Ortwin Dally on Late Antique Sculpture

Getty Villa i Malibu
The Peristyle garden of the Getty Villa, Malibu. Photo: TMK, January 2007.

On Thursday night, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Ortwin Dally of the DAI at the Getty Villa. It was a great experience to see the villa at night as it’s actually quite rare to consider how buildings and monuments would have appeared in darkness illuminated by only torches and oil lamps. And the setting of the Getty Villa is incredibly apt. Perched in a small valley between two hilltops and with a view of the (Pacific) ocean on the horizon, it truly brings to mind a Roman villa by the Mediterranean.

Dally’s talk “Pagan Sculptures in Late Antiquity: Between Destruction and Preservation” was also interesting. He mainly discussed preservation and restoration of earlier statues and only very briefly the production and installation of new works. He focused on the statuary from baths and public buildings in Miletus, Ephesus and Aizanoi – some of which I’ve discussed earlier on this blog (here and here) and also talked about in San Diego. Several (nude) statues from these sites were moved to baths and nymphaea in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, but not before their genitalia had been mutilated. To the right, you see an example of a mutilated Venus from the Baths of Faustina at Miletus and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. From Dally’s discussion, these ‘castrations’ may seem like a phenomenon limited to Asia Minor, but there are also comparanda to the practice outside this region, e.g. on Cyprus (Salamis) and in the Levant (Scythopolis). A few examples are also found in Italy, so it’s not an exclusively eastern practice either.

My perspective on these statue castrations is rather different than Dally’s but to a large extent, we’re saying the same things. We agree that they are evidence of new viewing habits, influenced by Christian theology and perhaps enforced by bishops or other clerics. We also agree that there was a shift in euergetism and public benefaction. Whereas wealthy citizens previously donated statues for civic structures, in late antiquity their focus turned to churches.

Where we disagree is perhaps how wide the spectrum of attitudes towards statuary in late antiquity really was (on this, see e.g. Lea Stirling’s brilliant “The Learned Collector” and Niels Hannestad’s work). I don’t subscribe to the view that production ceased – the statues produced were now generally smaller, but there are many of them from different parts of the empire. At the same time, we see a large production of sarcophagi and minor arts. In short, the study of pagan sculpture in late antiquity goes much further than preservation and conservation.

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