After all these years of travelling I’m still taken aback when I turn a corner and come face to face with something I’ve read or heard about since I was a child.
I recall a picture of the Charioteer of Delphi in a school history book from perhaps grade 5 or 6 – and yes we had printed books back then, Gutenberg had just invented the printing press.
For some reason his impassive gaze stayed in my mind. And last Saturday when I entered the room where he is housed in the Delphi Museum I found myself once again transfixed by that calm stare but this time it was not a picture – it was the real thing. It is rare that the eyes of a bronze of this age are found intact but the white enamel with black stone insets were perfectly preserved and still look out betraying no emotion in his moment of victory. The victor as god perhaps?
He was part of a larger votive offering given by Polyzalos of Gela in celebration of his charioteer’s victory at the Panhellenic games in either 478 or 474 BC. Dedicated to Apollo, it was buried by rock during an earthquake in 373 BC and lay hidden until unearthed by a French excavation crew in 1896. Only the figure of the Charioteer was found almost intact – fragments of the rest of the group can only give a rough idea of the original.
The chariot would have hidden the lower part of his body which is why the upper torso seems slightly out of proportion. The games had a religious as well as an athletic significance and he is wearing a priestly chiton. Again because of the positioning more attention has been paid to the upper folds of his tunic than the lower.
It seemed almost possible to reach up and feel the texture of the diadem and his artfully arranged curls. The detailing is incredible.
And strangely even though few people would see the detail except the artist himself, the unknown sculptor paid as much attention to the feet of his figure. I was astounded again by how naturalistic they are – these are the feet of an athlete – even down to what appears to be a corn on the left foot.
No pictures in a long forgotten textbook could have prepared me for the amazing experience of seeing this incredible piece of history.
07 dicembre – Sant’Ambrogio di Milano