The Mysterious Riace Warriors: From Greece To Italy To Discovery
The Riace Warriors (or Bronzi di Riace) are a pair of Greek bronze statues that were discovered in the sea near Riace, in the southern Italian province of Calabria. The statues date to the 5th century BC and depict two warriors. Both warriors are nude and bearded, though one of them is thought to be an “younger” individual, and the other a “older” one. The former is referred to as Statue A, whilst the latter is known as Statue B. This choice of names is an indication that no one is certain who statues were meant to depict, though some scholars have made their own speculations. The Riace Warriors are considered to be treasures of the ancient world for a number of reasons. For one, bronze statues from ancient Greece are rare, since these works of art were often melted down in later times for the purpose of making new objects.
The modern story of the Riace Warriors, also known as the Riace Bronzes, begins in 1972 AD. On the 16 th of August that year, a Roman chemist by the name of Stefano Mariottini was underwater fishing in the Ionian Sea off Marina di Riace. Whilst he was underwater, Mariottini discovered the Riace Warriors in the sand completely by chance. The chemist initially thought that he had found a corpse, though upon closer inspection, realized that it was actually a statue. In any case, Mariottini contacted the authorities, and a few days later, the pair of bronze statues were brought out of the sea by the police and handed over to the archaeological superintendent of Reggio Calabria.
Despite the importance of this amazing discovery, the Riace Warriors were apparently not handled with the care they deserve. For example, a large piece of late antique ceramic was conveniently “forgotten” on the beach. This ceramic piece had originally been placed between the right forearm and chest of Statue A in ancient times to prevent the arm from being damaged.
The Riace Warriors “disappeared” for about a decade, as they needed to be studied, cleaned, and restored before they could be shown to the public. Between 1975 and 1980 AD, the Riace Warriors were in Florence, where initial restoration work was performed on them. One of the primary objectives of the restorers was to clean and preserve the external surface of the statues.
The Riace Warriors were first revealed to the public in the summer of 1981 AD, first in Florence, and then in Rome. The fact that one million people came to see the statues attests to the great interest that the public had for these ancient works of art. And in that same year, the Riace Warriors were also featured on a commemorative Italian postage stamp.
The Riace Warriors today are displayed in the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
After They Were Found The Warriors Were Restored Twice More
The restoration work, however, was not quite completed yet, and its second phase was conducted between 1992 and 1995 AD. The second stage of restoration work was carried out on the statues in a laboratory in the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia (or the National Museum of Magna Graecia), in Reggio Calabria, where the artifacts are currently exhibited. The aim of this second phase of restoration was to remove the soil inside the statues. As the soil was soaked in salt, it was damaging the metal, and therefore had to be removed. After that, the Riace Warriors returned to Florence for further restorations. The soil samples were later analyzed by scientists and provided some rather interesting information (see below).
Between 2010 and 2013 AD, the third and latest round of restoration was performed on the Riace Warriors, this time at the Palazzo Campanella, the seat of the Regional Council of Calabria. The statues were restored in this building, which is located across town in Reggio Calabria, as the National Museum of Magna Graecia was under renovation. During this period, the statues were placed on their backs, in an “undignified pose.”
Placing the statues on their backs was in fact a practical measure, as it allowed the restorers to work on them more easily. Still, there were people who found this offensive, blew the controversy out of proportion, and even petitioned the Ministry of Culture to have the statues properly exhibited again as soon as possible. In any event, after the restoration was completed, the Riace Warriors were returned to the National Museum of Magna Graecia, where they were each placed on top of an anti-seismic platform to reduce the risk of damage. Moreover, the room that the statues are displayed in is climate controlled, which helps to prevent / slow down their deterioration. On top of that, only 20 visitors are allowed to enter the room at a time, and only after passing through an airlock.
It should be mentioned that the restoration of 2010-2013 AD was not the only time the handling of the Riace Warriors courted controversy. A year after the statues were back on display, they were once again at the center of another controversy. At that time, there was a proposed plan to transport the statues all the way to Milan, which is about 1000 km (620 miles) to the north of Reggio Calabria. The statues were to be part of the Universal Exposition, EXPO 2015, and were to remain in Milan for a duration of six months. Many experts were concerned with this proposal, as they believed that the statues are now in such a fragile state that even the slightest movement could result in their destruction.
In an article on the issue from 2014 AD, the author questions whether the plan to send the statues to the Universal Exposition is in fact “a blatant money move to gin up ticket sales at EXPO 2015?” By the way, in the end, it was decided that the Riace Warriors would not travel to Milan, as the EXPO 2015 “had no scientific nor cultural standing,” and therefore transporting the statues to the north was simply not worth the risk.
Riace Warriors Statue A, also known as “Il Giovane” (“The Young”). (Luca Galli from Torino, Italy / CC BY 2.0)
The Riace Warriors: Similarities And Differences
Since the beginning, the two statues have been referred to as Statue A and Statue B. In Reggio Calabria, the statues are known also as “Il Giovane” (“The Young”) and “Il Vecchio” (“The Old”), respectively. In addition to being the younger-looking of the two statues, Statue A is also the taller of the two, though not by much: Statue A is 1.98 meters (6.5 feet) tall, Statue B is 1.97 meters (6.46 feet) tall. Both statues also display differences in their beards, their facial features, and their hairstyles. And the men in both statues are standing in the classic contrapposto stance. Still, a slight difference may be noticed: the feet of Statue B are set more closely together than those of Statue A.
