Boxer at Rest: The Most Iconic Ancient Bronze Statue in the World
The Boxer at Rest is a bronze sculpture from the Hellenistic period, the most iconic ancient bronze statue in the world. When it was discovered in Rome during an excavation in the 19th century it stunned the world – bronze sculptures from this era are extremely rare as more often than not they were melted down to make coins or weapons.
The Boxer at Rest (known also as the Terme Boxer or the Boxer of the Quirinal) is considered to be one of the finest examples of Hellenistic bronze sculptures, due to its realism, and the vivid emotions that it displays. Nevertheless, there are many questions surrounding the Boxer at Rest that are still left unanswered.
The sculpture was discovered during an excavation that was carried out on the south side of the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885. It was found carefully deposited in the foundations of an ancient building situated not far from the Baths of Constantine.
Rodolfo Lanciani, an Italian archaeologist who witnessed the discovery of the Boxer at Rest, wrote about the emotions he felt as the sculpture emerged from the earth:
“I have witnessed, in my long career in the active field of archaeology, many discoveries; I have experienced surprise after surprise; I have sometimes and most unexpectedly met with real masterpieces; but I have never felt such an extraordinary impression as the one created by the sight of this magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete, coming slowly out of the ground, as if awakening from a long repose after his gallant fights.”
The Boxer at Rest is indeed a masterpiece. The Hellenistic period lasted for almost 300 years, traditionally regarded as having begun in 323 BC and ending in 31 BC. The former is the year of Alexander the Great’s death, while the latter is the year when the Battle of Actium occurred, during which Augustus triumphed over his rival, Mark Antony, who was supported by Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt.
Although the Romans succeeded in conquering the various Hellenistic kingdoms they encountered by force of arms, they were in turn culturally conquered by the Greeks and Hellenists. It was the Romans who were the most avid collectors of Greek art, and this may provide an explanation of how the Boxer at Rest, a Hellenistic sculpture, ended up in Rome.
The Boxer at Rest and the Realism of Hellenistic Bronze Sculptures
The artists of the Hellenistic period copied and adapted earlier styles, but at the same time, made significant innovations of their own. One of the most notable of these is the introduction of realism into their art.
Hellenistic artists showed less interest in standard ideal figures. Instead they were producing sculptures that were more realistic. For instance, children were no longer depicted as miniature adults, but as children.
The ‘Boxer at Rest’ is an example of the realism of Hellenistic bronze sculpture. (Butko / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Still, this realism is not necessarily equivalent to individualism. Some of the realistic features found in Hellenistic art can be seen in more than one sculpture. This suggests that there may have been an artistic repertoire that was being used by the Hellenistic artists during the creation of their sculptures.
In addition, the tensile strength of bronze allows more dynamic forms to be made. Moreover, the color of bronze sculptures, when first made, would have been a shiny, reflective brown, not unlike the tanned skin that their subjects would have had. Another prominent feature of Hellenistic art is the emotional expression that could be displayed by the art pieces.
This is particularly visible in the bronze sculptures. Compared to stone, metal is able to hold the finest details (thanks to the lost-wax casting process), which enabled the artist to capture the desired emotions in his work.
During the Hellenistic period, bronze pieces were actually quite common. The lost-wax casting process not only made fine detailing of sculptures possible, but also allowed multiple copies of the artwork to be produced.
Lysippos of Sikyon, the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great, is reputed to have made as many as 1,500 bronze sculptures during his lifetime. None of these pieces are known to have survived till this day. Nevertheless, a number of sculptures have been attributed to him.
Bronze sculptures from the Hellenistic period are rare, and only between 100 and 200 are known today. This is not entirely surprising, since bronze was a valuable metal that could be easily melted down and recycled into coins and other objects. The pieces that have survived may have been saved due to disasters.
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Bronze statue of a young Dionysus from the Hellenistic period. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Some bronze sculptures, for instance, were transported on ships as booty, and sank to the bottom of the sea when the ships were wrecked. Others were saved by natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions or landslides.
It has been speculated that the Boxer at Rest may have been hidden away so as to prevent it from falling into the hands of invaders, on the basis of the careful way in which it was buried. If this were the case, it is likely that its owners did not have the chance to retrieve it, thereby inadvertently preserving it for the future.
Questions Abound Regarding the Boxer at Rest
Some of the questions surrounding the Boxer at Rest include when it was made and who made it. While scholars agree that the sculpture is from the Hellenistic period, the estimates for the object’s exact date of creation ranges from 330 to 50 BC. On the other hand, the identity of the sculpture’s maker remains completely unknown.
There are also questions surrounding the subject of the sculpture itself, most notably its identity. Generally speaking, the sculpture is meant to represent a resting boxer. A description of the Boxer at Rest, written by Seán Hemingway, Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Greek and Roman Art, is as follows:
“The statue portrays a boxer seated with his arms resting on his knees, his head turned to the right and slightly raised with mouth open. The figure is naked except for his boxing gloves, which are of an ancient Greek type with strips of leather attached to a ring around the knuckles and fitted with woolen padding, and the infibulation of his penis by tying up the foreskin, which was both for protection and an element of decorum. The boxer is represented just after a match. His muscular body and full beard are those of a mature athlete, and his thick neck, lanky legs, and long arms are well suited to the sport. His face exhibits bruises and cuts. His lips are sunken as though his teeth have been pushed in or knocked out. His broken nose and cauliflower ears are common conditions of boxers, probably the result of previous fights, but the way he is breathing through his mouth and the bloody cuts to his ears and face make clear the damage inflicted by his most recent opponent. The muscles of his arms and legs are tense as though, despite the exhaustion of competition, he is ready to spring up and face the next combatant.”
