The Fugitive Ghost of Ancient Greece’s Greatest Sculptor

ROME — The greatest challenge of mounting an exhibition about the famous ancient Greek artist Phidias (c. 480–c. 430 BCE) is that not a single surviving piece of work can be attributed to him with certainty. The best that can be done is “Phidias and his workshop,” or even just “workshop of Phidias,” despite some overconfident attributions in the Louvre. But the ancient Romans were inveterate copyists of Greek originals, and Fidia at the Capitoline Museums contains what experts on the artist consider to be the closest to his work. The result is an interesting but unsatisfying exhibition, curated by Claudio Parisi Presicce.

It begins with a look at the sculptor himself, about whom we know very little. We might have an image of him in two very posthumous works suggesting ancient ideas of what he looked like, and he might have inserted his own self-portrait, along with that of his sponsor, the Athenian politician Pericles, into a battle scene on the shield of his statue of Athena Parthenos, a Roman copy of which is also here. If these images represent Phidias in his maturity (he died at about 50 years of age), he was short and inclined to baldness, with a patchy beard, a bit of a paunch, and a workman’s clothes. He was also not known for his marble sculpture, but rather for his chryselephantine statues, made of gold and ivory, many of them cult statues for worship inside temples. 

The exhibition continues with an overview of the cultural context of Phidias’s works, at the peak of the Athenian supremacy over the Aegean that belies the city’s fame as a bastion of democracy. The city was democratic, certainly, but the huge territory it controlled with its navy had no say in its affairs. In this rich imperial Athens, Phidias worked closely with Pericles, and at his commission made two of his most famous statues of Athena for the Acropolis, the colossal bronze “Athena Promachos” carrying her spear and ready to defend Athens, and the “Athena Parthenos,” the Virgin Athena, as the cult statue of the goddess inside the Parthenon itself.

This latter piece, in gilded bronze and ivory, is one of the artist’s most reproduced works. His other principal work is the seated statue of Zeus in his temple at Olympia. This might be the most interesting part of the exhibition, because Phidias built a workshop to the exact scale of the temple in order to produce the statue. It was decorated with painted terracotta that has survived, and the museum at Olympia has loaned much of it for this show. Nonetheless, the artist himself remains fugitive, a blank space whose outlines can be discerned in the copies of his works. From the ruins of his workshop at Olympia comes one unexpected and electric jolt of connection: a broken wine jug with Φειδίου εἰμί — “I belong to Phidias” — scratched on the bottom. Finally, something by the master’s hand.

Fidias continues at Villa Caffarelli, the Capitoline Museums (Piazza del Campidoglio 1, Rome, Italy) through May 5. The exhibition was curated by Claudio Parisi Presicce.

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