Apollo Saettante, a Silent Witness – Vesuvius Eruption, 79AD

Eruption of Vesuvius 79AD – Apollo Saettante, Silent Witness

Apollo Saettante; detail, Roman, 100 B.C.–before A.D. 79; found in Pompeii, Italy, in 1817–18 Bronze 57 7/8 x 21 5/8 x 44 7/8 in. (147 x 55 x 114 cm) Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

In the centre of Naples, Italy, the 16th-century Palazzo degli Studi houses the National Archaeological Museum, which holds one of the most important collections of classical antiquities, including ancient sculptures uncovered at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. The trio of cities were buried in the most violent eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Campania on a fateful day, August 24, 79 AD. “…you could hear the shrieks. … many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and the universe had been plunged into eternal darkness forever”

Gods Zeus, Leto, Artemis and Apollo

Gods Zeus, Leto, Artemis and Apollo

For those not familiar with the Greek God Apollo, he was the ancient Greek God of archery, music, poetry, oracles, the sun, prophecy, medicine and knowledge. From all the images we have of him he was a handsome beardless athletic and radiant youth, a favourite of the rest of the gods, who were all meant to represent harmony, order and reason.

Apollo at Versailles by

One of Apollo’s more important daily tasks was to  harness his chariot with four horses and drive the sun across the sky. What I really like about Apollo though, was that he represented the best we can all endeavour to be and he desired to help us meet the challenges of each day.


Apollo Saettante (archer) on a pedestal in the colonnaded courtyard of the Temple of Apollo at Pompeii,

The Apollo Saettante is one of my favourite trio of sculptures of Apollo, the others being the Apollo Belvedere, which is in the Vatican and, the Apollo in the garden at the Chatéau Versailles.

In the garden at Versailles the magnificent sculptural group by Jean Baptiste Tubby depicts Apollo the Sun God at the start of his daily journey. He is rising in his chariot from the water amid the spray of fountains, accompanied by tritons and dolphins and with the dusk they came to rest, while the rest of the chateau partied on.

In ancient Greece Apollo was the bright morning star filled with light and the Homeric hymn to Apollo, represented the triumph of the Olympian gods of light over the chthonic deities of darkness.

At Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae during the eruption of Vesuvius tons of falling debris filled the streets and over the years the towns were completely covered. With the loss of local memory that happens as any population ages, the stories of the cities finally became part of local legend and went to sleep for almost 1700 years.

Naples is the capital of Campania, the area of the Italian Peninsula that has the Mediterranean Sea on its doorstep. It was colonised by the ancient Greeks and throughout the Roman era there the area maintained a ‘Greco-Roman culture.

Pliny the Elder, a naturalist and official of the Roman Court, was in charge of the fleet in the Bay of Naples. He is known to have perished nearby to Pompeii on that dreadful day, when going to the aid of the people in peril. “… his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death”*

It was 1738 at Herculaneum, 1748 at Pompeii and 1749 at Stabiae when archaeologists began to uncover the remains of the cities. Since then they have contributed to an intriguing and unique insight into life during the first century Roman Empire. As a visible record of our social history and cultural development they are highly important.

The majority of the remains of the bronze statue of Apollo were not discovered at Pompeii until June 1817, just north of the forum.

It consisted of his torso and head, right arm to the wrist, the upper left arm and left leg complete with foot and the right leg without its foot.

Two veteran soldiers walking along the northern city wall in October 1818, apparently chased a fox that appeared. It went underground and they followed it and found more bronze fragments: the Apollo’s missing right foot, right hand, and parts of its left arm.

Pre-conservation photo of Apollo as an Archer (Apollo Saettante), Roman, 100 B.C.–before A.D. 79. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

Days later, the rest of the Apollo’s left arm was found and identified. The bow and arrow Apollo once held was never found, but his pose suggests he held one. For this reason he is called Apollo Saettante (Archer).

Gnothi se auton Know Thyself is a famous Greek maxim inscribed on Apollo’s temple at Delphi located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where the supreme leader of the Gods and Apollo’s father Zeus released two eagles; one from the East (the Ascendant) and the other from the West (the Descendant).

