Classical Sculpture Diomedes and Dionysus


We�re in the Glyptotech in Munich. It�s
the world�s only museum dedicated to ancient sculpture. And when we say ancient, we mean
Classical. We�re here to try to understand what it means for something to be classic.
Today we use the word Classic� to describe anything that has stood the test of time and
this isn�t a bad definition. The bigger question is, why does a particular creation
stand the test of time? The answer lies not in the timelessness of the art but in the
timelessness of the idea behind the art. The man behind this idea was Plato who did
most of his heavy lifting around 400 BC. He believed that the goal of life was to live
virtuously. But virtues that we might possess don�t come out of nothing. They exist all
by themselves in the form of, well, forms. Goodness, courage, compassion. As a matter
of fact, almost everything is a form before we get our hands on it. Beauty, circles, triangles,
happiness. When we see something that looks like these forms, we�re really seeing a
vague approximation of what the actual thing really looks like. There is only one circle
in the universe. Anything you draw that looks like a circle only deserves that name insofar
as it comes close to the original form. Classical sculpture is all about illustrating these
ideals. This is Diomedes, or as much as we’ve got
left of Diomedes. He was a famous warrior in the Trojan wars and it doesn’t look like
he came out too well for it. But the point here is that Diomedes is not meant to be a
person. Diomedes is meant to be an idea. He’s meant to be an ideal of heroism, an ideal
of war, an ideal of courage and strength. And so you don’t have anything here that looks
like a real person and the fact he’s all in a million pieces really matter that much.
What matters is that when you look at him, you know what it means to be Roman. The strange thing is that Diomedes wasn�t
Roman. He was a hero in Greek literature. And this sculpture isn�t the original. It�s
a Roman copy more than 2000 year old. Like most empires, the Romans were practical people
and in some ways, Plato�s theory of forms was a very practical theory. They were so
taken by Plato�s theory of forms, that they adopted it wholesale. It meant that there
was a rational, orderly and predictable way of looking at the world and, again like all
empires, they were convinced that they were the ones destined to maintain this order and
there�s nothing like classical ideals of honor, courage, law and patriotism to keep
the rabble in line. So classicism became the philosophy of choice when it came to letting
everyone know who�s in charge. And classical art and architecture was the most obvious
way of doing this. But as useful as this was for running empires,
it didn�t explain the other side of being human � the emotions and passions associated
with love and jealousy and lust and fear and guilt. Plato said these were the end result
of not living a virtuous life. But not everyone agreed. Hidden behind the classical world
of perfect ideals was a feeling that there might be opposing forces ruled by the passions
rather than reason and they had to be recognized. Later, German philosophers like Friedrich
Nietzsche would characterize this as a battle between the two sons of the Classical god
Zeus. Apollo representing the rational and Dionysius representing the passionate. It’s not that Roman sculpture didn’t have
any heart. This is a Roman copy made after the Greek original from around 300 BC clearly
meant to be classical. But, it’s Dionysius being cared for. The face indicates the kind
of affection, a sort of softness. You think there’s real emotion going on here. But who
is the character holding the baby Dionysius. It’s not a Roman God. It’s not an ideal of
courage. It’s not a picture of strength. It’s a Satyr. It’s a Fawn. It looks an awful lot
like Barbarini’s. Voiceover:
This is Barbarini�s Faun. And you can see right away that there�s something different
about him. His face, his body, there�s something about his attitude. If he�s an image of
an ideal, it�s a very different ideal than the ones we might expect ourselves to aspire
too. More likely, it�s the other side of being human that Plato didn�t much appreciate.
But other Greeks, and the romans, and a lot of others through the ages, apparently did.

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