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The torso that thrilled Maastricht

by Entwistle on 16 May 2017

At this year's TEFAF Maastricht, Entwistle exhibited one of the stars of the fair, a 1st - 2nd century Roman black marble torso...

Undoubtedly one of the star attractions at this year's TEFAF art fair in Maastricht, this Roman black marble torso, is a sculptural tour-de-force. Word of its presence at the fair spread rapidly and soon aficionados of classical sculpture, both professional and collectors, swarmed to our stand at the fair to gaze at this masterful and sensitive portrayal of the male physique, probably based on a Hellenistic model (250-200 BC).

The structure of the figure clearly underlies the contrapposto principle, which, conceptually, also included the extremities/limbs: the legs and arms, dynamically speaking, were related diagonally to one another, the left leg – the supporting leg – corresponded to an active, bent right arm, the relaxed right leg – the free leg – by contrast to a hanging left arm.

A clear conception of the original, complete figure can still be gained, at least partially. The figure rests on its left leg, the other loosely crooked; the right foot can only have touched the ground with the toes and ball of the foot. Moving up, the body is represented commensurate with the rules of classical composition; accordingly, the pelvis is positioned at a noticeable angle, and the shoulders represented in an opposing movement.

The determined standing pose of the torso, with its upright animation visually embodies decisiveness along with vigorous muscularity as the body displays no signs of age-related ‘deterioration,’ unlike the comparable figure of an ageing fisherman at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, for a long time incorrectly identified as being a representation of Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist.


His clothing is characteristic: the exomis – a short tunic that leaves the right shoulder free – was primarily used to render people who did ‘low’ work: craftsmen, farmers, fishermen, herdsmen, and also slaves. From time to time, other areas of representation were included, e.g. the figure of Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, who was defined in such a way by his function (alluding also to his lowly position among the gods).

The great impact of this extraordinary sculpture is also based on a balanced, cohesive and exciting composition that results from the contrast between a voluminous tunic draped in a lifelike way, and the succinctly posed body parts. The different qualities exhibited by the surfaces, the dull texture of the fur-like material against the highly polished skin, underscores the antagonism between clothes and body, while at the same time it is the black stone that gives the discrepant characterization its impact.

In terms of interpreting the use of black marble, there are, in fact, diverse antique sculptures carved from dark stone that depict black Africans. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that, in the times of the Roman Empire, there were a great many different works, from copies of classical statues through to contemporary portraits, which were realised in dark material (marble, greywacke, basalt). This means that the colour of the material did not eo ipso have any particular relationship to the skin colour of the person represented. Indeed, light marble could also be used to represent a black African – as is true for the famous statue in the National Museum in Naples, though one might well claim a lost coloration in that case.

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