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Bulfinch's Mythology The Age of Fable

Page: 241

The contests with the Gauls, the fear inspired by the huge forms of the barbarians, seem to have influenced powerfully the imaginative conceptions of the sculptors of the school of Pergamon. One of the most famous works which they have left is the figure long known as the Dying Gladiator, of which a copy exists in the Capitoline Museum. This represents a Gaul sinking wounded to the ground, supporting himself on his right arm. It is remarkable for its stern realism. The pain and sense of defeat comes out in every feature. Moreover, the nationality of the fallen warrior is clearly expressed in the deep indentation between the heavy brow and the prominent nose, in the face, shaven, except the upper lip, in the uncouth, fleshy body, in the rough hands and feet. Usually the artist preferred to hint at the race by some peculiarities of costume. Here nothing but uncompromising realism of feature will satisfy the sculptor. A companion piece to the Wounded Gaul, though less famous, is the group of the Villa Ludovisi, which represents a Gaul, who has slain his wife, in the act of stabbing himself in the neck.

In addition to inspiring the sculptures at Pergamon, Attalus dedicated to the gods of Athens a votive offering in return for the help which they had given him. This was placed on the Acropolis at Athens. It consisted of four groups, representing the gigantomachia or giant combat, the battle of the Amazons, the battle of Marathon, and the victory of Attalus. Figures from these survive, a dead Amazon at Naples and a kneeling Persian at the Vatican being the best known.

Another state which became famous in the declining days of Greek art was the republic of Rhodes. The Rhodian sculptors learned their anatomy from Lysippos, and caught their dramatic instinct from the artists of Pergamon. Two of the most famous sculpture groups in the world were produced at Rhodes, the Laocoon, now at the Vatican, and the Farnese Bull, now at Naples. The former was the work of three artists, given by Pliny as Agesandros, Athanodorus, and Polydorus. It has been accepted as one of the masterpieces of the world, but as we shall see, it is manifestly a work of a time of decadence.

The Laocoon illustrates excellently the extreme results of the pathetic tendency. The priest Laocoon is represented at the moment when the serpents of Apollo surround him and his two sons, born through their father's sin, and bear them all three down to destruction. The younger son, fatally bitten, falls back in death agony. The father yields slowly, his desperation giving way before the merciless strength of the serpents. The elder son shrinks away in horror though bound fast by the inevitable coils.

The Laocoon shows the pathetic tendency at its utmost. The technical difficulties have been overcome with astonishing success, and though the combination of figures is impossible in life, it is marvellously effective in art. But the group depends for its interest purely on the accidental horror of the situation. There is no hint in the sculpture of the motive of the tragedy, no suggestion of ethical significance in the suffering portrayed. It does not connect itself with any principle of life. In this way the work became a superb piece of display, a TOUR DE FORCE of surprising composition but with little serious meaning.


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