill. It accentuates the slight bulge of the genitals, the muscularity of the buttocks, the contours of calf and thigh, plunging the viewer with almost disconcerting immediacy into the world of ancient Greece as it was in the age of Pericles: a world where the young male athlete was not only a hero, but also an object of intense homo-erotic fascination. The chiton clings tightly to the charioteer’s body because, by implication, it is soaked with the sweat of his exertions.”

The Evening Standard’s Brian Sewell painted this word-picture,

“Imagine David Beckham naked within an ankle-length dress of gossamer linen designed by Mariano Fortuny, his sinuous contrapposto exaggerated by the clinging cloth, his genital mound and the muscles of his buttocks thrusting against it.”

Calming down a bit, Sewell concluded,

“It was for me a Stendhal moment. I have never seen a sculpture like it. It is not of the ilk of the Elgin Marbles, nor of the Pergamon Altar, nor of the Laocoön and Apollo Belvedere, nor of the great bronze athletes here and there, and I fell to wondering how the history of art might have been different had Donatello and Michelangelo known of it instead of ancient Roman marbles, or had Lord Elgin found it instead of the sculptures of the Parthenon.”

To that I’ll add: Were the Venus de Milo to be displayed in an American museum it would draw blockbuster crowds. The Hellenistic Venus is famous for being famous, housed in the world’s most-trafficked museum, the Louvre. The Mozia Charioteer is the apex of an earlier, more pivotal moment in Western art, and practically no one in America has seen it. This opportunity won’t come again.

(Below, the Charioteer and Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, 2012.)

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