Michael Bennett, curator of Greek and Roman art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is the one who breathed the longest sigh of relief when Sicilian cultural officials agreed to let the show go on.
The exhibition he’d worked on for four years might have been cancelled, but the Sicilians finally gave permission, in exchange for a reciprocal loan from Cleveland of Italian masterworks.
“Very relieved and very delighted that in the end cooler heads prevailed and this exhibition could be seen.”
An Olympic champion is the show’s star
A marble statue of an Olympic charioteer that Bennett saw in Sicily about 5 years ago on the tiny island of Motia is the star of the show. You can see it through peepholes from anywhere in the exhibition. It stands alone flooded with light in a dark space with the dimensions of a Greek temple.
“The effect I was looking for was to have the charioteer appear like the full moon in the night sky. You’re focused on this singular masterpiece.”
The statue is stark white, life-size, and for something fashioned in 470 BC, eerily realistic. Intricate folds and pleats of a sheer linen tunic cling to the charioteer like a wet t-shirt. He’s standing cockily, his torso torqued to one side, with what’s left of one hand on his hip. Both arms are missing as well as the right hand.
“But it appears as if it was raised up to its head perhaps crowning himself. He’s not modest. There was nothing, absolutely nothing in Greek life more glorious than being an Olympic champion.”
The statue itself is a champ, the talk of the ancient art world after its surprise appearance at the British Museum during last year’s London Olympics.
“Art historians, archaeologists and other specialists in my field generally agree that this work of art, which is sculpted in the early part of the 5th century BC, is probably the finest surviving ancient Greek marble sculpture.”
The finest marble plus the finest bronze Greek sculpture
It’s a coup for the Cleveland Museum of Art to have the Mozia Charioteer under it’s roof at the same time as one of the finest surviving Greek sculptures in bronze. Pliny the Elder raved about it when he saw it in the 1st century AD. It is now known as the Cleveland Apollo after Michael Bennett proved that the statue of the Greek god acquired by the museum in 2004 and thought to be a copy, is actually the real thing:
“It’s very likely an original by the ancient Greek master- sculptor Praxiteles, famous in the ancient sources for having the ability to turn marble and bronze into flesh. I mean to make it very, very soft. And this sculpture has those qualities.”
The Cleveland Apollo is on view at the museum concurrently with the Sicily exhibition.
Standing on either side of it are two copies, from the Louvre in Paris and the Liverpool Museum. These are known to be Roman sculptures inspired by Cleveland’s original work by the Greek master.
The Apollo and Sicily exhibitions are closely related because Rome’s reverence for the art of the Greeks, and how that led to the art collections and museums of western civilization is a central point of the Sicily exhibition.
These Sicilians were not Italians
Another key message is that Sicily’s remarkable artists, mathematicians, playwrights and poets, were Greek. Some travelled there from the mainland, and some like Archimedes, whom Bennett calls the “Einstein of the Mediterranean” were born on the island.
“You might think of this as Greece West. Western Greece. And in fact Sicily for the Greeks was the new world just as for Europeans America was the new world.”
Michael Bennett believes the whole idea of art as property, art as status symbols, art history, connoisseurship, and nostalgia for the art of the past… started in Sicily.
The island was settled by Greeks in the 8th Century BC. And from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC, the era the exhibition covers, wealthy leaders of Sicilian city-states financed art to celebrate athletic and military victories.
“The Sicilian Greeks were players in the larger Greek world. Ancient Greeks had an enormous esteem for the Sicilian Greeks and their reputation for wealth.”
Rich soil and wealthy art patrons
They were richer than most of the 1500 Greek city-states scattered throughout the Mediterranean because their soil was fertile.
“Volcanic soil, especially along the slopes of Mount Aetna .”
That’s where the first Greek immigrants established their first outposts in this promised land.
And where they offered libations to the goddess of Agriculture, Demeter, who they claimed as their own.
