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What's Greek about a Roman Copy?

April 9, 2011–June 2, 2011
Gallery 156

Some art collectors who lived during Roman times (2nd century B.C.–4th century A.D.) wanted to own stone replicas of famous statues by sculptors from the Classical period of Greek art (5th–4th century B.C.)—Phidias, Skopas, Lysippos, and Praxiteles, for example. These statues have long been called “Roman copies of Greek originals,” which suggests that they are nothing more than inferior, rote reproductions. This could not be further from the truth, however.

Many Roman sculptors were among the most talented artists of antiquity, although not all of them were equally gifted at coaxing beautiful statues from rough-hewn blocks of stone. However, the best sculptures reveal a mastery of the technical challenges presented by marble, as well as a strong, independent artistic vision. Some Greek statues were quite large and made of cast bronze, so it took a great deal of skill and creative effort to translate them into stone, often on a reduced scale.

Because few Greek statues survived, the Roman sculptures modeled on them provide the most compelling visual evidence we have about the appearance of the originals. Generally, such later sculptures referencing an earlier prototype fall into three main categories: those that replicate the original version; those that appropriate elements for use in a new compositional scheme; and those that adapt what they borrow for an entirely different purpose.

Several sculptures appearing in this exhibition were made during the Roman period and inspired by Greek prototypes. They can be identified by the presence of the chisel icon on their label.

Relief of a Fallen Warrior, 2nd century A.D. Roman copy of the 5th-century B.C. Greek original by Phidias. Gift of Alfred E. Hamill.