Where they met he marked as the center of Earth, or the navel of the world.

Visiting Delphi was an important pilgrimage for an ancient Greek to make, the Oracle being delivered through the intermediary Pythia, priestess of Apollo. She went into a total trance before uttering verses whose interpretation was provided by a priest known for giving, truthful, but often ambiguous answers.

apollo-versailles-2Apollo is a very complex Greek God with all sorts of symbolic significance, cults and considerations, as well as having many finer points of detail about his persona and his association with other Gods.

The bronze sculpture of him as Apollo Saettante is very moving and wonderfully made using the lost-wax technique, widely employed in the ancient Mediterranean area to produce large-scale bronze sculptures.

The process involved creating a working model in wax and then casting it in bronze in separate pieces. The resultant metal parts were then joined together, and the assembled statue’s surface, finished.

Meroe Bronze head of Augustus with lifelike eyes

Meroe Bronze head of Augustus with lifelike eyes still intact

Often the ancient bronze workers fashioned the statues eyes in different materials to make them appear more lifelike. The Apollo Saettante had his eyes cast with the head and slightly recessed and then, like the statue of his sister, dressed with shallow inlays.

Carrying out forensic investigation of markings on a pedestal in the colonnaded courtyard of the Temple of Apollo at Pompeii, archaeologists found they matched Apollo’s feet, evidence for the sculpture’s original location.

Ancient documents that survived inform scholars the temple had been undergoing repairs, due to severe earthquake damage from the preceding eruptions in the few years before the city was finally destroyed on that fatal in 79AD.

This may account for the Apollo’s discovery some distance away from the sanctuary. The supposition is that the statue might have been moved for safekeeping, or for melting down and perhaps even reusing the bronze.

Antiquities conservator Erik Risser working on Apollo’s drapery in the Conservation Studio at the Getty Villa

How its extremities ended up even farther north remains unknown, although nineteenth-century guidebooks presented a plausible thesis: people trying to salvage precious materials in the aftermath of the eruption made off with the bronze fragments, only to meet an unfortunate end they could not have foreseen.

Being one of the first major bronzes to be found at Pompeii the Apollo was taken to the, originally, Royal Bourbon Museum. The earliest visual record of him after he had been reassembled and put on display shows that the reconstruction was completed by 1825.

All the fragments found were joined together using iron straps secured with brass screws and soldered. Modern metal was also shaped to carry out the repairs. The restorers wanted to hide the signs of their intervention and while the screws would have been visible on the exterior of the statue, it had been extensively cleaned to produce an overall surface colouring that looked ancient, and to allow the screws to blend in with the surrounding metal.

These first restorers went to great lengths to imitate an ancient patina, applying pigments to create a suitable greenish colour.

Post Conservation Apollo as an Archer (Apollo Saettante), Roman, 100 B.C.–before A.D. 79. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

In 2009 and 2010 the Getty Villa Museum in America, undertook analysis, conservation and re-stabilisation of the statue in consultation with the now re-named Museo Archeologico Nazionale at Naples as part of a cultural exchange program**.

Processes in archaeology and conservation of important artefacts have changed a great deal over the years and artistic license is not something embraced any more, so a number of changes were made.

Getty conservator Erik Risser found that during the 1835 restoration Apollo had been reconstructed and re-assembled around an internal iron armature inserted through his left leg.

The most considered change that took place had been major adjustments to the drapery, which had been found to have dramatic ends added possibly in the 1860’s, although documentary evidence is yet to be found.

They had however compromised the ongoing integrity of the piece because of the added weight, which would add a considerable strain for the future.

So the joint decision was made between the two institutions to remove them and for the drapery to be put back as original sketches made when it was first found and restored indicated it should be.

A replica of the statue stands in the courtyard of the Temple of Apollo at Pompeii, while the original statue with its 19th century additions and 21st century removals, is now secure is held in trust for the nation of Italy in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

**J.Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu


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