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  • Jan 10, 2017
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The Enduring Beauty of Ancient Bronze

Bronze. The word itself has musical resonance, like the ringing of a bell. An alloy of copper and tin, this fabled metal has been prized through the centuries for its strength and beauty. Many of the great treasures of human culture have been shaped in this warm and enduring material. In the popular imagination, bronze has been unfairly relegated to a distant third place behind gold and silver (one thinks of Olympic medals) but its debased status is undeserved. Gold shines radiant as the Sun, silver glows pale as the Moon, but bronze is like the Earth: solid, attainable, satisfying to the touch. As a dealer in fine antiquities, I have long appreciated the versatile beauties of bronze. Whether on the heroic scale of monumental sculpture or on the intimate level of a Roman coin, bronze conveys an unmatched impression of richness and strength.

Since the Renaissance, discerning connoisseurs have vied with each other to collect the finest antique bronzes. The demand has been steady, but the prices for such treasures have remained remarkably stable. In a time when even a modest Impressionist painting is out of reach for the average collector, superb and important bronzes can still be had for reasonable sums. When acquiring any work of art, personal tastes should take precedence over economics, but ancient bronzes make a timeless appeal to the senses that will never go out of fashion. As with all antiquities, prices will continue to climb as the available supply narrows, but masterpieces can still be found.

What sets bronze apart from other metals is its patina. The surface of gold remains indifferent to the passage of time, silver tarnishes, iron rusts, but bronze acquires character and distinction. The patina of an ancient bronze is an indelible part of its appeal. To remove it would be like adding plaster arms to the Venus de Milo: a violation of its artistic integrity. Not all bronzes are patinated, but connoisseurs agree that a fine patina adds enormously to an object’s worth and beauty.

A word about the survival of bronze artifacts. Perhaps more than any other type of antiquity, bronzes owe their survival to the whims of fate. Metal has always been a prized commodity, and few cultures have had qualms about melting down the bronze heritage of previous generations for their own use. The most famous ancient bronze, the Colossus of Rhodes, was broken up and sold for scrap in A.D. 635. 900 camels were needed to cart away the metal. Many other bronze sculptures met a similar fate. The physical destruction of Ancient Rome was due more to the city’s Medieval inhabitants searching for metal than to the sackings of Barbarian hordes. As a result of centuries of recycling, large-scale ancient bronzes are extremely rare, and smaller objects have only escaped destruction by being buried or overlooked.

In A.D. 135, when the followers of Shimon Bar Kokhba made their last stand in the Qu’mran Caves against the Roman legions, they carried numerous bronze objects into hiding with them. The intrinsic value of such booty made it worthy of being saved even in a desperate hour. After the rebels’ defeat, many of these artifacts lay forgotten in the caves until modern times. Several of the bronzes in my collection were found near Qu’mran, very possibly the legacy of that ill-fated revolt. These include an incense shovel which probably did service in a Judaean synagogue, and an elegant bronze inkwell, stylistically dated to the period when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Qu’mran. Perhaps the scribes of those precious documents dipped their pens into this very vessel.

Bronzes offer a superb record of the dialogue between men and their gods. For thousands of years, bronze votives were considered the ultimate offering to the heavens: costly, enduring, certain to gain benevolent favor. Left by unknown men and women for gods now equally forgotten, these votives can be quite touching in their implications. They represent human hopes and dreams, wishes for health, wealth and happiness which have altered little through the course of civilization. Such a gift might guarantee a successful harvest, victory in battle, or cure from disease. As we hold some small token in our hands today, we think of the person who left it long ago and wonder if their prayers were answered.

Bronzes bring us face to face with the gods themselves. The Egyptian Sekhmet, lion-headed goddess of war and sickness, is supported by an obelisk inscribed with the name of the votary. Regal and mysterious, she remains today as the only clue to that ancient life. Ptah, patron of craftsman, possesses a somber but benevolent dignity; twenty-five centuries ago he was perhaps offered by the very artist who shaped him, in thanks for the gift of talent. A graceful Greek statuette depicts Apollo, god of learning and the arts. Nude save for a laurel crown on his head, he is the ancient ideal of masculine beauty. Though not large, this Apollo has the commanding aura of sculpture on a much larger scale. He may be copied from a masterwork by Lysippus or Praxiteles. Elegant, divinely self-assured, he evokes the very soul of the Classical world.

A Late Roman bronze shows Hygeia, goddess of health. She too seems to echo a larger prototype, possibly the cult image from the hospital sanctuary at Kos. As befits a healer, she appears calm, serene and benevolent. In her left hand she holds a serpent, one of the two that twines around the physician’s caduceus. In the twilight of the Classical age, she may have stood guard over a doctor’s practice. Even in the modern world, where medical miracles are commonplace, it couldn’t hurt to have Hygeia’s blessings.

Time plays tricks. Though the vast majority of ancient bronzes served a practical function, in the modern world we accord them the status of art, as if they were shaped solely for aesthetic pleasure. As we admire the graceful, flowing lines of a bronze Etruscan pitcher, it is easy to forget it was created to hold wine at table. Weapons-daggers, axe heads, spear points– lose their sinister demeanor, and assume an abstract purity of form. Though they may remember the heat of distant battles, it is their sculptural elegance that appeals to us today. Coins passed hand to hand at the height of the Roman Empire bear the portraits of proud Emperors. Richly patinated by the passage of centuries, such tokens evoke the grandeur of a vanished world. It is as if those ambitious men understood that bronze would affirm their rank and importance long after they themselves had disappeared. Empires, after all, may rise and fall , but the solid beauty of bronze endures.

To see a small sampling of ancient bronze masterworks from the collection please browse through the selections below.
 

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