Closer Readings Commentary

Q and A with Humanities Practitioners: Carol Mattusch

Carol C. Mattusch, Mathy Professor of Art History, emerita, at George Mason University, has taught and lectured on Greek and Roman art and archaeology and on the rediscovery of the ancient world on the Bay of Naples. Over the course of a notable career, she has curated two museum exhibits and served on the advisory committee for Power & Pathos, for which she also wrote an essay for the catalogue as well as three entries for the D.C. venue at the National Gallery. She has also served as the director for the GMU Plaster Cast Project. Her most recent book is entitled Enduring Bronze: Ancient Art, Modern Views, 2014.

1. How did you get started in art history/archeology?

When I was little, I lived in Korea with my parents for two years, and they were archaeological enthusiasts. We saw royal tombs, excavations in progress, and pottery workshop sites that needed to be excavated: I was hooked.

When I went to college, I majored in classical and Near Eastern archaeology. In graduate school, I was in an art history program because I thought that a more varied background might improve job opportunities. In other words, there were at the time more positions available in art departments than in classics departments, and archaeology departments were few and far between.

2. What’s your field of expertise?

My expertise is in how Greek and Roman bronze statues were made—workshops and the statues that were their products. As a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, although I took a broad range of art history courses, I continued to concentrate in classical art and archaeology, taking courses in both the art department and the classics department. One of my professors encouraged me to apply to study in Athens, at the American School of Classical Studies. She also suggested a dissertation topic on a little-studied body of material—ancient bronze foundry debris—from the Athenian Agora excavations.

I spent four years in Athens (most of my graduate career) and had a wonderful time, with the opportunity at first-hand experience with how bronzes were made. I first excavated in Corinth, and then in the Athenian Agora. In both places, I worked on foundry material. It’s a field that very few scholars know much about, and suddenly I became one of the few who did! But clay molds and bronze drips and used scrapers [strigils] aren’t particularly compelling once one has gotten the hang of what they all might mean.

3. What is it about ancient Greek bronze sculpture that you like?

So, it was a natural leap from the foundry to the product of the workshop. I simply moved from one angle on production—the tools of the trade— to another, the statuary. It, too, reveals a lot about the process and thus about the nature of the statuary industry in antiquity.

I learned that bronzes are all reproductions of their models, by way of a wax intermediary, a working model. Bronzes could be mass-produced—they were just alike—or bronzes could be produced as editions, as variations on the original model.

Because I study ancient technology, I like whole statues with holes in them; I like body-parts—arms, legs, and heads—anything that you can look inside of and see [the] traces of how they were made. And most bronzes are just that: fragments.

4. Why is ancient bronze sculpture so rare?

Modern scholars thought that ancient bronzes were one-of-a-kind, whereas ancient marbles were copied from those single bronzes, sometimes repeatedly. On the contrary, ancient bronze sculptures are rare simply because bronze is re-usable. In fact, bronze statues are easier and cheaper to produce than marbles: nowadays as in antiquity. There were thousands of them. Pliny the Elder reported the survival in his day (1st century CE) of about 3,000 Greek bronze statues in Athens, in Olympia, in Delphi, and in Rhodes, for a total of 12,000. By his day, classical statues no longer functioned as goddess, god, victorious athlete, or hero, and Romans collected these antiques to decorate their cities and homes. Christians later destroyed pagan monuments, and scrap-metal dealers visited sanctuaries or cities to harvest metal for resale.

5. Do you need to be an expert to understand ancient Greek sculpture?

No. You just need to know how to look. That is, we all want to be visually literate. Learning to look carefully is an acquired skill. Start out by looking very carefully at an object. Making a drawing of it helps you to notice and capture all the details. In the case of a bronze statue, you might notice that it has stone eyes, copper eyelashes, and a surface that is affected by light. Sometimes it helps to compare and contrast two items. Try to figure out what a fragmentary statue was doing. Who is represented? Was it a single statue or part of a group?

6. Power and Pathos is being called a “once in a lifetime” exhibit. Why?  What is the purpose of the show?

P&P has brought together classical bronzes that have never been seen in the same spaces before. Many countries and many museums had to coordinate to make it work. Something like this won’t happen again for a long time.

