Highlighted Works of Art - Spring

The ‘Vienne Satyr’

8 April 2014 - 8 June 2014

The majority of the almost six thousand works of art housed in the Collection of Classical Antiquities originates from old private collections; objects with a known provenance are rare in this collection. It is even more exceptional to know the circumstances of an object’s discovery, which could help reconstruct the ancient context and provide a glimpse into one or two chapters of its ‘long biography’. One of these few works is the marble torso − the head and the limbs are missing − that represents a man bending forward. The fragment of an ancient dowel made of iron and preserved in the broken surface of the neck is an indication that the head had already been restored, maybe replaced in antiquity. There are large discolorations on the marble surface, especially around the right shoulder, suggesting the statue’s long-time position in the open air. Analysis of the stone proved that the statue was chiselled from excellent-quality Parian marble; the finely polished surface and the rich plasticity of the modelling are evidence of the statue’s superb workmanship.

The torso was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in 1911. We owe its acquisition to Paul Arndt (1865–1937), the great archaeologist and art collector in Munich (unlike today, these two occupations were not considered irreconcilable in his time). The Museum purchased his 135 sculptures in 1908, thus founding its collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The relationship between the museum and Arndt remained close in the following years. Since at that time there was no scholar in the Museum specialized in ancient art, he gave advice on what was worth buying. Thus, when an art dealer in Paris asked for Arndt’s assistance to sell the torso, he suggested offering it to the Museum of Fine Arts.

The statue had been found in January 1907, in Sainte-Colombe in southern France. The settlement on the banks of the river Rhône was built upon the ruins of a Roman city, colonia Iulia Vienna (today’s Vienne). “Beautiful Vienna” (pulchra Vienna), as sung by the Roman poet Martialis (40−104 AD), was one of the main centres of the province Gallia Narbonensis. Due to its refined culture this province was regarded more as a part of Roman Italy than that of Gallia: “Italia verius quam provincia” – wrote Caius Iulius Plinius maior, a polyhistor in the 1st century AD. Therefore it is not surprising that a number of high-quality works of art were discovered in that province probably evoking Italia for those Romans living there. Even the highest Greek culture of the 5th century BC. was brought to Vienna: a statue base with the name of Myron was found in the excavations, the figure on it must have echoed one of the works of this great personality of Athenian Classical scuplture.

The marble torso in the Budapest collection was discovered in one of the thermal baths of the Roman city. The architecture’s enormous size is still attested by its remaining walls, ten meters tall in places, and its former luxury is reflected by its French name: Palais du Miroir, Mirror Palace. In the 17th century, common tradition connected the ruins with a palace of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, the famous Roman general and politician (106−48 BC). The ruins were recognized as a bath in the early 19th century when the first excavations were carried out, which yielded abundant finds. The building was equipped with pools and walls reveted with colourful marble panels, its floors and walls decorated with mosaics, its halls adorned with statues imitating the works of the greatest ancient sculptors (one of them is the marble statue depicting a crouching Venus, the copy of a famous work of the 3rd century BC sculptor Doidalsas, today kept in the Louvre in Paris). Since the excavations were conducted on private properties, the majority of finds ended up on the art market. This is how our torso first got to Paris and from there to Budapest.

Three suggestions have been raised concerning the interpretation of the Budapest torso. Its first publisher considered it to be a satyr without providing further arguments, and his theory was soon forgotten. Others thought it was part of a mythological composition, and regarded it as Theseus fighting the Minotaur. The generally accepted view holds that it represents an athlete: a man who has just touched ground following a long jump, with bent knees and both hands lowered down, or a runner standing at the start line, waiting for the race to begin. In order to decide on the options of interpretation, it is worth trying to reconstruct the statue, since the torso – despite its fragmentary condition – is fairly easy to complete with its limbs. The stumps of the thighs show that the left leg was stretched, while the right turned outwards in a slightly bent position. This means that the bodyweight was placed mostly on the left leg, while the right one stepped forward and to the side. The gluteus is stretched on both sides indicating that the right leg also bore some weight – perhaps the figure held and braced some object with this leg. The upper body is somewhat bent forward, twisting slightly to the right. The muscles of the chest and the back are strained in an asymmetrical way: the right shoulder is straight, while the left one turns slightly to the right suggesting a larger effort than that of the other one. The posture of the remains of the arms follows that of the thighs: the right points forward, the left forward and to the right. Lastly, it is also possible to reconstruct the position of the head: the figure turned his head to the right and was probably gazing downwards as indicated by the strained muscles in the front and also by what remains of the neck at the back.

The Vienna torso can thus be reconstructed as a statue that rested its weight on the left leg, but also stretched the right one (supporting some object), while the movement of the hands was oriented towards the right side of the body. This scheme cannot be recognized in the context of ancient representations of athletics, but instead exists in the sphere of Dionysos. It is known from a statue type that represents a satyr stepping forward and holding a goatskin filled with wine or a large shell on his thigh. Often the shell or the goatskin was drilled from the back for a pipe, and from a spout water was pouring into a basin, so we can see that these statues decorated fountains.

In fact, such a fountain statue was found in the “Palais du Miroir” in Vienna that represented a satyr carrying a shell, its iconographical scheme much resembling the one reconstructed here for the Budapest torso which belonged to the same ancient context. One additional element of that satyr’s statue makes its identification certain: the figure’s lower back exhibits a tiny “pony-tail” (hippouris), one of the conventional iconographical motifs of satyrs. In the early  20th century this second torso − as our one − ended up in the art market as well; and only recently could it be detected and identified as the fountain statue from Vienne: it is kept today in the collection of the Santa Barbara Art Museum in California. Even though the modelling of the California and the Budapest statues varies in many details, and although the Budapest torso does not show the little tail and obviously never had one, the relationship of their iconographical scheme is conspicuous. Thus it seems probable that the Budapest torso – as had already been suggested shortly after its discovery – was a fountain statue representing a satyr. Its high-quality workmanship as well as the excellent material used − both surpassing the respective standards of the California satyr − might suggest that our torso was an older statue imported to Gallia Narbonensis from Greece or from Rome and served in a Roman workshop in Vienna as the model for the second one, today in California.

The scant documentation of the excavation and the findspot of both torsos also points in the direction that the statues belonged together. Since the Santa Barbara fountain statue was found in one of the two cold water pools of the bath, one may suppose that the Budapest statue was standing near the other one, and that they were arranged in pairs, as is often the case for decorative sculpture of Roman buildings.

The statue may have been chiselled in the early Imperial period. It has often been suggested that it is a copy of an Early Classical opus magnum, but this is impossible to prove at present. The last chapter of its ancient history, however, can hypothetically be reconstructed. The complete absence of the head and the limbs raises the possibility that the statue was intentionally damaged. Further observations support this hypothesis. The round, star-shaped damage in the middle of the chest was caused by the blow of a hammer (the partial trace of a similar hit is also visible on the stump of the right arm). The long, deep crack on the left side of the bottom also suggests violent intervention. The sinter (mineral deposit) covering a significant part of the fractured surfaces shows that the statue was buried in a fragmentary condition. It is also remarkable that the statues from the bath representing nudes exhibite more injuries than the ones depicting draped figures. This long ago led to the supposition that the “Palais du Miroir” had been destroyed by zealous Christians mutilating on purpose pagan works of art. In all probability the Budapest torso also bears the scars of their actions.

Hans Rupprecht Goette – Árpád Miklós Nagy