I recently gave a lecture in the civil service in Reggio Calabria, just across the water from Messina, Sicily. Reggio is popularly known for two things: its big, murderous mafia (the ‘Ndrangheta), and its museum, which contains the magnificent “Riace bronzes” and other ancient masterpieces. They were found by a scuba diver in the salty waters off the coast of Calabria in the early 1970s.
I saw the bronzes about two weeks ago and they are constantly in active memory. They are very big, much bigger than the Greeks who created them (5th century BC), and so far as the experts have been able to tell, they are not “real” men, they’re ideal types. As the narrator of this lovely video says, they are truly amazing. For one thing, the technology has vanished and no modern sculptor could do such statues. For another, they rank among the true masterpieces in the history of art. The narrator of the video calls them the greatest statues in the world.
That’s why I’m still not breathing normally.
The Calabrians have restored the fragile bronzes three different times, and Italian technicians have created special earthquake-proof bases on which they stand, as well as a special room designed to withstand a bigtime seismic event. Before you are permitted to enter that room, you are zapped and sprayed in a decontamination space. So there you are, down at the bottom of Italy, where very few visitors ever go, standing at a borderline between the old Greek Empire (“Magna Grecia”) and hypermodern technology. I wish I could write good fantasy, a la Ray Bradbury, because those big warriors are worthy of it.
And there’s more: the room also contains two bronze busts, one of which is said to be of Pythagoras. The curator told me that this is the first known bronze bust of a real person. Everything preceding Pythagoras is “just art.”
Fittingly, the bronzes have generated many mysteries. While the date of their creation is fairly well agreed, and it’s clear that they were on a ship that sank in or near the Straits of Messina, there is considerable dispute over just when the shipwreck took place, and there are several theories alleging that what we see today are not the statues as forged by the ancient Athenians, but perhaps works of art that were improved or repaired by later Romans.
There’s a dramatic contrast between the high culture of the museum and the vicious culture of the ‘Ndrangheta. On the one hand, world-class art; on the other, world-class crime of extraordinary vulgarity. It is as if Reggio Calabria had been created as a stage for the best and worst human impulses, a city where our best and worst angels have reached their highest and lowest incarnations.
Which is why it is so fascinating, and at once so frightfully inspiring and frightening. I’m certainly going back.