The purpose of the show is to tell us some important things about bronzes:

a) the model is reproducible, which means that you can make as many bronzes from it as you can sell;

b) Hellenistic bronzes introduced new styles and types of statues, such as portraits that looked like real people, thinking, worrying, acting important, etc., and action-figures.

7. You have worked on other exhibits. What was the experience like?

Working on an exhibit is about collaborating with other people. As a curator, one works with lenders, shippers, fund-raisers, advertisers, journalists, designers/installers, educators, and audiences of all sorts—some who know a lot, some who want to learn.

The job isn’t exactly like that of a project manager: it involves having an idea for an exhibition; coming up with a reasonable list of objects (not too many; and from not too many museums and collections); organizing your ideas around one or more themes; seeing how much exhibition space will be needed; writing a proposal; convincing administrators that they should support your idea; writing grant proposals; getting an idea of costs (installation, insurance, transport, couriers, etc.), thinking of  other venues (to share some of the costs).

Most larger museums are working at least three years in advance of an exhibition; a smaller museum may have a year or so lead time. The curator has to write the catalogue and/or choose collaborators; publication normally takes a year, but again, a smaller museum can publish in as little as four months.

8. Victorious Youth is the title of one of your books. What’s it about?

Victorious Youth is about a statue in this exhibition. I looked at it from different viewpoints: how it was found (at sea); where it had been set up originally (maybe Olympia); what its function was (a victor); why was it being shipped abroad; who made it; what modern viewers think of this statue.

9. You recently translated a work by Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Who was he and why is he important?

Winckelmann wrote an early (18th-century) History of Ancient Art. This was when antiquity was being rediscovered, and his views, which he published, were either adopted or they have been criticized ever since.

Winckelmann started out as a teacher, then a librarian, and a curator/buyer for major collectors in Italy, where most of the major collections of antiquities were being formed. He moved to Rome, got to know people by giving tours of the city, got visibility as curator and buyer for Cardinal Albani, and came to be known as a major classical scholar—in what was a relatively small field.

His first major publication was an appreciation of ancient sculptures and paintings in Dresden, followed by a catalogue of a private collection of gems, his commentary on the new and exciting excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, and finally his History of Ancient Art, quickly translated from the original German into French, Italian, English, and widely distributed.

Winckelmann knew how to advertise himself and his expertise. His primary selling-points were the collections of antiquities being formed all around him in Rome (the Capitoline, the Vatican) and in Naples (the Spanish Bourbons), and people listened to what he had to say. He was in the forefront of what was essentially a new field: the study of ancient art.

10. What are you working on now?

I am working on what ancient writers said about bronze statues: how they were used originally; how they were moved and re-used later on; what we learn about ancient statuary from these often-fragmentary comments.

Today’s classical scholars tend to focus more and more narrowly: we work on a particular period; on painting or sculpture (but not both); on Greek or Latin texts (but not both); on philosophy; on field archaeology; on pottery-types; on metalwork, or on foundries; and on any number of other specialties.

Using evidence collected from the entire history of the classical world, I am working to combine literary, art historical, and archaeological approaches to ancient bronze statuary, thus to find out more about what is practically a lost art and a thriving industry of the classical world. I will write about this in terms that we all can understand.

At the same time, I am preparing to work on a few groups of bronzes that have not been fully studied, either technically or art historically: the finds from the Porticello (Straits of Messina) shipwreck; those from the Brindisi shipwreck; and the many statues that are reported to have come from Boubon (Turkey). I am also getting ready to pursue a project in which I will try to use bronze statues with similar casting techniques to identify the foundries (especially around the Bay of Naples) in which [they] were produced.

More on Power and Pathos

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture in the Hellenistic World (Exhibition, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., venue, online resources).

“Vestiges of an ancient Greek art form, preserved by catastrophe:” an interview of Kenneth Lapatin and Carol Mattusch by Jeffrey Brown, PBS Newshour (broadcast January 26, at 6:20 EST). Online.