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The Riace Bronzes: Warriors Rescued From the Sea

The pair exemplify the Classical style of representing lifelike, spatially dynamic figures

‘B’, left, and ‘A,’ right. Close examination shows how pervasively the modeling differentiates the two sculptures.

‘B’, left, and ‘A,’ right. Close examination shows how pervasively the modeling differentiates the two sculptures.
‘B’, left, and ‘A,’ right. Close examination shows how pervasively the modeling differentiates the two sculptures. PHOTO: ERICH LESSING / ART RESOURCE, NY


In a prosaic twist of fate, the magnificent bronze warriors are now referred to as “A” and “B.” We may never know who these over-life-size nudes, permanently exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum in Reggio Calabria, Italy, were intended to represent, or where or by whom they were created, or where they originally were erected. But the Riace (pronounced ree-AH-chay) Bronzes’ chance discovery by an amateur diver off Riace Marina, Calabria, in 1972 marks one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century. Usually dated to around 460 B.C., the two statues exemplify the early Classical style—the first style in the history of art to break the bonds of schematic, pictorially oriented modes of sculpting the human figure in order to present it in lifelike, spatially dynamic terms.

The Classical breakthrough occurred when the Greeks incorporated more realistic facial features into their sculpture, probably early in the fifth century B.C. They also adopted the less static, more naturalistic pose known as contrapposto, used for the Riace Bronzes, in which one leg bears the figure’s weight. The bronzes’ majestic presence reflects the classical aesthetic that shaped the monumental sculpture of Greco-Roman antiquity for 600 years.
The two warriors differ in height by just three inches and are similarly posed, with their weight on their right legs, right arms (which once held spears) at their sides, and left arms (which once held shields) bent at the elbow. Though it’s entirely possible the two statues were designed to complement one another, they are very different. Each testifies to the Greeks’ mastery of both the structural articulation of the human body and technically demanding bronze-casting techniques. The warriors’ ruddy copper lips were cast separately, and their nipples are copper, too. The ends of the copper sheets holding their calcite eyeballs in place were cut to form eyelashes. Warrior A’s gleaming teeth are silver-plated bronze.

The warriors were not conceived as individualized portraits, a later development in Greek art. They could represent either mythical heroes or great generals of recent history, and may originally have belonged to a larger sculptural group that included divinities. The strip circumnavigating A’s elaborate coiffure possibly accommodated a royal diadem, while the back of B’s skull is elongated because he originally wore a raised helmet. B is also missing his left eye.

Warrior A looks off to his right—on the alert, ready for battle, his anatomy taut, breath retracted. The emphatic line running between his pectoral and abdominal muscles and down to the navel, an enduring vestige of archaic linear technique, is thus vertical, while there is a slight convexity to the abdomen’s profile. B, who some consider a later work, represents a counterpoint—and not just in terms of the much simpler treatment of his beard and hair. He reads as a commander after a battle. His body is relaxed as he exhales: hence the conspicuous curve to his pectoral-abdominal line, and the concavity in his abdomen. His head, tilted slightly downward and to his right, indicates a pensive mood, perhaps even weariness, rather than military readiness. While A’s shoulders are tensed on a near horizontal, there is a slope from B’s left to right shoulder, and the arrangement of his left, “free” leg, with his left foot less advanced than A’s, likewise subtly conveys the impression of bodily relaxation. The two figures’ contrasting mental states provide a foretaste of the psychologically variegated treatment of the defeated Gallic warriors portrayed in celebrated Hellenistic group compositions centuries later.
Close examination of the Riace Bronzes shows how pervasively the modeling differentiates the two figures. Stand behind the statues and you will see that the activated muscles in A’s shoulder region are modeled with great precision. With B the same muscles are subsumed rather than emphasized. The distinct treatment of the two figures’ buttocks likewise conforms to their different bodily states.

B’s right arm and left forearm are not original, but antique restorations likely dating to the Roman era; the original upper left arm was reattached to the torso at the same time. If the statue was altered rather than simply restored—for a new, presumably Roman context—the job was done without compromising the sense of organic unity B conveys. That would not have been a trivial feat, but again, we may never know. Like so much Greek sculpture that has come down to us, these marvelous statues will always have much to show, and much to hide.

—Mr. Leigh writes about public art and architecture.