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The Boxer: An Ancient Masterpiece

Boxer at Rest, Greek, Hellenistic period, late 4th–2nd century B.C. Bronze inlaid with copper, H. 128 cm. Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 1055. Lent by Republic of Italy, 2013. Image courtesy Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma - Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.


The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, and the Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

Support is provided by Eni, the main sponsor of the exhibition.

The event is part of 2013 - Year of Italian Culture in the United States, an initiative held under the auspices of the President of the Italian Republic, organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C., with the support of the Corporate Ambassadors Eni and Intesa Sanpaolo.

The Boxer

An Ancient Masterpiece

June 1–July 18, 2013

Read a related article by Seán Hemingway in Now at the Met.

The bronze statue Boxer at Rest was excavated in Rome in 1885 on the south slope of the Quirinal Hill near the ancient Baths of Constantine, where it is thought to have been displayed. The statue was intentionally buried in late antiquity, possibly to preserve it against the barbarian invasions that ravaged Rome in the fifth century A.D. The broad-shouldered, lanky pugilist is depicted just after a match sitting on a boulder to rest after the unnerving tension of the fight. Something catches his eye and makes him turn his head: perhaps the applause of the spectators or the entrance of his next opponent?

In his athletic nakedness, he wears only boxing gloves and a sort of athletic suspender (kynodèsme) that was both protective and an element of decorum. The many wounds to his head, the primary target in ancient Greek boxing matches, make clear that he has just completed a match. Blood, represented by inlaid copper, drips from cuts on his forehead, cheeks, and cauliflower ears. His right eye is swollen and bruised. His nose is broken, and he breathes through his mouth, probably because his nostrils are blocked by blood. His inwardly drawn lips are scarred, likely indicating that his teeth have been pushed in or knocked out. Despite his exhaustion, the muscles in his arms and legs are still tense, as if the battered champion were ready to spring up and face a new combatant.

The iconography draws inspiration from two statues of Herakles sculpted by Lysippos in the fourth century B.C., thereby associating the momentary rest of a victorious athlete to that of a mythical hero who embodies the ideals of virtue and strength. It is, therefore, possible that the statue was meant to celebrate a mythical or real boxer who was glorified for his endurance and courage. Scholars have long debated the date of the statue, which is most likely between the late fourth and the second century B.C. The sculpture is an exceptional work in bronze from the Hellenistic period (323-31 B.C.) and is of outstanding artistic value.

Technique

The statue was cast using the indirect lost-wax method. It was made in different sections that were then welded together: head, body, genitals, arms above the gloves, forearms, left leg, and middle toes. The top of the head was restored in antiquity. Although the inset eyes are missing, they would have been convincingly rendered, like a pair in the Metropolitan's collection.

The statue is remarkable for its extensive use of inlaid copper, especially for the wounds to the boxer's head and the drips of blood on his right arm and leg as well as his lips, nipples, and the straps and stitching of the boxing gloves. Of particular note is the bruise under his right eye, which was cast with a different alloy to give it a darker color. Extensive cold-working of the statue, especially the hair, was part of the finishing process. The stone base is modern but is probably a close approximation of the ancient base. Originally, the use of stone would have added to the realistic effect so powerfully rendered in the bronze.

The Magical Powers of the Statue

Areas of the boxer's right foot and hands are worn from frequent touching in antiquity. The statue may have been accorded healing powers, as was known to have occurred with other statues of famous athletes. An Early Imperial vitreous paste ring stone appears to represent the same statue of a boxer sitting on a rock and may have been a talisman for the ring's owner. It is perhaps thanks to its popular veneration that the bronze statue Boxer at Rest was protected so carefully in late antiquity, when the Baths of Constantine were destroyed.

Boxing in Antiquity

Boxing was an ancient and revered sport in antiquity. Already practiced in the Bronze Age, it is recorded in the eighth century B.C. among the athletic contests performed during the funeral games of Patrokles in book 23 of Homer's Iliad. It was introduced into the Olympic games in 688 B.C. and became an integral competition at all the major panhellenic sanctuaries where athletic events were held in connection with religious festivities. So popular was boxing among ancient Greek nobility, who valued it as a form of military training, that swollen ears became a mark of honor. In ancient Greece, the rules for boxing differ from those today. A boxer had to face one opponent after another, typically without significant pauses, and blows were dealt exclusively to the head and face. Originally, the gloves used to protect the hands were simple leather straps that covered the forearms. In the fourth century B.C., more complex gloves, such as those on this statue, featured a rigid ring with ox-hide straps around the fingers and were trimmed with fur so that the athlete could wipe himself. Later on, during the Roman Imperial period, the boxing gloves worn by gladiators developed into deadly weapons with sharp metal or broken glass points.