Masterpieces Of Imagination. Greek, Roman, and Etruscan bronzes preserve ancient conceptions of deities and men

`NUMBERLESS are the world's wonders, but none more wonderful than man,'' wrote Sophocles. The classical world's fascination with the human body is superbly illustrated in a new exhibit, ``The Gods Delight,'' which appeared at the Cleveland Museum of Art and is now on tour.

The exhibit consists of 74 small bronze sculptures, depicting the pantheon of classical gods as well as men and women, both ordinary and heroic. They date from the 8th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., covering the Greek, Etruscan, and Roman eras. All from United States collections, they are masterpieces of artistic imagination and technical brilliance.

Classicism represents order, harmony, proportion, and an attitude of admiration for man and his achievements. Even when intended for purely ornamental use, all of these figures also celebrate the human form and spirit. Of course, most were not just ornamental; many were offered at shrines to thank the gods for their favor.

The mystery of the ancient world is embodied in these handsome Apollos, graceful Venuses, and powerful Herculeses.

It is amazing that these small-scaled figures (ranging from very small to about 25 inches high) achieve such a degree of monumentality, and also that, within less than 100 years, the prevailing style evolved from crudely delineated though still expressive figures to amazingly refined characterizations.

The ancients visualized their gods as human beings. At first the gods were the common subjects; from there, artists moved on to dancers, athletes, warriors, acrobats, philosophers, dwarfs, children, satyrs, exotics, grotesques, and real-life portraiture of ordinary people as well as public figures.

Nudity at first was restricted to male figures. These were initially stylized, then more naturalistic, with great attention to hair and facial expression and the illusion of motion. The raised leg, body direction, the facial expression - all contributed to a more realistic look.

In each period, the artists' conceptions of the human form mirrored the times. What was most revealing to this observer was the subtle change from the remote, stiff, uncompromising god-figures to the perfectly formed human athlete.

Among the many memorable images is the Mantiklos Apollo (Greek, 700-675 B.C.). This statue is described in the catalog as ``one of the most imaginative interpretations of the masculine figure ever created.'' Standing erect and strong, with large head, powerful curls, elongated neck and chest, and foreshortened thighs - all severely geometrical in shape - this statue is the embodiment of clarity, eloquently representing a god revered for his ability to bring order from chaos.

``Athlete Making an Offering'' (Greek, ca. 450-425 B.C.) represents the ideal of the Classical period, the Golden Age of Pericles. The sculptor Polyclitus, who was a friend of the great Athenian statesman, developed a way to present an idealized male body: relaxed, the weight resting on one leg, the other bent as if to step forward.

Compare this to ``Portrait of a Philosopher,'' a Roman sculpture dating from the end of the 1st century B.C. but inspired by a Hellenistic original of the 3rd century B.C. The philosopher, with his sagging shoulders, unfirm chest, and solid but non-athletic posture, is certainly a more realistic figure than the Apollo, but yet is tremendously appealing in its humanity.

`SLEEP and Death Carrying Off the Slain Sarpedon'' (Etruscan, early 4th century B.C.), was once the handle of a cista (a large cosmetic or jewelry container). Sarpedon was the Prince of Lycia, who aided King Priam in his defense of Troy against Helen's Greek rescuers in Homer's ``The Iliad.''

This exquisitely executed piece was cast in seven sections and welded together. This mode of construction, in addition to the powerful feeling expressed in the work, makes it remarkable.

Hellenistic artists took particular interest in accurately depicting bodies in complex, active, and expressive poses and in representing varied psychological states. The famous sculpture of ``The Dancing Woman'' (ca. 250-175 B.C.) is superbly composed in axes, volumes, and planes, making the figure fascinating from every angle.

ARTISTS of the Hellenistic period explored new versions of the draped female figure at the same time that they experimented with the female nude. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was the period's most celebrated deity. Her images popularized a new fascination with the female nude in bronze, which had previously been rather rare.

Two charming late Hellenistic bronzes of the god Pan, shaggy-legged and powerfully muscled, perfectly expresses a free and primitive spirit.

A striking contrast from the 1st century A.D. is the Roman bronze ``Victory with a Cornucopia,'' which might have once had a Roman chariot attachment. With its flowing robes, carefully positioned arms, and right leg positioned as if afloat, does it not resemble sculpture of a much later period?

The most appropriate summation of this beautifully installed and lighted exhibit must be borrowed from Horace: ``Conquered Greece took captive her wild conquerors.''

The exhibition will open Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will be seen through April 9, and then it will move to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, May 9-July 9.

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