Demetrio Poliorcetes. A monumental Hellenistic bronze recovered
EXHIBITION EXTENDED UNTIL OCTOBER 15TH, 2017 (ROOM 51 OF THE VILLANUEVA BUILDING)
Starting today, the Prado Museum is showing a monumental bronze head identified as that of Demetrius Poliorcetes (c. 336 – 283 B.C.). The piece, which will be prominently displayed for the coming months in the lower Goya rotunda of the Villanueva Building, is once again being exhibited to the public after its recent restoration, which was sponsored by Fundación Iberdrola España.
This monumental bronze head is one of the few Hellenistic sculptures of this size and quality that have been preserved. It is not known where the head, which measures 45 cm, was found, but it probably belonged to a monumental statue some 3.50 m tall. The preserved sculpture that is closest in appearance to this one is the Potentate of the Baths (Museo Nazionale Romano), although it was created some 150 years later and is over a metre shorter.
The high quality of this bronze can be seen particularly in the masterly crafting of the hair, with tight curls that loop around the head in a lively fashion, and the mastery of the lost-wax casting. In Greek sculpture, this technique was used to cast small pieces, such as heads, torsos, arms and legs, which were then assembled to create a large sculpture.
The piece was previously in the collection of Queen Cristina of Sweden, its first know owner. On its arrival in Spain in 1725, it was kept in the Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso with the collection of Felipe V and Isabel de Farnesio and it became part of the Prado Museum’s collection in around 1830.
Recent investigations made it possible to identify the figure depicted as the Hellenistic general and king Demetrius I, called Poliorcetes because of his outstanding, and successful, sieges of enemy cities. Together with his father, the Diadochus Antigonus I, Demetrius was the first successor to Alexander the Great (356-223 B.C.).
The condition of the sculptural portrait of Demetrius Poliorcetes reflected the perilous journey made by the piece over the centuries and the many interventions to which it had been subject. In order to preserve it, these interventions hid the original bronze surface under layers of glue, tar and paint.
The technical studies made prior to the restoration process provided important data on the casting process and the history of this portrait. They also brought to light the stability problems of both the metal itself and the structure, information that was needed to define the goals and the most appropriate treatment for the intervention.
The priorities in this restoration were to give the sculpture back its original surface and colour, making it more legible, and to stabilise and protect the materials that comprise it, especially the bronze. A further priority was to strengthen the internal structure to prevent the structural tensions that had caused cracks, by designing a stable, resistant support that would avoid covering areas of the original surface.
The restoration process consisted of removing the resins, glues, protective coatings and tars of former interventions from the surface of the bronze; putting some misplaced fragments back in their original position; and designing new temporary, reversible attachment systems.
After restoring this piece, and to better preserve it, a special support was designed, lined with a cushioning material that spreads the weight of the sculpture over the support, preventing the supported areas from becoming pressure points. In addition, a system of hidden pads was proposed, which are taken out during transfer and permit the sculpture to be moved safely without directly touching the bronze.
The identification of the figure portrayed was a complicated task because it has no unmistakeable characteristics and the features do not clearly match those in any portrait.
Due to its ambiguous typology, the work offers two different messages, depending on whether it is viewed from the front or the side. Viewed from the front, the idealised typology Greek art used for depicting gods and heroes can be seen, like those created by the classical Greek sculptor Scopas around 340 B.C. However, when viewed in profile, the traits of a portrait can be recognised: a bulging, muscular forehead, deep-set eyes, an oblong face and a slightly open mouth.
Alexander the Great, who was seen as a god and a hero, was the first to be depicted using this type of portrait, which was then imitated for the Diadochi, the generals who succeeded him.
A marble portrait, found with other portraits of Hellenistic sovereigns in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, which is interpreted as being a portrait of Demetrius Poliorcetes, shares a similar hairstyle and the same facial features with the monumental head, as does another marble portrait in Copenhagen.
After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., the diadem, a band knotted around the head that signified his absolute power over Asia, became the most important insignia of the Hellenistic kings. However, this diadem does not appear in the portrait of Demetrius Poliorcetes and other similar portraits. Today, its absence makes it difficult to identify the portraits of the Diadochi. One reason was that after the death of Alexander the Great they did not dare to depict themselves as being like him.
In 307 B.C., Antigonus I and his son Demetrius I, who was almost 30 years old, were proclaimed kings by the Athenians, but, according to the Greek writer Plutarch, they both avoided using the name of king as this was a unique regal attribute reserved exclusively for the descendants of Philip and Alexander. A year later, in 306, when Demetrius Poliorcetes defeated the fleet of the Diadochus Ptolemy (367-283 B.C.) in Cyprus, the assembled Macedonian army declared Antigonus I and his son Demetrius I to be kings of Asia and sent them the diadem as the successors of Alexander. According to this detail, the absence of the diadem suggests that the bronze in the Prado was created before this event, in 307 B.C., when Demetrious Poliorcetes and his father Antigonus I were the kings of Athens.