Mystery of the missing bronze

A new excavation to find the third Riace statue is planned

On Art

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Fifty years ago, Stefano Mariottini, a chemist from Rome, was snorkelling near Riace in Calabria. A few hundred metres off the coast, in water eight metres deep, he looked down and saw an arm protruding from the sea bed: he thought he was swimming over a corpse. But, when he dived and touched the arm, it was solid, not flesh. Shortly afterwards he noticed a second figure buried in the sand.

Back on shore, Mariottini alerted the police and a week later his two finds were hauled from the Ionian Sea. What he had discovered was a pair of slightly over life-size (6 foot 6 inches) ancient Greek bronze warriors or gods that dated from 460-450 BC. It was an extraordinary discovery; Greek marbles are rare survivors but bronzes have hen’s teeth scarcity. 

Fewer than 30 classical or Hellenistic large-scale bronze statues that are more or less intact survive.

Nevertheless, they were once plentiful on mainland Greece. In the second century AD, the Greek traveller-writer Pausanias went to the sanctuary of Olympia and counted 69 ancient bronze statues commemorating victors in the Olympic games dating back to the fifth century BC — the era of the Riace Warriors. Not one is now known to exist, although 13 of the statues’ bases have been found. Thanks to the value and recyclable nature of their material, almost all were melted down.

There have long been rumours that these items were smuggled out during the original retrieval of the figures

What was most remarkable about the Riace bronzes was their verisimilitude. The two figures — Riace A and Riace B — had been cast from the same mould but differ in details such as hair, expression and small changes of pose. Riace B looks to be an older man and wears a helmet, while Riace A wears a band to keep his vibrant curls in check. Silver was used for eyelashes and teeth, copper to give red lips and nipples, while ivory, calcite and glass and amber paste was used for the eyes.

The sophistication and skill of the detailing, and the difficulty of casting bronzes of this size from wax models, led to a great deal of speculation about the original artist or artists. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder listed some of the most celebrated Greek artists such as Myron, Phidias and Polykleitos; all were mooted as possible sculptors.

More questions were asked about where the statues had come from. Did they originate locally in Magna Graecia, the Greek-populated region of southern Italy, or were they part of Rome’s spoils following the Pyrrhic War (280—275 BC) or after its conquest of Greece in the aftermath of the Battle of Corinth (146 BC)? There were no signs of a wreck in the vicinity so perhaps they been thrown overboard to lighten a ship’s weight during a storm? Other theories suggest that they were lost when Constantine the Great moved some of Rome’s treasures to his new capital Constantinople — an idea given weight by the fact that the statues appear to have been restored in Rome during the Augustan period — or even that they had been lost during the Renaissance.

What were certainly lost were the shield and weapon carried by each figure and the helmet missing from Riace A — losses confirmed by the empty grip of the statues’ hands and marks on Riace A’s head. Here things get murky.

One of the recovered bronzes was entirely covered in barnacles

There have long been rumours that these items were smuggled out during the original retrieval of the figures and had ended up in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. By March 2007 they had become persistent enough for the museum to issue a denial: “In recent weeks, there have been reports in the press suggesting that pieces from the Bronzes of Riace (a shield, lance, and helmet) might currently reside at the J. Paul Getty Museum. This information is wrong and should be corrected. These objects, that are suggested to be part of the Riace Bronzes, have never been in the Getty Museum’s collection.”

More importantly, according to Italian investigator Giuseppe Braghò, there was a third figure at the site. In his original 1972 statements, Mariottini told the Carabinieri that the retrieved figures were part of “a group” of at least three bronzes — “one of them lying on its side with a shield on its left arm”, which doesn’t correspond to the existing statues. He said that “two protruding statues … were free of any clear incrustations” while photographs show that one of the recovered bronzes was entirely covered in barnacles.

According to Braghò, this third figure was either looted with the lance, shield and helmet — and he has provided the name of the alleged smuggler — or is still on the sea floor. Remarkably, there seem to have been only two minor excavations at the site, even though in 2004, a US ship found sonar evidence of metallic objects nearby.

This year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the find, the mayor of Riace, Antonio Trifoli, has announced a new excavation (and a new museum and international conference) to try and find the third bronze and the missing accoutrements.

In 1981, when the original bronzes were put on display after restoration at the National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria, they attracted a million visitors. A third warrior would not just be a wonder of ancient art, but would work wonders for Calabrian tourism.

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