My favorite museum here – so far ’cause there are just so many – is the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. One of a complex of four museums highlighting the archaeological history of the city, the Massimo features sculpture, mosaics and frescoes from the Republican, Empire and Late Empire periods.
One of the more spectacular features is the garden room from the Villa of Livia, wife of Augustus – much of the wall frescoes have been preserved though sadly not much remains of the vaulted ceiling. Stepping in to the room is a journey back 2000 years and a reminder that Hollywood had it wrong with all those white marble buildings. Romans – or at least the nobility – wanted their house bright, colourful and at times gaudy.
Though I am delighted by the garden room my favorite piece, in what is a remarkable collection, is the Boxer of the Quirinal. A bronze statue in the Hellenistic style it dates from the 1st or 2nd century BC and is a product of the lost wax process. It was discovered, along with its gallery companion the Prince, in 1885 when the Quirinale Hill was being excavated.It is believed that the bronze is a representation of an actual athlete of the period rather than a generalized portrait. Whoever he may have been he would have been a slave whose talents as a boxer had been noticed and nurtured by his owner and as such would have had considerable value. The broken nose and scars suggest he is a veteran of quite a few matches.
This is one of the best known depictions of the Cestus or battle glove worn by both Greek and Roman athletes. In Roman games it was more important to draw blood from an opponent than knock him out, for maximum effect metal studs and spikes were added. They also help to date the piece as Cestus were banned towards the end of the 1st Century BC. Again Hollywood – and early church propaganda – has led us to believe that Colosseum combats were to the death but that was the exception not the rule. A gladiator or athlete was an expensive piece of property – better alive than dead. Even towards the end of his career he would have had a value as a trainer or simply a commodity to be sold as a household slave.
The musculature may be slightly idealized but this is an athlete who has reached physical perfection – and chances are he could have passed testing without a problem. Though who knows even then they may have had potions and herbs to enhance performance.
As incredible as the physical perfection may be, I am fascinated by the face. Formerly cooper inlays highlighted drops of blood on his body and cestus indicating that he has just finished a match. But I find it difficult to read either victory or defeat in his face – only exhaustion.
This man has seen many – perhaps at this point too many – fights. His face is scared where the spikes or even razor edges from an opponent’s cestus has struck him, his nose is broken and he has what we would call today a cauliflower ear. Again copper inlays would have highlighted his bloody lips and scars.
There is a certain irony that most of the people who watched this man fight are forgotten but that this slave, this piece of property, a mere athlete is still looked at with awe, admiration and, for a me at least, a sense of wonder.
14 agosto – San Massimiliano