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'The Lost Boy of Mozia' at the Getty Villa

Statue of a Youth (the Mozia Charioteer, detail), 470–460 B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek).
Statue of a Youth (the Mozia Charioteer, detail), 470–460 B.C., Sikeliote (Sicilian Greek). Getty Museum

The history of the 5th Century B.C. star of the Getty Villa’s current classical Sicily show is about as enigmatic as his gentle marble smile. He’s now being called the Mozia Charioteer. Earlier descriptions of this statue, found less than 40 years ago, describe it simply as a “youth.” In her catalog essay, Maria Luisa Fama suggests that its strange combination of archaic and later Greek styles—that smile, on the one hand, and the amazingly delicate, almost Baroque-seeming draperies that cover the figure—indicate that it might be a product of a particular Greek colonial city of Selinous, up the West Coast of Sicily from Mozia, where the statue was found.

You probably never heard of  Mozia, or Selinous (Salunente, as it is more commonly called today). The first has all but vanished; the latter contains remains of some of the world’s largest temples and some singularly intricate and gorgeous temple decoration. It is close by the much more famous site of Segesta (which appeared on the label of a cheap wine of that name, popular in the early 60s), with whom it waged a feud that provoked the 415 BC war  that destroyed Athens’ imperial power. So cities like Selinous had a huge effect on the world history we do know.

Which fact is at the root of the Getty show. There is a change in the way historians think of ancient Greece. They used to think of  Athens, Sparta and Corinth as the real thing, and their Italian colonies as backwaters of little importance until the Romans took them over. Now a differing understanding emerges. This exhibit, in kinship with the Getty’s classical ceramics show of last year, suggests that some of the highest advancements of Greek art (and even science) were happening not in the great Attic cities but on  Greek civilization’s westernmost fringes. Like Sicily.  The show includes some unbelievably intricate and gorgeous plates, jugs and bowls of silver and gold,  hand-struck gold and silver coins so lovely their creators signed them, a life-size stone statue of Priapos, bawdy god of lust and frustration, and much, much else worth seeing.

But the Charioteer is the pick of the litter.  His face bears the wise and placid reflectiveness of the Platonic ideal; his body, on the other hand carries a curvaceous, tactile sensuosity, but also a defiance, as his left hand, bereft of its arm, sits assuredly on his left hip.  He wears a singular sculptured garment not so much reminiscent of classic Greek and Roman art, but of the virtuoso sculpture of the late Italian Baroque of the mid-18th Century  AD, of artists like Sanmartino and Canova.  It’s this blend of the archaic, classic and something so near-modern that flat-out astounds you.

There is astonishment in the Charioteer’s provenance, as well.  He was found not in a Greek site, but in the Carthaginian city of Mozia. Sicily at the time was divided among the Africa-based Carthaginian empire, the various Greek city-states dominated by Syracuse and the predecessor civilization of the Elymians. This left the island in near-perpetual wars that only the Roman conquests of the late 3rd Century BC could abate.   One of the bloodiest of these encounters took place in Mozia in 397 BC, where Dionysius of Syracuse, a dictator so ruthless he gave even archaic tyranny a bad name, besieged the tough little Carthaginian city for months.  Mozia sat on a tiny island about the size of Lido Isle in Newport Bay and similarly built up, wall to wall. Its inhabitants did not give up easily. The fighting in the narrow streets among the tall, stone-built houses was intense and sanguine.  The Mozians even tore down  their prized statues to build street barricades—and one of those statues was the Mozia Charioteer.   Dionysius triumphed, and slaughtered every Mozian man woman and child he could get his hands on. They were lucky compared to the Mozian Greek population that had lived peacefully among their Carthaginian neighbors for centuries. These Dionysius ordered crucified.

For 2,300 years Mozia was abandoned, its ruins overtaken by underbrush and even its name forgotten, its only inhabitants a few anti-social fisherman. In the 1880s, its remains were rediscovered by one Joseph Whitaker, Anglo-Sicilian ornithologist and Marsala vineyard heir, who began the meticulous excavation of the old town site that almost a century later yielded the Charioteer of Mozia.  No one is sure where it originally came from, though. Carthage was known more for commerce than for art, and supposedly didn’t do statues. Some speculate it might have been imported by one of the unfortunate Greek citizens crucified by Dionysius; the Getty’s consensus is that it might have been looted from the above-mentioned Selinuous.  But the fact that no one really knows where this most beautiful of Sicilian statues came from only makes this stone charioteer more irresistible.

(When Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele isn't musing on the art of Sicily, you might find him at a car race, exploring waste water, or cooking Austrian food. See the links below.)

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