August 16, 2010

Discovering The Riace Warriors

Riace Warrior: Statue A
Photo courtesy of Calabria: The Other Italy
On August 16, 1972 Stefano Mariottini, a young chemist from Rome, was on holiday in Monasterace, a small town in the Southern Italian province of Reggio Calabria. Enjoying the pristine waters of the Riace Marina, located along the magnificent Ionian Coast, Mariottini made a discovery that has been referred to as "one of Italy's most important archaeological finds of the last 100 years."

While swimming—almost 340 yards off the coast and about 27 feet deep—Mariottini spotted an arm protruding from the sandy sea floor. So lifelike was the limb he thought he found a corpse. The startled diver soon realized that the lifeless appendage belonged to a bronze statue. Upon further inspection he found the leg of a second statue sticking out of the seabed.

Excited by his discovery, Mariottini reported his find to the authorities. With his help the Carabinieri unit from Messina, Sicily—supervised by the Archaeological Superintendency of Reggio Calabria—recovered the sunken statues from their watery resting place with air balloons. A crowd of curious locals and vacationers gathered on the beach and watched intently as the statues were rescued. They applauded with great delight as they were brought ashore.

The initial restoration was done at the Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria, but lacking the sophisticated equipment necessary to clean the statues thoroughly, the bronzes were transported up north to the Superintendency of Antiquity in Florence, Tuscany. The restoration was completed in 1980 and the statues were finally made available to the public, first at the Museo Archeologico in Florence, then in Rome at the Palazzo del Quirinale, where an estimated million people visited them. They were eventually returned to the prestigious Museo Nazionale di Reggio Calabria where they draw well over 100,000 visitors annually.

The statues have been nicknamed the "Hero" and the "Strategist" for their apparent characteristics. It's said statue "A" or the "Hero," "emanates an almost savage warlike force." While Statue "B," "emanates an image of conscious and civil humanity." Both depict lifelike nude warriors that once bore shields and lances. The Strategist also wore a Corinthian helmet. No trace of their armor or weapons remain. Analysis has dated them from the fifth century B.C.

Riace Warrior: Statue B
Photo courtesy of Calabria: The Other Italy
Not long after their discovery a debate ensued over the statue's origins. Some believe that they were cast overboard by a ship in distress looking to lighten up its load during a terrible storm. The vessel could have been a Roman 
trireme laden with booty and slaves returning from the conquest of Greece. Others claim that the statues stood proudly on the bridge and went down with the ship. The proximity to the shore and the smashing waves explains why over the course of time no wreckage or significant debris was discovered at the location.

Scholars can't even agree on who the statues represent. Are they gods from Olympia or Homeric heroes? Both Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, and Pericles of Athens have been suggested. Many other hypotheses, including the heroic Theseus, Cecrops, Erechtheus, Pandion I and II, Anthiocus, Acamante and Codrus, have been put forward.

There is just as much dispute over the identity of the artist(s). Some have put forward Pytagorus of Rhegion, Onatas of Aegina, Alkemenes and Polyclites of Argo as the possible sculptors. Others postulated that they could detect the hand of Kalamas or Myron. However, most believe they were both the work of the great Phidias of Athens.

The contention these statues came from Greece, while popular with many historians, is simply not supported by any historical evidence. They could have easily originated in Asia Minor or Southern Italy. Before Rome set out to conquer the Peloponnese it first conquered Magna Graecia (Southern Italy). For example, the Italiote city-state of Taros (modern Tàranto, in Puglia) was a thriving and influential metropolis. It was founded in 706 B.C. by Lakonian Greeks on a strategic peninsula between the Mare Grande and the Mare Piccolo. As early as the 4th Century B.C. it had a population of 300,000 people. However, during the Second Punic War the Tarantines sided against Rome and in 209 B.C. Taros was sacked by Quintus Fabius Maximus. The city's walls were toppled, it's inhabitants deported and its treasure plundered, including all marble and bronze statuary.

Whatever their story may be the fact remains that the Riace warriors are two of the finest examples of ancient Greek sculpture existing today.

Further reading:
• The Riace Bronzes and the Museo Nazionale of Reggio Calabria by Maria Gullì and Marcello Partenope
• The Greek Cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily by Luca Cerchiai, Lorena Jannelli and Fausto Longo