The room containing portrait busts displays more wonders. From Herculaneum there is the fabulously baroque head originally thought to be of the ancient king Tolomeo Apione (154-196CE) with its startling curled spikes of hair, but more recently claimed to be a portrait of an Egyptian princess. From 17th-century Europe come royal sculptor Francesco Fanelli’s haunting Charles I (c.1635) gnawed by the anxieties of power, and Georg Petel’s laurel-crowned King Gustavus Adolphus (1595-1632), the founder of the Swedish empire, who was one of history’s greatest military commanders. Known as the “lion of the North”, the king is shown head thrown back, pugnacious and restless; here, more convincingly than in any painting, is the man who swept his world away in Europe’s worst pre-modern war. And alongside these thrilling objects is a real coup: from the 4th-century BCE the stunning portrait bust of Seuthes III (pictured), a contemporary of Alexander the Great, recently discovered in the Valley of the Thracian Kings at Kazanlak in Bulgaria. Here is the man who resisted the Macedonians at the height of their power. Seldom in one space will you find humanity’s cult of rulership more intriguingly juxtaposed.
Another section of the exhibition is devoted to the gods. The enduring qualities of bronze, and its uncanny potential for verisimilitude, have led to its use for religious images for over five millennia, and on show are spellbinding examples, from Ancient Egypt and India, to Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy. Among them are the sixth-century Buddha Shakyamuni from Bihar, standing with his right hand raised in the gesture of reassurance, and the Hindu Shiva Nataraja or Lord of the Dance shown trampling on a demon, a 20th-century version in the style of a 12th-century Chola statue. Each of these works is worth a visit on its own. They offer rich insights into the fundamental commonality of thought and imagination in human culture: our attempts to cross the boundary between the seen and the unseen.
It is safe to say that you will never again see anything like this gathered under one roof. But when you look at the beauty and refinement of the exhibits, don’t forget that these magical things are also the product of industry, of the foundry and the casting shop, of smoke and fire, clay and sand, hammer and chisel. This aspect of the art of bronze is also covered in the RA’s exhibition.
After all, the first bronze-making was a kind of alchemy, as is memorably conjured by Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, where she recalls a typical African forge in the 1920s in the Ngong Hills, the locals crowding around the forge of the caster, whose work had a “mythical force so virile that it appals and melts the women’s hearts; it is straight and unaffected, and tells the truth and nothing but the truth.”
Thinking on Blixen’s words, not long ago I had the chance to film a family of traditional bronze casters in south India, whose ancestors created some of the loveliest bronzes in all art, several examples of which are in the RA exhibition, including a delightful Nandi, the faithful bull of Shiva. The casters live and work at Swamimalai near Kumbakonam, a centre for the making of bronze statues and bells for many centuries. Today, they still follow the techniques of the ancient world, in particular the lost wax process from which so many of the pieces in the RA exhibition were created.