RA Magazine Winter 2012
Issue Number: 117
Bronze: The 'Chimaera of Arezzo'
The Chimaera of Arezzo is one of the most arresting works in the RA’s ‘Bronze’ exhibition, which brings together some of the finest examples of bronze sculpture across the ages. Mary Beard explores this intriguing mythical hybrid and the mysteries of Etruscan civilization it reflects
The ancient Romans admired their Etruscan neighbours for their amazing skill in bronze work. For us – partly thanks to D.H. Lawrence’s 'Etruscan Places' – the Etruscan civilization, centred around modern Tuscany, is rather mysterious, best known for its extravagantly decorated tombs, and vast tomb complexes or ‘cities of the dead’. For the Romans, the Etruscans were experts in religion – and, more than anything else, they were metalworkers.
One Etruscan masterpiece that probably stood in the centre of Rome from almost the beginning of the city’s history was the famous ‘Wolf’, now in the Capitoline Museums. (The ‘probably’ is important here – for, in one of those intriguing debates that often surround the exact date of these early bronzes, it has recently been suggested that the ‘Wolf’ is actually medieval.)
'Chimaera of Arezzo', Etruscan, c. 400 BCE. Bronze. 78.5 x 129 cm. Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana. Photo Antonio Quattrone, Florence.
An even more impressive Etruscan piece, usually dated to around 400BCE, is the so-called Chimaera of Arezzo, which brings almost to life one terrifying ancient mythical hybrid. Part lion, part goat and with a serpent’s tail, the monstrous fire-breathing chimaera was said to have terrorised the countryside of Lycia (in modern Turkey) until the hero Bellerophon arrived to dispatch it, riding on his winged horse Pegasus.
In this bronze sculpture the beast has already been wounded: drops of blood ooze from the goat’s head emerging from the lion’s back, and there is the sign of another wound in the creature’s rump. It is drawing back, mane bristling, claws out, to try one last lunge at its attacker.
The Chimaera was dug up on 15 November, 1553 during building works at one of the gates of the town of Arezzo. Almost 50 years earlier, the marble group depicting Laocoön and his sons had been excavated in Rome itself (in the presence of Michelangelo, according to some reports), and this new discovery caused almost as much excitement – as well as similar puzzles for scholars, artists and restorers.
The Chimaera came out of the ground with its tail missing, so it was immediately identified as a simple lion (quite how they reconciled the integral goat’s head with that interpretation is something of a mystery). Giorgio Vasari, author of 'Lives of the Artists', and a native of Arezzo, was one of the first to spot that it was an altogether more complicated beast. But it was not until the 18th century that the serpent was restored at the tail end. It is thanks to the restorer that we have what is, for modern viewers, one of the most disturbing details of the group: for the serpent is biting the horn of the goat, as if the animal, in its distress, is turning on itself.
Whether lion or chimaera, it quickly found a role in the cultural politics of the Italian states in the 16th century. The powerful Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-74) did not let this masterpiece stay in Arezzo for long. He had it brought to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and the story is that he spent his evenings cleaning and re-touching the piece, under the instruction of Benvenuto Cellini himself.
For Cosimo it was a wonderful artistic emblem of the Tuscan heritage (at a time when Renaissance antiquarians were becoming more and more interested in Etruscan remains). And, of course, it was an impressive rival to the Roman bronze wolf – a symbol that Florence and Tuscany really did outclass Rome.
But where had the Chimaera originally stood – and why? One clue is found on the right front leg, where an inscription, written in reverse, a common practice among the Etruscans, reads ‘TINSCVIL’. Vasari thought this was an artist’s signature, but we now know – even with our limited understanding of the Etruscan language – that this means ‘For Tinia’. Tinia was the major god of the Etruscan pantheon (the Etruscan equivalent of Jupiter or Zeus). So this must have been a dedication in some Etruscan sanctuary. And it is a good guess, though we do not know for certain, that it was originally part of a sculptural group, which would have included the heroic victor Bellerophon, even if not Pegasus.
And where exactly was it made? Despite the Romans’ confidence in the prowess of the Etruscans in bronze-working, there has been considerable debate about this. A number of art historians have pointed out that the Chimaera does look very different in style from most other Etruscan bronzes we have (including the ‘Wolf’, if indeed it is ancient). In fact, the style and treatment look decidedly Greek – the three-dimensional quality of the modelling and the way you see the anatomy so convincingly through the animal’s skin are reminiscent of several Greek representations of this odd animal hybrid made in the Hellenistic baroque style. Maybe, some have suggested, it was cast in Etruria from a model made by Greeks in southern Italy. Or maybe it was even made in the Greek settlements of southern Italy.
Perhaps, in other words, Cosimo I de’ Medici’s confidence in the Chimaera as a symbol of Florentine and Tuscan superiority was misplaced.
Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, until 9 Dec.
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