Greek miracle broken, melted & recycled

The near complete destruction of classical Greek statuary

From the few remaining fragments of Greek Antiquity, we imagine it was a world made of white marble statues. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the majority of classical Greek statues were made of bronze, and marble statues were brightly painted and gilded, full of life and movement. The very opposite of the expressionless, seemingly identical looking white statues were are accustomed of today.

Divine or human?

The Greek vision of the gods was captured by poets.

To the question “whence each of the gods came to be, or whether all had always been, and how they appeared in form” the Greek historian answered “Hesiod and Homer are the ones who taught the Greeks the descent of the gods, and gave the gods their names, and determined their spheres and functions, and described their outward forms”.

And the poets depicted gods looking human, like Apollo who could metamorphose into “the form of a man, brisk and sturdy, in the prime of his youth, while his broad shoulders were covered with his hair”. As to finding human models worthy of gods, artists only had to go and see athletic competitions, which were part of religious events, like the Panathenaic or Olympic games.

This is why it is sometimes difficult to know if one is looking at the statue of a god, or of a man.

A legion of colossal statues

In the first century AD, Pliny wrote an encyclopaedia based on 2,000 books, an invaluable source of knowledge about ancient art. About colossal statues, he stated “the examples are innumerable” and their size “equal to towers in size”.

Pliny also tells us of an “innumerable” number of bronze statues, and of an “almost innumerable multitude of artists”.

When Rome took over Greece, a massive looting campaign of artistic treasures took place, with one campaign bringing 780 bronzes and 230 marbles, another 250 carts loaded with art treasures.

The Romans were so eager to acquire Greek masterpieces that there never was enough, so a near industrial level of marble replicas was produced to respond to the demand for Imperial Rome to be adorned with 'Greek' statues.

Circa 350 AD there was 3,785 bronze statues in Rome's public spaces.

Statues come to die

The great classical statues were not just meant to decorate forums, baths and circuses, they actually were religious images. Apollo playing music, Dionysos drinking wine, Venus bathing, the three graces dancing, and the muses inspiring the arts were all divinities.

The statues were indeed images of gods, while being at the same time art, the creation of mankind's genius, as much as any religious statue or building anywhere in the world.

'Art' wasn't just created for the enjoyment of connoisseurs, it was a way to make faith accessible and visible, from the illiterate person to the priest performing the most sacred rites, from the clay statuette in every modest home to the colossal bronze statue inside a temple.

To build places of worship, great architects and artists conceived and decorated religious edifices, aiming that they last generations, or even eternity. This is why the majority of the ancient monuments that survived the action of time and man are religious.

By the time of Emperor Constantine, Greek and Roman masterpieces started to be considered as dangerous demons whose “ugliness lay within the superficially applied beauty”.

From the 4th century AD, to the sack of Constantinople in 1204 till the first discovery of an ancient Greek bronze in 1836; the reader discovers how the finest bronze statues ever created became cannons, cannonballs, coins and tools; and how a “forest” of marble statues vanished into the lime-kiln.

Lost memory of men & lost masterpieces

Statues were not just for gods, but were erected for worthy men, so “the memory of individuals was thus preserved, their various honours being inscribed on the pedestals, to be read there by posterity”.

One example was Alexander the Great who chose Lysippos to create his portrait, celebrated for “the expressive, melting glance of the eyes”; the eyes of a man looking beyond, in search of worlds to conquer.

Eyes are essential for the viewer to access the “feelings of the mind”, the ethos, character, emotions and quality of the person portrayed, since they are a 'window to the soul'.

Lysippos possessed the rare talent to open that window, like later Michelangelo showing David's determination in the glance of his eyes. But we cannot come eye to eye with the great men behind the Greek miracle, those who brought us democracy, the great thinkers, the conqueror, as none of the original portrait statues have survived, and the Roman copies only offer an empty stare.

The reader then learns about the great sculptors of Antiquity, Pheidias, Polykleitos, Praxiteles, Lysippos, and will be stunned to discover the number of remaining Greek classical masterpieces extant today.

Then a powerful homage as to how an art almost entirely destroyed nevertheless was incredibly influential throughout history and the world.


This is a preview of the chapter about the creation and destruction of ancient Greek statues from the book Lost Treasures.