A GOD FROM DRESDEN
HOW ANTINOUS SURVIVED THE THIRD REICH
THE elusive and mystery-shrouded statue known as the "Getty Antinous" has been seen by very few people and even museum curators are unsure what it originally looked like.
When it was finally unveiled to the public for the first time, our own Flamen Antonyus Subia prayed in front of it for so long that a museum guard gently said, "You must really like Antinous." To which, Antonyus replied softly, "You have no idea."
He was one of the first to see it when it was unveiled at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, in a splendid exhibition that ran from December 18th, 2008, to June 1st, 2009.
The statue is now back in Dresden, where it is said to be "in storage."
The story behind the Getty Antinous is a story of mystery and intrigue, of skullduggery and deception, of Nazi terrors and Cold War brinksmanship.
This statue offers a marvelous behind-the-scenes look at the investigative, forensic-like skills of museum conservationists as they attempt to strip away layers of botched and misleading "restoration" work from previous centuries in order to determine precisely who and what an ancient statue is supposed to represent -- or even whether a supposedly "ancient" statue is really ancient at all.
It all started sometime during the 17th Century AD when a monumental statue of a god was found in Italy. What was preserved of the original work was an imposing male figure, half-draped to reveal a masterfully carved torso. The arms, the head, and parts of the drapery were missing.
In keeping with the tastes of collectors at that time, the sculpture was restored to completeness with additional pieces of carved marble, including an ancient head from another work — creating a pastiche of ancient and modern stone that confused the original identity of the statue.
Over the next two centuries, the restorations were reinterpreted, removed, and replaced, and the figure assumed a variety of heads and identities including Alexander the Great, Dionysus/Bacchus the wine god, and the Great and Good Boy God Antinous in the guise of Dionysus/Bacchus.
The "Reconstructing Identity" exhibition at the Getty Museum explored the statue's rich restoration history and the roles that aesthetics, archaeology, and art history have played as the understanding of the statue has evolved over the centuries.
"Even in the 19th Century it was recognized that early restorations were sometimes incorrect and misleading, perhaps none more so than this statue," said Karol Wight, senior curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
"The difficult, though intriguing, question for us and our colleagues in Dresden is which of its past identities, if any, should the statue now assume?" she said.
Jens Daehner, the German-born assistant curator of antiquities at the Getty, told a colloquium at the museum that the statue was first displayed in Rome in 1704, when it carried an ancient female head (not original to it), probably a likeness of Athena but restored with a helmet so as to match an image of Alexander the Great seen on Greek coins.
Though this sounds dreadful by today's standards, during the Baroque era it was considered not only acceptable but essential for sculptures to be "restored" to wholeness.
After the statue was removed from Italy in 1733 by a Saxon prince and taken to Dresden, it was modified again to include a fig leaf and a spear, still identified as Alexander.
Then in 1804, according to a contemporary catalog of the museum's collection, it became Dionysus/Bacchus, a result of prevailing notions about its body type and drapery style, but retained the previous head and helmet associated with Alexander -- while losing the earlier restored right arm along with the fig leaf and spear.
In yet another twist by a "restorer" for the Dresden antiquities collection, the statue became "Antinous in the guise of Bacchus", with a new head made of plaster and a new plaster right arm attached.
Then, in 1894, a new director of the museum replaced that "Antinous" head with a plaster cast of another Antinous on display in the British Museum. The right arm was again removed.
And this was the state of the statue when it was placed in storage during the Dresden museum's closure due to World War II. Miraculously, it was not damaged during the Allied Bombing of Dresden in February 1945 which reduced the entire city overnight to smouldering rubble and killed tens of thousands of civilians. But in June 1945 it was shipped to Moscow along with the rest of the collection, regarded as the spoils of war.
By the time it was returned to Dresden by train in 1958, the statue had suffered extensive damage in transit and had broken into 158 pieces. It remained out of sight, stored in four wooden crates until those crates were air-freighted to the Getty for restoration.
Daehner said the statue's "high, wide chest" leads him to think it is indeed Antinous. But other experts at a week-long Getty Museum colloquium were unable to agree 100 per cent on identifying the statue. The only thing they could agree upon is the fact -- based on microscopic analysis of the marble -- that the statue is indeed 1,800 years old. So at least we know it is not a more modern replica.
The curators finally decided to place the statue on display at the Getty Villa in 2008 without a head or any of the earlier restorations of arms or accessories.
However, those heads and the missing arm were also on view as part of the exhibition.