There’s a libation bowl in the exhibition adorned with rows of acorns, beachnuts and honeybees:
“Two and a half pounds of pure gold. And what this object symbolically represents is the fertility of the island.”
The early Greek settlers marveled at Sicily’s rich soil, it’s pleasant climate, abundant seafood, and the strategic location that made it a cultural crossroads.
Creativity flourished in the new land
And like America, it became a wellspring of innovation.
“The first celebrity cookbook authors in history were Sicilian Greeks, one of whom was Archestratus , who travelled throughout the Mediterranean world collecting recipes.”
There’s a fish plate in the exhibition Archestratus might have had on his dinner table. A translation of his cookbook, titled “The Life of Luxury” is available in the museum gift shop.
Sumptuous feasts were commonplace in ancient Sicily. Aeschylus staged some of his greatest plays on the island. Sicilians cackled at Euripedes comedies, and a good time was had by all, except perhaps Plato.
The philosopher spent considerable time on the island but found three things he disliked about it.
“ He said these Sicilian Greeks drink to excess all the time. They gorge themselves twice a day on rich foods. Seafood? Seafood included. And number three they never sleep alone. But Plato’s opinion was probably the minority view.”
Coins as works of art
Greek Sicilians were proud, and that pride had a civic dimension. Coins became works of civic identity and die engravers even signed their tiny works.
“When you mention Sicilian Greek coins to a numismatist their eyes light up because they know Sicilian Greeks created coins that are miniature relief masterpieces.”
Curator Michael Bennett is a coin collector himself, and there are many beautiful coins on display.
But it’s the celebrity athlete with his toga clinging to that muscular marble torso, the Mozia Charioteer around which he built the whole exhibition, that fascinates Bennett most of all.
The charioteer’s story is central “The charioteer statue obligates us to ask the question how on earth was it made in Sicily? Because it’s so daring, it’s so innovative. Well, these settlers travelling from the mainland to western Greece kind of broke down conventions. As Greeks living in Sicily and working for wealthy patrons they felt a freedom. They were kind of off the leash as it were and they were able to create things that could never have happened on the mainland.”
“Now we’re walking into a gallery that is dominated by this one statue of a Greek god. And Priapus was the god of male sexuality. That’s very evident. He’s made of limestone in a pose that sort of accentuates his function in a way.”
Priapus thrusts his pelvis menacingly, although he has lost his most significant member, probably made of wood.
This is believed to be the only statue of Priapus with legs. It’s believed to have been a sort of scarecrow.
As for its prurient nature, Bennett says we have to remember that morality, and clean living were not prized among the ancients.
“Because what we’re talking about here is a pre-Christian world, a pagan world, where other values were deemed more important.”
Like scaring away the bad guys.
Marcellus sacks Syracuse
And around 212 BC Sicilian Greeks had a lot to fear.
The Roman General Marcellus was about to invade Syracuse. The great mechanical engineer Archimedes quickly military defenses, including a giant ray-gun.
“To concentrate the rays of the sun into a beam strong enough to bore through the hull of a ship.”
But the military technology he invented didn’t stop the sack of Syracuse.
“That put an end to Greek governance on the island. However, much of this culture was then spread.”
It spread first to Rome and later throughout the Roman Empire.
Archimedes was killed during the sack of Syracuse, but his scientific discoveries as well as the art of his island lived on.
The upside to the destruction of a vibrant culture
Yes, Marcellus brought down the government and killed many Sicilians.
“But Marcellus took boatloads of Greek masterpieces back to Rome and put them on public display and it caused a sensation. Ancient authors point to this as a pivotal moment that changed Roman artistic taste and kind of inspired collecting. And those wealthy Roman collectors are not unlike modern collectors today. So an art museum, a modern art museum like the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a kind of reflection of a very ancient, deeply- rooted tradition of collecting.”
That tradition continues through the holidays and beyond. If you haven’t yet seen this post card from ancient Sicily you might have to buy a plane ticket to see these works of art after Jan. 5th when the exhibition closes.