Since antiquity, the art of Classical Greece has exerted a special hold over powerful and wealthy collectors. The Roman emperor Hadrian, who was so enamoured with Greek culture that he earned the nickname ‘Graeculus’, or ‘Greekling’, adorned his sprawling Villa at Tivoli east of Rome with reproductions of famous Greek artworks. During the Renaissance, cardinals and popes vied to own the masterpieces of Greek art emerging from Italy’s soil. And in the 18th Century, during the heyday of the Grand Tour, gentlemen from across Europe descended upon Italy to buy up as much ancient art as they could.
But in the 20th Century, the afterlife of ancient Greek art took a darker turn. To understand what I mean, just watch the famous opening sequence of Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part film Olympia (1938), which documented the Berlin Olympics, otherwise known as the “Nazi Olympics”, held two years earlier.
To a soundtrack of dramatic music, the camera moves slowly across the ruins on the Athenian Acropolis, before lingering on several celebrated ancient sculptures, offered up as ideals of beauty and artistic prowess. Eventually, against a mist-swathed backdrop, we see one of the most famous Greek sculptures of all: a statue of a stooping, naked athlete preparing to hurl a discus. To connoisseurs of ancient art, this is known as the Discobolus (or “discus-thrower”).
Its surface glistening with oil, as though ready for competition, the sculpture suddenly fades away. In its place appears a living athlete adopting the same pose. Slowly he starts to swivel back and forth, before hurling his discus with all his might. The chilling message is presented with stark, poetic efficiency: the glories of Classical Greece are reborn in Nazi Germany.
‘Vigour and beauty’
As I discovered while filming a new BBC television series about ancient Greek art, Riefenstahl was being canny by focusing on the Discobolus – since Adolf Hitler was arguably more infatuated with this artwork than any other. In fact, Hitler was so besotted with it that, in 1938, he bought it.
View image of The original sculpture, now lost, was created in bronze by Myron in Greece (Credit: Credit: Rotatebot/Wikipedia)
The statue in Riefenstahl’s film is actually a Roman marble copy of the bronze original by the Greek sculptor Myron, one of the masters of Classical art in the 5th Century BC. Myron was feted for his ability to produce artworks of astonishing realism, including a stunning bronze cow on the Acropolis. In the Discobolus, he innovated by capturing an athlete mid-action. To do this, he employed a powerful, spiralling composition, implying a payload of pent-up energy.
Today Myron’s lost sculpture is known via several marble copies, including the so-called ‘Townley Discobolus’ in the British Museum. Discovered in 1791 in Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, but inaccurately restored so that its head faces in the wrong direction, this sculpture is a centrepiece of Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art, a major new exhibition at the British Museum.
The version of the sculpture that beguiled Hitler, though, was another replica known as the ‘Lancellotti Discobolus’, named after the Italian family that once owned it. Discovered in a property belonging to the family on the Esquiline Hill in 1781, it is now in the National Museum in Rome.
Hitler was not the first political leader in modern history to view Greek art as a potent status symbol: Napoleon, for instance, was obsessed with the Venus de’ Medici. But the fact that Hitler, who had strong views about visual art, fixated upon the Discobolus is significant.
View image of The Nazis drew aesthetic inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome (Credit: Credit: Tobis-Filmverleith)
For one thing, he wanted to be associated with the era in which it was created: the 5th Century BC had long been considered the golden age of Classical Greek history, when Athens under Pericles witnessed the construction of the Parthenon. In addition, he wished to champion the values that he believed the sculpture embodied – ideals of harmony, athletic vigour and beauty – in opposition to Modernist art, which he castigated as “degenerate”.
Hitler’s opportunity to acquire the statue arose in the 1930s, when the Lancellotti family fell upon hard times and offered it for sale. At first the sculpture was earmarked for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but the original asking price of eight million lire was deemed too high. By 1937, Hitler had made known his interest in the statue, and the following year, despite initial misgivings on the part of the Italian authorities about exporting it, the Discobolus was sold to him for the still huge sum of five million lire. Funded by the German government, this was delivered in cash to representatives of the Lancellotti family in their palazzo.
By the end of June 1938, the Discobolus had arrived in Germany where it was displayed not in Berlin but in the Glyptothek museum in Munich. On 9 July it was officially presented as a gift to the German people. Hitler addressed the crowds: “May none of you fail to visit the Glyptothek, for there you will see how splendid man used to be in the beauty of his body… and you will realise that we can speak of progress only when we have not only attained such beauty but even, if possible, when we have surpassed it.”
View image of The marble copy of the Discobolus in the British Museum was incorrectly restored (Credit: Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum)
“Without the Classical tradition, the Nazi visual ideology would have been rather different,” says Professor Rolf Michael Schneider of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. “Like all hunters, they hunted for a priceless object – and as the statue could not say no, they used the Discobolus for their perverse ideologies. The perfect Aryan body, the white colour [of the marble], the beautiful, ideal white male: to put it very bluntly, it became a kind of image of the Herrenrasse or ‘master race’ – that’s what the Nazis called themselves and the Germans.”
In other words, the Discobolus became a pin-up boy for Nazi propaganda: as Ian Jenkins, senior curator of the ancient Greek collections at the British Museum, puts it, it was co-opted as a “trophy of the mythical Aryan race”. And even though its stay in Germany was no more than a decade (in 1948 the statue returned to Italy, and it was placed in Rome’s National Museum five years later), it would be a long time before the taint of its association with Hitler disappeared.
