Young Man of Piraeus

  • Share
  • Read Later

With an enigmatic smile on his lips, a young Greek god emerged last week into the modern world after a seclusion of 2,000 years. A bronze kouros (young man) probably representing Apollo, the slightly bigger-than-life statue is the oldest and biggest bronze kouros yet discovered. To ready it for its debut and first official posing, archaeologists spent many months stripping away the incrustations of time—and at least some of the mystery surrounding the young man.

Loot for Rome. The kouros was found in 1959, when workmen in Piraeus, the seaport of ancient and modern Athens, dug up a busy street to repair a sewer. The statues lay on a mosaic floor and were covered with black dirt mixed with ashes and broken roof tiles, indicating that they had been buried in the wreckage of a fire. Deep among them the diggers found a coin that was issued in 87 or 86 B.C.—which strongly suggested that the kouros must have been covered over about that time.

In 86 B.C. the dreaded Roman Conqueror Lucius Cornelius Sulla stormed and looted Athens. Sulla was perhaps the leading looter of ancient times, sending to Rome thousands of works of art from all over the Greek world. Archaeologist Erythmios Mastrokostas, who bossed the Piraeus dig, thinks that the statue was part of Sulla's booty already crated for loading on one of his ships. Very likely a fire in the waterfront warehouse reduced its packing material to black ashes. In the confusion of war, no one noticed the statues. Weeds grew high, rubbish accumulated, and when Piraeus was rebuilt, a street ran over the place.

Bronze Tuberculosis. Hospitalized in the laboratory of the National Museum in Athens, the kouros was tenderly nursed back to bronze health. Ancient Greek sculptors used the "lost wax" process, making their original models of wax-covered clay. When the final details had been modeled in the wax, a second layer of clay was molded around it. Molten bronze poured between the two clay surfaces melted the wax and replaced it, forming a hollow statue of bronze filled with irremovable clay.

The finest of all the Piraeus figures, the kouros was thus firmly packed with the original sculptor's clay. Water seeping into it for 2,000 years had made the clay expand, cracking the bronze in several places and squeezing out through the cracks. Before the statue could be restored, the clay had to be extracted. This was done slowly and painfully by water jets and scraping tools inserted through the cracks. Then the outside surface was brushed, baked in an oven and treated to cure blisters and a surface condition that Greek archaeologists call "bronze tuberculosis." At last the kouros acquired a patina almost as soft and mellow as the one that first attracted Connoisseur Sulla, and the young man looks much as he did when he stood in some ancient temple. His grace and balance, his strength mixed with beauty, give the ideals of the Greeks one more victory over time.