Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2359th Meeting

At the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC
March 4, 2016

President Larry Millstein called the 2359th meeting of the Society to order at 8:05 p.m.  He announced the order of business and welcomed new members.  The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved.  President Millstein then introduced the speaker for the evening, Carol C. Mattusch.  Her lecture was titled “From Fragments to Classical Forms: Reconstructing Greek Bronzes and the Greek and Roman Trade in Art.”


President Larry Millstein called the 2359th meeting of the Society to order at 8:05 p.m.  He announced the order of business and welcomed new members.  The minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved.  President Millstein then introduced the speaker for the evening, Carol C. Mattusch.  Her lecture was titled “From Fragments to Classical Forms: Reconstructing Greek Bronzes and the Greek and Roman Trade in Art.”

Dr. Mattusch began by describing the current exhibition of Hellenistic bronzes at the National Gallery of Art.  The exhibition’s title, “Power and Pathos,” shows two related aspects of its subjects:  their power in society and their pathos, or passions of their lives.

The Hellenistic Period began with the conquests of Alexander the Great, whose armies conquered the Persian empire and territory extending to the Indus river.  Alexander’s army brought Greek culture to these territories and brought back new ideas, social and religious customs, arts, and technologies.  After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided into several kingdoms.  The Hellenistic Period ended in 31 BCE at the Battle of Actium with Rome’s conquest of the last Hellenistic kingdom – Cleopatra’s Egypt.

Dr. Mattusch explained that the Power and Pathos exhibition presents not only the art of the Hellenistic Period, but also presents other aspects of the period. For example, it also examines the technology used to construct the works and how changes in the market for these pieces resulted in changes in production techniques.  The exhibition also examines changes in the purposes and uses of these works from their original creation in Greece to their use (and reuse) in Roman culture.

Dr. Mattusch then discussed one production technique that was used to satisfy market demand for large numbers of custom statues.  Our knowledge of this comes from archeologists and statue bases marked as being made by a sculptor named Lysippos.  Lysippos’ method was to manufacture bases and stock figures and then to customize them to the needs of the individual customer by modifying, for example, what the figure was holding.

Most of the finds of ancient bronzes come from the sea often from shipwrecks.  Some appear to have been broken up for scrap metal.  Most are usually recovered in small pieces. 

Once recovered from the sea floor, ancient bronzes must be desalinated, cleaned up, and preserved to prevent degradation.  Dr. Mattusch explained that conservation practices change over time.  In 1900, conservators would scour pieces down to the base metal.  Modern cleaning methods do not go as deep, leaving a slightly mottled green appearance.  This careful conservation not only protects the statue, it can preserve minor details that can help provide clues to the statue’s origin.

Dr. Mattusch noted, for example, that one of the sculptures appears to have a  cauliflower ear, indicating that the figure was previously a  boxer or wrestler despite now being dressed in the robes of a public figure.  Other details that are important to identification include the kind of drapery worn and the items that are be held, such as scrolls or laurel wreaths.

Reconstructing the original purpose of a statue can often involve substantial detective work, especially because statues are so often found at sea without any other artifacts nearby.  Dr. Mattusch explained that curators review contemporary writings and paintings to attempt to find similar poses, dress, and accessories that could help provide context for a statue.  A bronze sculpture may also have an inscription inside, or share a characteristic metal alloy that links it to other sculptures, thereby indicating a common creator or region of origin.  Dr. Mattusch noted that the type of stone in stone statues can be telling, because the Greeks used the exceedingly hard mineral basenite, for example, solely for images of gods and pharaohs.  The Romans continued this tradition.

Dr. Mattusch concluded by explaining that, for the Romans, as for us today, these statues provide a reminder of the values, culture, and history of the classical past.

After the conclusion of the talk, President Millstein invited questions from the audience.

One questioner asked about the relative lack of women represented in the statues on display.  Dr. Mattusch noted that there are a few female statues, but they tend to be of goddesses rather than human women.  This likely reflected the relative predominance of men in positions of power in Greek and Roman society.

Another questioner asked about the actual manufacture of the statues.  Dr. Mattusch explained that these bronze statues were created through the “lost wax” method.

After the question and answer period, President Millstein thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to join the Society.  At 9:35 p.m., President Millstein adjourned the 2359th meeting of the Society to the social hour.

Attendance: 91
The weather: Cloudy
The temperature: 4°C

Respectfully submitted,

Preston Thomas
External Communications Director


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