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph
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The Discobolus of Myron ("discus thrower", Greek: Δισκοβόλος, Diskobólos) is a Greek sculpture that was completed toward the end of the Severe period, circa 460–450 BC. The original Greek bronze is lost but the work is known through numerous Roman copies, both full-scale ones in marble, which was cheaper than bronze, such as the first to be recovered, the Palombara Discobolus, and smaller scaled versions in bronze.
A discus thrower is depicted about to release his throw: "by sheer intelligence", Kenneth Clark observed in The Nude, "Myron has created the enduring pattern of athletic energy. He has taken a moment of action so transitory that students of athletics still debate if it is feasible, and he has given it the completeness of a cameo." The moment thus captured in the statue is an example of rhythmos, harmony and balance. Myron is often credited with being the first sculptor to master this style. Naturally, as always in Greek athletics, the Discobolus is completely nude. His pose is said to be unnatural to a human, and today considered a rather inefficient way to throw the discus. Also there is very little emotion shown in the discus thrower's face, and "to a modern eye, it may seem that Myron's desire for perfection has made him suppress too rigorously the sense of strain in the individual muscles," Clark observes. The other trademark of Myron embodied in this sculpture is how well the body is proportioned, the symmetria.
The potential energy expressed in this sculpture's tightly wound pose, expressing the moment of stasis just before the release, is an example of the advancement of Classical sculpture from Archaic. The torso shows no muscular strain, however, even though the limbs are outflung.
Reputation in the past
Myron's Discobolus was long known from descriptions, such as the dialogue in Lucian of Samosata's work Philopseudes:
"When you came into the hall," he said, "didn't you notice a totally gorgeous statue up there, by Demetrios the portraitist?" "Surely you don't mean the discus-thrower," said I, "the one bent over into the throwing-position, with his head turned back to the hand that holds the discus, and the opposite knee slightly flexed, like one who will spring up again after the throw?"
"Not that one," he said, "that's one of Myron's works, that Diskobolos you speak of..."
— Lucian of Samosata, Philopseudes c. 18
Discobolus and Discophorus
Prior to this statue's discovery the term Discobolus had been applied in the 17th and 18th centuries to a standing figure holding a discus, a Discophoros, which Ennio Quirino Visconti identified as the Discobolus of Naukydes of Argos, mentioned by Pliny (Haskell and Penny 1981:200).
Discobolus Palombara or Lancellotti
The Discobolus Palombara, the first copy of this famous sculpture to have been discovered, was found in 1781. It is a 1st-century AD copy of Myron's original bronze. Following its discovery at a Roman property of the Massimo family, the Villa Palombara on the Esquiline Hill, it was initially restored by Giuseppe Angelini; the Massimi installed it initially in their Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne and then at Palazzo Lancellotti. The Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista Visconti identified the sculpture as a copy from the original of Myron. It was instantly famous, though the Massimo jealously guarded access to it (Haskell and Penny 1981:200).
In 1937 Adolf Hitler negotiated to buy it, and eventually succeeded in 1938, when Galeazzo Ciano, Minister of Foreign Affairs, sold it to him for five million lire, over the protests of Giuseppe Bottai, Minister of Education, and the scholarly community. It was shipped by rail to Munich and displayed in the Glyptothek; it was returned in 1948. It is now in the National Museum of Rome, displayed at the Palazzo Massimo.
After the discovery of the Discobolus Palombara a second notable Discobolus was excavated, at Hadrian's Villa in 1790, and was purchased by the English antiquary and art dealer established in Rome, Thomas Jenkins, at public auction in 1792. (Another example, also found at Tivoli at this date, was acquired by the Vatican Museums.) The English connoisseur Charles Townley paid Jenkins £400 for the statue, which arrived at the semi-public gallery Townley commissioned in Park Street, London, in 1794. The head was wrongly restored, as Richard Payne Knight soon pointed out, but Townley was convinced his was the original and better copy.
It was bought for the British Museum, with the rest of Townley's marbles, in July 1805.
Other Roman copies in marble have been recovered, and torsos that were already known in the 17th century but that had been wrongly restored and completed, have since been identified as further repetitions after Myron's model. For one such example, in the early 18th century Pierre-Étienne Monnot restored a torso that is now recognized as an example of Myron's Discobolus as a Wounded Gladiator who supports himself on his arm as he sinks to the ground; the completed sculpture was donated before 1734 by Pope Clement XII to the Capitoline Museums, where it remains.
Yet another copy was discovered in 1906 in the ruins of a Roman villa at Tor Paterno in the former royal estate of Castel Porziano, now also conserved in the Museo Nazionale Romano.
In the 19th century plaster copies of the Discobolos could be found in many large academic collections, now mostly dispersed.
Notes and references
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- ^Woodford, Susan. (1982) The Art of Greece and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 16. ISBN 0521298733
- ^ abClark, Kenneth. (2010) The Nude: A study in ideal form. New edition. London: The Folio Society, pp. 134–135.
- ^An explanation for his inefficient discus throwing could be that the ancient Olympic sportsmen had a set rotation of three quarters before the discus was thrown. This rotation could well have been a deliberate handicap to make the sport more difficult.
- ^The Lucian reference and Quintillian, ii.13.xviii-x, are noted by Haskell & Penny 1981, p. 200.
- ^Tony Kitto, "The celebrated connoisseur: Charles Townley, 1737-1805" Minerva Magazine May/June 2005, in connection with a British Museum exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of the Townley purchase. [permanent dead link]
- ^Haskell, Francis & Penny, Nicholas (1981), Taste and the Antique: the Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 200 & 227., ISBN 0-300-02641-2
- ^Kenneth Clark illustrated it in the 1956 edition of The Nude, fig. 130, p.241, as "after Myron".