Apollo from Pompeii: nearly 100 years on French soil
This bronze was discovered at the prestigious site of Pompeii, in Italy. We know this thanks to the brilliant hellenist Salomon Reinach, a former member of the French School at Athens and curator of the Museum of National Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He listed the artwork in his Répertoire de la Statuaire Grecque et Romaine, published in 1924. Reinach kept a close eye on the movement of ancient artworks during his time. He reported this large statuette as being from the ‘outskirts of Pompeii’ and located in Xavière Durighello’s collection in Paris in 1922.
An old photograph shows the Apollo prior to cleaning, still encased in concretions. In June 1925, when it was put up for sale following the death of Xavière’s husband, Joseph-Ange Durighello (1861–1924), it was recorded as being in the same condition as it is today. Purchased then by a family member of its current owners, it has now been on French soil for nearly a century. It was listed as a ‘National Treasure’ in 2017, when it re-entered the art market.
A masterpiece saved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius
If it had not been buried by volcanic ash in the year 79, it would very likely have suffered the same fate as the majority of Greek and Roman bronzes – known only by ancient literary sources, inscriptions and Roman stone copies or, in some cases, completely lost to history. Though they once numbered in the thousands, preserved bronzes are now extremely rare. One of the main reasons for their disappearance is that they could be melted down to reuse the metal for other purposes, a practice that went on from a few years to several centuries after their creation.
Many of the surviving artworks just happened to be lost in earthquakes, fires or shipwrecks well before the end of the Roman Empire and have since, by mere chance, been unearthed or discovered at sea.
One of the rare surviving decorative statues from a Pompeian villa
The conquest of the ancient Greek cities and the countless artworks – sculptures, easel paintings, crockery, furniture and precious metalwork – that were pillaged and taken to Rome by triumphant generals gradually shifted the values of austerity and sobriety that underpinned the Roman Republic: the Romans began to embrace art and decorate their villas, homes, public buildings and baths with the very works they once scorned. As well as originals, they displayed copies and adaptations produced by copyist workshops.
Goods found in ancient shipwrecks attest to the intensity of maritime traffic travelling from East to West to meet the growing demands of wealthy Romans as of the 1st century BC. Since the 18th century, excavations at cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius have also provided us with better insight into the decorative features of the stateliest houses.
In addition to marble statues and statuettes, the reception rooms, gardens, peristyles and ornamental ponds of Roman villas were decorated with bronze works – mythological figures, copies of famous sculptures, portraits, and so on.
The most extraordinary and comprehensive collection known to date was discovered in 1750 in Herculaneum at the Villa dei Papiri. Likely built in the third quarter of the 1st century BC, the villa belonged to the Piso family (Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus was Julius Caesar’s father-in-law). Comprising over sixty-five bronzes and twenty-seven marble sculptures, the collection is now on display in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. The finds from the House of the Faun, built in Pompeii in the late 2nd century BC, are also worthy of note. They include the bronze statuette of a dancing satyr or faun that gave the house its name and a number of light bearers used to illuminate banquet rooms at night. Lychnouchoi figure-lamps, designed to supply oil to torch-shaped lighting devices, were found at the Mahdia shipwreck site. In the same location, archaeologists also uncovered representations of epheboi or divinities used to hold candle scrolls or support lamp trays and artworks fitted with rings on their backs to be hung from the ceiling above the guests’ heads, such as the Eros Kitharoidos.
The Louvre has two bronze figures, a Mercury and a Hercules both comparable in size to the Apollo Kitharoidos, which give us an idea of the statuary that was used to decorate Roman residences. They were discovered at Herculaneum during the 18th century and given to Bonaparte in 1803 by Ferdinand IV, King of Naples and of the Two Sicilies, then exhibited at the Château de Malmaison until Josephine’s death in 1814. The acquisition of the Apollo Kitharoidos would complete this small corpus of exceptional ancient artworks unearthed in the villas destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.