Technically speaking, both statues were cast using the lost-wax technique, and the bronze of the statues is considered to be very thin. It has been observed that Statue A is of a darker greenish color than Statue B, leading to the theory that each statue was made using a different bronze alloy. Apart from bronze, other materials, such as silver, copper, and calcite were also used in the creation of the Riace Warriors.
The teeth of Statue A, for example, are made of silver. Copper was used for the nipples, lips, and eyelashes of both statues. And the sclerae (the white of the eyes) are made of calcite. It is also widely believed that the statues were originally made with attached elements, though these have since been lost. For instance, it is thought that the Riace Warriors once had helmets on their heads, a shield in one hand, and a weapon, perhaps a spear, in the other. Some believe that these attachments, in addition to a third Riace Warrior that allegedly disappeared shortly after it was taken out of the sea, found its way into the collection of the John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The museum, however, denies these allegations.
Riace Warriors Statue B, also known as “Il Vecchio” (“The Old”) . (Bronzi_Di_Riace_Statua_B.jpg: User: AlMarederivative work: Hic et nunc / CC BY-SA 2.5)
Based on the analysis of the soil that was removed from within the statues during the second phase of restoration, it was determined that the artifacts were made in Argos. This piece of information allowed art historians to speculate on the identity of the Riace Warriors.
It has been suggested, for example, that Statue A may represent Tydeus, whereas Statue B could be Amphiraus. Both are characters from Greek mythology, the former being a hero from Aetolia and the son of the god Ares, whilst the latter was a warrior prophet who predicted his own death beneath the walls of Thebes. Both heroes participated in the ill-fated expedition of the Argives against Thebes, a legendary undertaking immortalized in Aeschylus’ tragedy Seven Against Thebes.
Ancient Greek theater in Argos, Greece where archaeologists believe the Riace Warrior bronze statues were created, long before they ended up in Italy. (Christopher / Adobe Stock)
Made In Greece And Then Either Stolen Or Brought To Italy
By connecting the Riace Warriors with the city of Argos, art historians have also been able to speculate on the identity of the artists who may have made them, as well as their date of creation. It has been postulated that Statue A was made by Hageladas, an Argive who worked at the sanctuary of Delphi during the middle of the 5 th century BC. Statue B, on the other hand, may have been created by Alcamenes, who was originally from the island of Lemnos. Alcamenes was later rewarded with Athenian citizenship for his artistic talent. The identification of these artists is based on the knowledge that there was a group of bronze figures, including the seven heroes who besieged Thebes, in Argos, and that these statues are associated with Hageladas and his school.
If the Riace Warriors were indeed from Argos, the next question would naturally be “How did they end up at the bottom of the Ionian Sea?” One suggestion is that the statues were looted by the Romans following their conquest of Greece. The looting of Greek works of art, and their transportation back to Rome, after all, is quite well-known. Some questions regarding this scenario, however, have been raised, leading to alternative suggestions as to what actually happened.
One of alternative explanations is that the bronzes did not begin their unfortunate voyage in Greece, but in southern Italy, which was known in ancient times as Magna Graecia. This hypothesis goes on to suggest that the statues were actually residing in Epizephyrian Locris, a Greek colony not far from Riace. From 280 to 275 BC, the Pyrrhic War was fought between the Roman Republic and Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose aid against Rome had been requested by the inhabitants of Tarentum, another Greek city in Magna Graecia. Pyrrhus besieged Locris in 275 BC, after they joined the Romans. After taking Locris, Pyrrhus sacked the town, and the Riace Warriors are speculated to have been part of the loot taken back to Epirus.
It is believed that as the ship carrying the Riace Warriors was crossing the Ionian Sea (whether in the direction of Rome or of Epirus) it was caught in a storm and as a result sank with its cargo. Critics of this scenario, however, have pointed to the fact that neither the shipwreck nor the rest of the ship’s cargo, assuming that the vessel was carrying more than these two statues, have been found.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that the two statues were thrown overboard, perhaps to lighten the ship’s load as it sailed through a storm, or to prevent them from falling into the hands of pirates. In either case, we may never know for sure how the Riace Warriors ended up at the bottom of the Ionian Sea.
A 1997 Italian stamp of the so-called 5th century BC “Porticello Head” or “Porticello Philosopher” bronze fragment found at Porticello, off the coast of South Italy, which is another star attraction at the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia in Reggio Calabria, Italy. (laufer / Adobe Stock)
The Riace Warriors have undoubtedly been the stars of the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, attracting an estimated 130,000 visitors to the museum each year. Another article, however, claims that from their discovery in 1972 until 2014 AD, only 120,000 people have seen the Riace Warriors in the museum. Regardless, it should be noted that whilst the Riace Warriors are the main attractions of the museum, a number of other noteworthy artifacts are displayed there as well. For instance, the rooms in which the warriors are displayed is also home to the “Head of a Philosopher” and the so-called “Head of Basilea”. These are two bronze heads, presumably once part of complete statues, that were also found on the seabed off the coast of Calabria. One is tempted to speculate on the number of ancient bronze statues that may be waiting to be discovered in the waters off southern Italy.
Top image: The Riace Warriors on two separate Italian postage stamps, issued in 1981 AD. Source: Silvio / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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