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A marble statue of a naked man holding his arms up, his right hand missing. - click to view larger image
The Vaison Diadoumenos

PATRICIA KARVELAS: This statue is a Roman copy from the 2nd century CE, of a now lost masterpiece of Greek art. The Romans were great admirers of Greek culture and they were keen copyists of its most famous sculptures. Very few original Greek statues survive. It is thanks to the Romans, and their numerous copies, that we know so much about Ancient Greek sculpture.

This statue was found in Vaison, one of the important Roman archaeological sites in southern France. The original sculpture was most likely produced in bronze and it’s attributed to one of the most significant figures in Greek art, the sculptor Polykleitos. Polykleitos was active in the later part of the 5th century BCE. He is famous for developing a system of proportions for the human body, which he called ‘the canon’. This system of proportion began with the fingers and toes, and ensured that every part of the body was related mathematically to every other part. These rules of proportion became the standard for Greek art and later heavily influenced artists in the Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci.

The statue represents a victorious athlete tying his victor’s ribbon around his head. The word ‘Diadoumenos’ literally means ‘the man wrapping or binding himself’. These ribbons were a symbol of victory and on other objects throughout this exhibition you will see the goddess Nike awarding them as prizes.

Although Polykleitos also made statues of gods and heroes, his statues of athletes were regarded as his greatest creations. The Vaison Diadoumenos is an excellent example of the idealised naturalism that became so popular in Classical Greek art. He represents the apex of male beauty. This was a body that inspired envy and not a little bit of lust in viewers, both male and female alike. Look at the way the figure stands with most of his weight on one foot. This stance was made famous by Polykleitos. It’s referred to, usually by art historians, as contrapposto or counterpoise. This stance is admired for the way it animates the body. While clearly drawn from nature, there is certainly a great deal of idealisation in the musculature. Like the photoshopped images of models today, this body is an impossibility. Worthy of admiration, but practically unachievable.

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Date published: 17 December 2021

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