A glimpse of Greece in Bologna
Occasionally insights into the ancient world hit you when you least expect it, and in surprising places.
I have always found those most precious ancient statues that formed the centrepiece of the grandest Greek temples extremely puzzling. I mean the kind of colossal gold and ivory (“chryselephantine” in academic jargon) creations that once dominated the inside of the Parthenon or the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
My problem is not how to understand the technical side of their construction: it was a relatively simple process of erecting a frame of wood, then arranging the sheets of gold, or gilded, “clothing” around it in a relatively life-like way and adding a white ivory face, hands and feet. My problem has always been understanding how any such object could end up being anything other than laughably vulgar.
None of these so-called “masterpieces” actually survive; gold and ivory easily falls victims to robbers or flames. But for decades now I have been failing to convince generations of students (not to mention myself) that they were really impressive, awesome works of art – the fitting focus of antiquity’s most holy places. My project has not been helped, it must be said, by the available modern reconstructions, which mostly succeed in making these statues look plain silly.
But last weekend, in the Medieval Museum in Bologna, my eyes were opened.
The words “Museo Civico Medievale” don’t usually bode well for me. But Bologna’s version is a stunner. For a start, it’s free – a hangover, I guess, from the glory days of Bolognese communism in the 1960s and 70s, when even the buses were free. Second, it was fitted out in the mid 1980s, so well that it looks fresh even now. Third, and most important, it contains some wonderful works of art.
There’s a tremendous bronze sculpture by Algardi of St Michael finishing off a remarkably satyric-looking demon. There’s an engaging series of tombs of professors at the medieval University of Bologna; each one shows the dead man lecturing to a group of more or less -- and often less -- attentive students (a predictable hit with me). An interesting rogue piece – for it certainly didn’t come from Bologna – is a little-known Byzantine mosaic of the Virgin Mary, which makes lifelike flesh out of a thousands of tiny pieces of stone in a way you wouldn’t believe possible. (Quite why an artist so good wasted his or her talent on the strange craft of mosaic-making is another question.)
But my eye-opener was a colossal, twice life-size statue of Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface (c1235-1303) has had a mixed press. He viciously destroyed the city of Palestrina and was threatened with hell by Dante; but he was also the pope who orchestrated the jubilee celebrations of the year 1300, starting the fashion for jubilees ever after.
The statue was put up in 1301 on the façade of the Palazzo Communale in Bologna, where it stood till the end of the eighteenth century. Now it is displayed so that you catch sight of it from the main entrance to the museum, brilliantly lit against a dark back ground. Massive in scale, recognizably human in form, he wears vestments of shimmering gold, with his right hand raised in benediction. It’s an awesome, almost super-human sight.
Get up close, and you discover that – exactly like those ancient temple statues – he is in fact just a plank of wood, covered in clothing of gilded bronze. His face and hands are not ivory, like the ancient Greek versions, but bronze. Still, the basic principle is the same.
For me, after years of struggling with the whole idea of such statues, the penny has begun to drop.
(Sorry -- I have only been able to find a tiny image of the full figure! I don’t even have a book to hand with a full length photograph. If anyone knows of something better on the web, please post a reference.)