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Getty Villa's Apollo looks cute, but he's a child murderer

Apollo as an Archer (Apollo Saettante), Roman, 100 B.C.–before A.D. 79; found in Pompeii, Italy, in 1817–18. Bronze.
Apollo as an Archer (Apollo Saettante), Roman, 100 B.C.–before A.D. 79; found in Pompeii, Italy, in 1817–18. Bronze.
Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

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"The cutest guy in all of Malibu is visiting the Getty Villa. Just don't mess with him." So says Off-Ramp culture commentator Marc Haefele. He's talking about a life-size drop-dead gorgeous (and anatomically correct) 2-thousand year old bronze statue of Apollo. It comes from the Naples National Museum and is at the Getty Villa through mid-September.

Marc writes:

This particular Apollo was found in surprisingly few pieces nearly 200 years ago, a block or two from the Temple that bears his name in the long-buried Roman city of Pompeii.

He's called Apollo the Archer, but his bow is lost. He's obviously loosing an arrow, though, in the middle of a running step, with his fingers nocked and his elbow pulled back. He's fit, but not ripped -- you don't have to be when you have the powers of a god -- with the body and face of a 15-year old, but a shallow smile and stare as old as the space beyond the outermost galaxy.

At a recent museum reception on an evening so cold the cabernet almost froze in the glasses, Assistant Curator David Saunders explained that Apollo the Archer is one of the most perfect of the very few complete ancient bronze statues known to exist, and that its original discovers and restorers 190 years ago so scrubbed and refinished it that it’s now almost impossible to tell exactly how old it is and where it came from. Probably Rome at the time of the rise of the Empire, Saunders said, but just possibly it was looted even earlier from the great Greek city of Corinth.

Apollo is displayed with an incomplete statue of his twin sister, also from Pompeii. Also loosing arrows, also with a deadly, faraway stare. So what’s the story here? Saunders says the sacred twins may have been the key elements of an ancient temple tableau -- the primeval and mythical tragedy of Niobe and her Children. If so, that makes him particularly scary.

It's a story dating to the dawn of the ancient world -- so long ago that the gods were in their teens. These two were twins: Apollo the hurter and healer, and Diana, the chaste goddess of the moon. Their father was a roving-eyed Zeus who, after a rather brief encounter, left their mother, the nymph Leto, a single parent. Then Queen Niobe dropped in on Leto one day, and noted that while Leto only had the two kids, she, Niobe, had a healthy pack of 14 -- seven boys, seven girls – whose father was the hard-working stay-at-home Amphion, King of Thebes. Who did you say your tykes' dad was again, some god, did you say? Right. Ms. Single Mom.

But divinities simply don't take stuff like this from mortals. So Leto sent her twins Apollo and Diana, the stars of the new Getty Villa exhibit, on a return visit. Before their mother's horrified eyes, the godly boy shot down her seven sons, the divine maiden the seven girls. For good measure, Apollo shot their father, too. Leaving Niobe alone as the classical symbol, the incarnation of tragic bereavement and total loss.

She fled to Mt. Siplus in what is modern Turkey. There she turned to stone, and from her rocky face, spring-fed tears flow to this day.

Gods may be beautiful to look at, but they really aren't nice people.