Body Perfect in Greek Sculpture
Fitness. Exercise. Fresh Air. Vitamin D. Healthy diet. A recurring theme during the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of healthy living as a way to both combat and recover from this deadly virus. Taking care of our bodies is essential to healthy living–today as it was in ancient Greece. The focus on fitness can be seen in the sculpture of the Golden Age of Greece 2,500 years ago!
Fitness in Art: Physical fitness was important to the Ancient Greeks. After all, they created the Olympics Games! Imposing order on human movement, making it beautiful, and perfecting it was their goal as they sculpted the human body in a way that was totally new to the ancient world at that time.
Fitness in Life: A firm believer that physical fitness is a necessity for balanced health and wellness, exercise has always been in important part of my personal daily life. The COVID-19 pandemic forced adaptations in my fitness routine.
As warm weather encourages us to again get outdoors, I reflect on the past year as it relates to Fitness in Life. The local YMCA has been a consistent part of my personal fitness program; body, mind and spirit. When our governor shut down fitness centers this past year, not once, but twice, I was quite upset. The first round, during the spring and summer, was not a huge problem. I walked around my neighborhood and said “hi” to my neighbors as we waved to each other from opposite sides of the street–6′ apart, or course! My husband and I rode bicycle and enjoyed our time together as we explored area streets and bike paths. A friend opened her backyard swimming pool for me to use when the Y pool was closed. I was getting lot of sun and fresh air along with my exercise.
With the cold November Minnesota temperatures came the second closure; this was was not so easy. As long as the streets were clear, I bundled up and walked “laps” in my neighborhood . But when the snow came, and streets got icy, I moved indoors. It is true that necessity is the mother of invention. I reached into my magic exercise bag of tricks for the ones I gleaned from my Y trainers and mentors. Voices of Judy, Karen and Sue flooded my mind as I dug out my foam roller, big ball, exercise bands and Pilates cheat sheets. I counted the number of steps it took for me to walk a mile and “did the math;” it would take me seven laps around my home to equal a mile.
Fitness in Ancient Greek Art. Greek sculptures are exquisite examples of the ideal body not only in muscle and movement, but also in balance, symmetry, proportion, harmony, rhythm and Golden Ratios of perfection. Two in particular come to mind: the Discobolus and the Doryphorus. One shows the body in motion; the other in a more relaxed pose. Fitness is evident in both.
Discobolus–or “discus thrower” is the epitome of fitness! He was originally created in bronze by a sculptor named Myron at the start of the Greek Classical period (460-450 BC). He is a beautiful representation of the athletic ideal and became the iconic image of the Olympic games past and present (London 1948). The original Greek bronze sculpture has been lost, but, thanks to the Romans who loved to copy everything Greek, several Roman-made marble copies are with us today.
One of the most famous is the Palombara Discobolus from Rome, now on display in the National Museum of Rome. This marble version of the sculpture is the one most likely to be included in the pages of your art history textbook.
In ancient Rome, versions adorned villas as a symbol of the owner’s cultured taste and status.
As a fitness model used today, he could be interpreted as being in a perfect state of control in mind, body and spirit. There is fluidity of movement in the body, combined with a facial calm.
Side Note: This statue was notoriously sold to Adolf Hitler in 1938 as a trophy of the Aryan race; it was returned to Italy in 1948.
The Townley Discobolus
This marble copy resides in the British Museum, London England. Also a copy of the original one by Myron, you will notice a major difference: the position of his head! For correct positioning, the head should be turned to watch the discus, as in the Palombrara version. Turns out, the head on this copy was wrongly restored. Opps!
Side Note: An “AHA!” moment has occurred! I had assumed (incorrectly) that there was only one Discobolus and my association was with the one in my art history text. When I had the privilege of seeing this one at the British Museum, I intuitively I felt something was “wrong” but couldn’t figure out what it was. Now I know why! The head! And the knowledge that there are several versions of this famous sculpture.
At only 5’1″ tall, It was also smaller than I thought it would be–but still impressive!
Here are three other views of the Townley Discobolus, British Museum, which exemplify the fluidity and balance that makes this sculpture so great, even if he is “not quite right” in his head (sorry, bad pun!).
Other Roman marble copies have been recovered. There are torsos identified in the 1600s but were also incorrectly restored and completed, have since been identified as repetitions after Myron’s model. 19th century plaster copies were also discovered in many large academic collections and are now dispersed throughout the world.
Doryphorus – “spear-bearer” – focuses on fitness of the body in a relaxed state of being. Polykleitos, its original Greek sculptor (450-440 B.C.) is said to have sought to portray the perfect man and impose order on the human form. I believe he accomplished his goal!
(And for all those artists who think they don’t need math…Polykleitos used mathematical principles and calculations to achieve his goal; so don’t skip your math in your quest to create good art!)
What is significant about this sculpture is the stance. Previous styles were stiff and formal. This guy is relaxed and life-like, standing somewhat like the stance we might take while waiting in line in the grocery store. Contraposto – “counter posture” – puts the weight onto just one leg, tilts the head slightly to one side, shifts the shoulders and arms to match the positioning of the legs, and ultimately adjusting the entire stance to create a feeling of balance, reality and motion at rest. Just like we do when we’re waiting in line!
Like the Discobolus, the Greek originals of the Doryphorus were bronze and are long gone. We can again thank the Romans for the marble copies we have today. There are four restored copies that we know of: three are in Italy (Ufizzi Gallery, Florence; Vatican Museum, Rome and National Archaeological Museum, Naples) and one is in the United States (Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN).
The Doryphorus in Naples, discovered in Pompeii, is the best preserved Roman marble copy and the one most likely to be seen in your art history book.
His left hand would have once held his spear. The tree trunk added to his right leg is for stability; this would not have been needed for the hollow bronze version.
The Doryphorus I am most familiar with is my favorite, the one residing and reigning majestically in my hometown: Minneapolis Minnesota. Read more about him in my Art & Travel blog on the Mia, Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Close up, one can see the concrete patches that have been added to make him “whole” again. Still, he is in great shape for someone 2,500 years old!
Arm Chair Travel: Greece
Greece is one of my favorite places to visit for great architecture, art, history, culture–and of course food! Gyros and baklava are suitable for any meal!
For a great introduction to a visit to Greece, I recommend the light-hearted, romantic comedy “My Life In Ruins” starring Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) as an American tour guide living in Athens. She leads a group of stereotypical tourists to the highlights of famed archaeological ruins of the Parthenon, Delphi, the Agora and beyond. Details are included in my Film Discussion blog on “My Life In Ruins.” Check it out!
Art & Travel:
For a view of Neo-Classical Greek columns in Minnesota, a trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is in order! Surrounding the Mia’s Doryphorus (above) are examples of all three styles: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. It is a fun visitor scavenger hunt!