The Boxer at Rest is a realistic sculpture, but it is unclear as to who the boxer is supposed to represent. According to one scholar, Roland Ralph Redfern Smith, the sculpture is not a true portrait.
In other words, it is not meant to represent a specific boxer. Instead, Smith argues that the Boxer at Rest is an example of genre realism, in which “Individuality is removed in favor of a concentrated generic expression, whose effect is to reduce his character to ‘boxer’ and nothing more”.
On the other hand, it has been suggested that the sculpture might have originally been on public display in the “hometown of the athlete it commemorated”, which assumes that the Boxer of Rest was meant to depict a certain individual. Yet others have proposed that the sculpture is meant to represent the Greek hero Heracles.
One of the most famous depictions of Heracles, the Greek hero whom some say the ‘Boxer at Rest’ is modeled after. (DIEGO73 / CC BY-SA 2.0)
This identification is based on the resemblance of the sculpture’s pose and the treatment of his beard to two statues of Heracles that are attributed to Lysippos. In this case, it is possible that the Boxer at Rest was a sacred object that was once housed in a Greek sanctuary.
The Boxer at Rest is More Than Just a Work of Art
Some scholars are of the opinion that the Boxer at Rest was valued by the ancient Greeks and Romans not merely as a work of art but was also revered as an object that possessed magical powers. Parts of the sculptures hands and feet show signs of wear, and it is believed that this was caused by repeated touching in ancient times.
The Boxer at Rest, Greek Hellenistic bronze sculpture of a sitting nude boxer at rest. Source: Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0.
Some have suggested that the Boxer at Rest was attributed with healing powers, which is plausible, since certain statues of famous athletes are also believed to have such powers. Therefore, since the sculpture was so highly venerated, the Romans could have taken extra care to protect it when Rome was threatened by ‘barbarian’ invaders.
While there are many unanswered questions and speculations surrounding the Boxer at Rest, there are others that scholars have been able to answer satisfactorily. One of these is the techniques employed in the production of this masterpiece. Like the majority of Hellenistic bronze sculptures, the Boxer at Rest was made using the hollow lost-wax casting by the indirect process.
This was one of three lost-wax casting processes, the other two being solid lost-wax casting, and hollow lost-wax casting by the direct process. The hollow lost-wax casting by the indirect process had certain advantages over the other techniques. In solid lost-wax casting, only small figurines could be cast, due to the physical properties of bronze.
Therefore, large sculptures could only be made with hollow casting. One of the main advantages of the indirect process over the direct one is the preservation of the original model during the casting. This means that copies of the same sculpture could be made, large-scale sculptures could be piece-cast, and sections could be recast if needed.
The Boxer at Rest was not cast as a single piece of bronze, but made in different sections – head, body, genitals, arms above the gloves, forearms, left leg, and the middle toes. These individual sections were then welded together. There is also evidence that the sculpture was extensively cold worked, especially its hair, as part of the finishing process. The process serves to strengthen the bronze.
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The ‘Boxer at Rest’ was made in different sections and welded together. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Although the Boxer at Rest is a bronze sculpture, a considerable amount of copper inlay was used as well. This is particularly noticeable in the wounds on the sculpture’s head, and the drops of blood on the right thigh and arm. The use of a different metal for these details serves to enhance the realism of the sculpture.
Copper inlay was also used for the lips, nipples, as well as the straps and stitching of the boxing gloves. Furthermore, the bruise below the right eye is of a darker color, as it was cast using a different alloy.
Today, the Boxer at Rest is part of the collection of the National Museum of Rome and is normally on display in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which is located just a stone’s throw away from Roma Termini, Rome’s main railway station. The Boxer at Rest is displayed in the same room as the Hellenistic Prince (known also as the Seleucid Prince), another spectacular bronze sculpture.
Bronze statue of the ‘Seleucid Prince’. (Butko / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Although the two pieces were discovered in the area, it is likely that they were unrelated. The Boxer at Rest has been loaned to other museums. In 2013, for instance, the sculpture was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 2015, the sculpture was loaned to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, in Los Angeles, as part of the Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World exhibition. This exhibition assembled about 50 bronze sculptures and portraits, “more than have ever been seen together since ancient times”.
The Boxer at Rest is rightly considered to be a masterpiece of Hellenistic bronze sculpture. This remarkable work of art has been admired for its aesthetic qualities by many since its discovery, and has even inspired other creative works, the most notable of these being The Boxer, which was composed by the Italian poet Gabriele Tinti.
Admiration for the Boxer at Rest will likely continue in the future. Nevertheless, it is also hoped that the many questions surrounding this sculpture may someday be answered.
Top image: Detail of The Boxer at Rest, Greek Hellenistic bronze sculpture of a sitting nude boxer at rest. Credit: giorgio / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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