One of the most celebrated statues from antiquity, the “Discobolus” remains a cautionary tale about the ways in which we speak about ideal bodies through the art we curate and display.
Sarah E. Bond
The Lancellotti Discobolus and a fragmentary statue of the Lancellotti type, both Roman copies of Myron’s original, second century CE, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome (photograph by Carole Raddato via Flickr)
One of the most celebrated statues from antiquity remains the “Discobolus of Myron,” praised as the personification of equilibrium, strength, and athletic beauty. Although only Roman, white marble copies of Myron’s bronze, Greek original survive today (except for a miniature bronze statuette in the Munich Glyptothek), the statue has been a metric for beauty since antiquity. From Hadrian to Hitler, its display was often manipulated to project the ideals of the men who exhibited the discus thrower.
To understand the original “Discobolos” or “Discobolus of Myron,” we must first understand why it was likely created. Many of the statues of athletes that survive from antiquity were originally understood as markers of a victory. Triumphant athletes who competed in Greek agones (athletic competitions) like the Olympics were often awarded the right to erect a bronze statue of themselves at both the place where they competed and also in their hometown — if they had the funds to pay for it. Few of these life-sized bronze sculptures exist today, but a likely example is the Hellenistic “Statue of a Victorious Youth” that now resides, clad as he was during the competition (i.e. in the buff save for a now mostly missing olive wreath), in the Getty Villa in Malibu.
Myron was a celebrated sculptor born in the early fifth century BCE, in the Greek city of Eleusis, on the border of Attica. He was extraordinarily good at casting bronze for his sculptures and preferred to sculpt gods, animals, and athletes as his subjects. We may know him best for the equilibrium and beauty with which he created his “Discobolus,” but many in Athens knew him best for his life-like bronze cow sculpture on display in the polis. (Sadly, this cow does not survive today.) His athletic statues in particular were seen as balanced, with an impressive symmetry that pointed to a honed body containing a sharp mind.
Unknown artist, “Victorious Youth” Greece; (300–100 B.C.) bronze with inlaid copper; 151.5 × 70 × 27.9 cm, 64.4108 kg (59 5/8 × 27 9/16 × 11 in., 142 lbs), the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, on display at the Getty Villa (image via the Getty Open Content program)
Tales of Myron’s naturalistic work were told well into Roman antiquity — along with stories of famed Greek artists like Phidias, Polykleitos, and Praxiteles. The Eleusian is casually referred to by the likes of Lucian and Quintilian, and became shorthand for the artistic rendering of life through art. In the Neronian-era satire the Satyricon written by Petronius, it is noted that Myron “almost caught the very soul of men and beasts in bronze.”
Dropping the name of famed artists in rhetorical and literary treatises was a sign of refinement then as now, but so was displaying copies of their work in your villa. Domestic display of art intended to nod at the intellectual and social stature of the owner has been an aspiration since antiquity. It is likely why Hadrian chose to display copies of the “Discobolus” in his villa at Tivoli, outside of the city of Rome. These statues emphasized to visitors his appreciation for Greek culture and advertised his conviction in the innate beauty of the male form.
The “Discobolus’s” basic shape appears to have been aesthetically familiar to most Romans in the same manner that the Statue of Liberty or Rodin’s “The Thinker” (1904) is to us. This is evidenced by the fact that it could be found in both private homes like Hadrian’s and in public baths, like the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Ancient art historian Lea M. Stirling noted recently in a volume on Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption that only 20 life-sized versions and seven statuettes survive. Most of these copies date to the second century CE, near to or during the time of the emperor Hadrian.
Despite its celebration in Classical Antiquity, the naked form fell out of favor in the early Christian period, and many appear to have been removed from display during Late Antiquity. Although literary knowledge of the work remained, it would be centuries before the birthday suited Roman copies of Myron’s masterpiece would resurface and be put on display following the increase in funded archaeological excavations that seized Rome and other parts of Italy (such as Pompeii) during the 18th century.
In 1781, a marble discus-thrower 1.55 meters in height was excavated from Rome’s Esquiline Hill at the Villa Palombara. This would be dubbed the “Lancellotti Discobolus,” which is today displayed beside another copy of the statue, the “Discobolus of Castelporziano,” whose head and several parts of limbs are missing from the athlete’s body. The aristocratic Massimo family would place the “Lancellotti Discobolus” in its own room in their Roman Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne. Later it was moved to the Palazzo Lancellotti ai Coronari in Rome.
Not long after the discovery of the “Lancellotti Discobolus,” excavations at Hadrian’s Villa in 1791 turned up a first, and then second “Discobolus” statue. The first would be dubbed the “Townley Discobolus” and can be seen today at the British Museum in London. After being acquired by art dealer Thomas Jenkins, it was sold, after a rather misguided restoration, to Charles Townley. It was billed to Townley as a statue comparable to the prized one held by the Massimo family — word of which had spread throughout Europe among both art dealers and wealthy elites. However, this one had been restored incorrectly, with his head facing downward instead of looking back at the discus as in the Massimo statue’s example…………….