On loan for a limited period from June 1 to July 15, 2013 at The Met New York is an exceptional bronze sculpture known as the Boxer at Rest. Created between the late fourth and second century before the Christ event, the bronze pugilist will be on show for the first time outside Europe. He normally resides in the Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.
The ancient cultural mosaic was shattered between the fourth and sixth centuries after the Christ event as the extensive borders of the Roman Empire collapsed. To save this marvelous work during an invasion by the barbarian hordes that ravaged Rome during the fifth century, it’s believed that the boxer was intentionally buried on the south slope of the Quirinal Hill from where he was excavated in good condition in 1885.
In ancient times this area of Rome was home to the Baths of Constantine and it has been suggested by scholars that the statue may have been an aspect of their decoration.
Rome was the ruling capital of the Western Roman Empire until it was moved to the Italian city of Ravenna by the young emperor Honorius, when he had heard that the migrating Germanic tribe of the Visigoths had entered Italy and were on their way to Rome where they sacked the city on August 24, 410. This was the first time in almost 800 years Rome had fallen to an enemy and it is seen as a major landmark in what many scholars have contributed to the continuing decline and demise of the Roman Empire in the west.
The Boxer is depicted seated, resting following a particularly hard match. He is naked, wearing nothing but an athletic accessory known as a kynodésme, which was both functional and an element of decorum and gloves.
The gloves are highly detailed and let us know that he was a boxer. The sport can be traced back to the early civilisations that emerged in Mesopotamia. The gloves evolved from the soft leather thongs the Greeks wore wrapped around their hands to the dreadful leather knuckledusters with a metal insert the casetus invented by the Romans, the equivalent of a modern switch blade knife and deadly so we know he must have been an exceptional sportsman because of his maturity.
His face, with a well-kept beard indicates he is an older man. His many head wounds are consistent with the ancient boxing techniques of his time; his right eye is swollen, his nose broken and his (cauliflower) ears are swollen from the severity of the blows inflicted, probably causing hearing loss. His scarred lips are sunken, suggesting he also has missing teeth and there are drops of blood trickling down his right arm and leg.
He is certainly very realistic, a sporting hero we can well relate to today, one glorified for both his endurance and courage. The evidence of wear on his feet and hands scholars tell us is more than likely because he was so venerated in ancient times that people liked to touch him. The fact those people who admired him took the care to hide him also gives us an indication of the respect and awe in which he was held.
He harks back to the splendour of ancient Greek bronze role models, when from the middle of the fourth century BCE to the middle of the first century BCE sculpture made from bronze was exceptional and of outstanding artistry.
Rome was always very good at taking a lead from the Greeks, who had colonized the south of the Italian peninsular for centuries. Over the centuries since those Romans who valued the beauty and timeless aesthetic of ancient Greek sculptures sought to conserve and preserve them for posterity by copying them.
Much of the ancient Greek sculpture we know about today is because of existing Roman copies.
Greek style was based primarily on the male nude, whose form dominated the visual arts of the western world for nearly two and a half millennia. Centuries before the Christ event Greek sculptors such as Praxiteles of Athens and Lysippus who were both believed to be contemporary of Alexander the Great (336 – 323)’s age, had set a fashion in sculpture, one that depicted man at the centre of nature.
Greek sculpture was the first and only ancient art form to break free from conceptual conventions. Sculptors explored how art might imitate nature, or even improve upon it. A worker in bronze during his youth, Lysippus introduced into Greek art, as represented in sculpture, great fluidity of movement and naturalism.
He brilliantly combined the pursuit of pathos with a celebration of man’s heroic qualities in harmonious proportion. Pathos implies something so much more than simple emotion: it refers to that inner universe one to which man is drawn attracted by the very nature of his own complexities and contradictions. And the Boxer at Rest certainly engages our attention and emotions.
This inherent association with ancient Greek sculpture for the Romans highlighted the pleasures of life that the Greeks enjoyed; healthy living, hunting, reading and good conversation with friends, which for them became a desired style of life and an ideological construct for those seeking to escape the rigours, stresses and pressures of daily life.
The showing is part of 2013 – Year of Italian Culture in the United States when great works of art on loan from Italian museums will be on show.
“We are proud to host The Boxer at Rest, a special loan made possible by the Republic of Italy,” commented Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum. “More than 2,000 years have passed since this virtuoso work of art was created, yet the powerful realism of its subject continues to captivate viewers today. The privilege to display this marvelous statue in the United States for the first time—and in the context of the Met’s exceptional collection – is a particular honor. We encourage our visitors not to miss this exciting opportunity.”
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013