Colossal Bust of Pallas Athena of the Velletri type
Italian, 19th century
White Marble, on white marble socle
After a 1st-century AD Roman copy of a Greek 5th-century BC original
H 100.5 cm (39.6 in.)
This magnificent over-lifesize 19th-century marble bust depicts the Greek goddess of wisdom, justice and war, Pallas Athena or Minerva, as she was known by the Romans. The group shows the goddess sporting a Corinthian helmet, with a crest formed by a snake, worn high on the crown of her head and pushed back towards her neck. Her facial expression is earnest and thoughtful. Around her neck, the goddess is wearing the famous aegis, the magical object – described variously as a goatskin or a piece of armour made by Hephaestus – adorned with snakes. This attribute, which often had a gorgon’s head attached to it, inspired abject terror in all who beheld it and thus served as Athena’s protective weapon in battle.
This colossal bust was modelled after a 1st-century AD Roman marble group that was excavated during the 1770s in the area of the ancient city of Tusculum in the ruins of a villa that is presumed to have once belonged to Licinius Murena. After its discovery the bust was acquired by the illustrious art collector and patron of the arts, Cardinal Alessandro Albani, and was part his celebrated collection of ancient sculptures, until it was confiscated by French troops in 1798 and transferred to the Louvre. There it remained until 1815, when it was purchased by agents of the Bavarian King Ludwig I (1786-1868), for his exclusive collection of Roman and Greek sculptures kept at the newly constructed Glyptothek Museum in Munich.
The bust belongs to the so-called ‘Athena of Velletri’ type of scultpures, named after its best-preserved representative, which was found in 1797 at the Villa Velletri, south of Rome, and which is now kept at the Louvre. The type is reproduced by some 20 sculptures and some fragmentary 1st-century AD plaster casts of Greek bronzes recovered from an excavation site at Baia near Naples. The prototype of the Athena Velletri was a bronze colossos and most extant marble copies are over-lifesize as well. This popular statuary formula was inspired by emulation of Pheidias’ sculptures of the goddess created for the Acropolis. Its precise author as well as the date of its creation remain a subject of discussion. Traditionally experts have attributed the original bronze effigy to Kresilas (480-410 BC), but recent scholarship has suggested Polykleitos (5th century BC) as a more likely author.
The historical event that sparked the creation of the original statue was the Peace of Nicias, also known as the Fifty-Year Peace, a treaty signed between the battle-weary city-states of Athens and Sparta in March 421 BC, ending the first half of the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian statesman and general, Alkibiades, may have commissioned this cult image, as part of his strategy to publicly promote a diplomatic message of peace, while clandestinely further advocating Athenian aggression.
Of all the extant copies the Albani Athena and the copy that formerly belonged to the Lansdowne collection (now at LACMA, California) display the highest craftmanship. The hairstyles of the various versions agree roughly, but there are notable differences. The Albani and the Lansdowne busts show the wavy hair particularly elaborated in more exuberant masses that enlarge the coif and lend it dynamism. The crispy divided hair strands, the clean outlining of the lips and the razor-sharp eyebrow ridges and eyelids all unmistakably reflect the splendor of the bronze original. The present statue still resonates with the magnificent echoes of the gigantic bronze statue shaped at the pinnacle of classical Greek sculpture.
The Albani bust epitomizes neo-classical aesthetic and it instantly became very popular from the moment it had been excavated. After some minor restorations had been executed by Cardinal Albani’s favourite restorer, the celebrated Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, several copies of the group –as was also the case for the Lansdowne bust -- were made for wealthy collectors, mainly Englishmen, who sought to acquire exquisite sculptures while on the Grand Tour.
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