You might not think a first century Roman sculpture called “Dying Gaul,” on loan from the Capitoline Museums in Rome to the National Gallery of Art in D.C., would have a bearing on our popular culture.
But it does and it’s not for a reason the National Gallery mentions - that this is the first time the sculpture has left Italy since Napoleon took it. (Italy got it back eventually). Besides, there are too many copies of the work around the world to crow that we have it for a few months.
The reason the work bears on our popular culture starts with Roman artists who, unlike the much-touted Greek artists, portrayed personality rather than perfection, the individual rather than the idyllic. “Dying Gaul” shows a soldier taking his final breaths and the pain from a mortal chest wound is clearly written on his face. Roman sculpture made personal thought, feeling and experience visible, and in that sense, it was the Facebook of its day.
I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one...
Note: I don’t want to leave the impression that the National Gallery crowed only about having a first-time-out-of-Italy sculpture since Napoleon. Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art was quoted saying, “The Dying Gaul is a deeply moving tribute to the human spirit. An image of a conquered enemy, the sculpture represents courage in defeat, composure in the face of death and dignity.”
What he said.