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Greek sculpture: Original or Roman copy?


The Minneapolis Institute of Art is home to one of the most prolific Greek sculptures, the Doryphoros by sculptor Polykleitos. The label associated with the sculpture states that it is a Roman copy, dating l20-50 B.C.E, of a Greek bronze sculpture that was originally created 450-440 B.CE. What does this mean?

There is a long history of appropriation by the Romans and without prior knowledge of formal characteristics found in Greek sculpture; it would be difficult for a novice to ascertain the authenticity of a work.

Contrary to the familiar image of Greek sculpture as white marble statues, Greek sculptors worked primarily in bronze. Since most ancient bronze statues have since been lost or melted down because of the intrinsic value of the bronze, Roman copies in marble provide our primary visual evidence of masterpieces. This is the most obvious way to identify a Roman copy but it is not true in all instances.

There are two dates associated with this sculpture, 120-50 B.C.E and 450-440 B.C.E. An abecedarian in the field of Greek history may not recognize the distinctive formal differences between these two dates but they are quite significant.

450-440 B.C.E refers to the Classical period in Greek history which is characterized by balance, harmony, and the focus on the human body. During the classical era in Greece, artisans greatly improved their methods and created a new standard for sculptures, including the infamous invention of contrapposto. Contrapposto is when a figure stands with one leg holding its full weight and the other leg relaxed; this causes the figure’s hips and shoulders to rest at opposite angles, giving a slight s-curve to the entire torso, the archetype being the Doryphoros.

120-50 B.C.E refers to the Hellenistic period of Greek history which is characterized by exaggerated realism, sensationalism, and imbalance. An excellent example of Hellenistic art is Laocoon and his sons. This sculpture captures the emotion and agony; the distended muscles of Laocoon show the intensity of his struggle. This is contrasts greatly with the Classical period characteristics seen in the Doryphoros.

If still conflicted with whether viewing an original or a Roman copy another tip to assist with the evaluation is to look for hints of paint. Most Greek sculptures were painted and sometimes adorned with clothing, neither are evident in this sculpture.

1. The Doryphoros from the Minneapolis Institute of Art
2. Laocoon and sons from the Institute of Design and Culture


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