The Fire of Hephaistos

At the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University,

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, June 1996.)

The first thing you see in “The Fire of Hephaistos” is a vase painted with a picture of a headless man lying on the ground. A grisly scene of decapitation and ritual murder from ancient Greece? No.

“It’s a statue in the process of being made,” says Amy Brauer,  Curator of Ancient Art, pointing to a head lying on one side of the body. “There’s his head on the floor, and a foot, and a hammer, and other tools. This painting proves that large bronzes were made by casting separate pieces, and then putting them together. And that’s what this show is really about — the technology of ancient bronzes.” She shows me another part of the vase. “Look at that large figure — it’s a colossal standing warrior, and the smaller figures are workers who are rasping the surface, finishing him off. There’s the furnace, for melting the bronze. And on the other side is an image of Hephaistos, the divine smith,  making the armor of Achilles.”

The show was organized by Carol Mattusch, an expert in ancient bronzes, and Henry Lie of Harvard’s Conservation department, to illustrate the process by which the bronzes were made.

There are many wonderful things to see here — a gilded bronze horse’s head with a wide clear eye; several free-standing statues of athletes, gods, and heroes, their curly heads wreathed with leaves and twisted vines; splendid goddesses with silver eyes; and many body parts, some of which are startlingly realistic — hollow hands, parts of feet, a single wide-open eye made of stone, glass, and bronze, with long dark bronze eyelashes, and a finger with a silver fingernail. “There were thousands and thousands of ancient bronzes,” says Brauer, “but very few of them have survived, because the bronze was often melted down and used for something else.”

The curators insist that the show is primarily educational, and have made every effort to demystify the works of art. But myth, like murder, will out. These ancient bronzes, which have long since lost their golden gleam, are still numinous fragments of a vanished world. Many of them spent hundreds of years lost at the bottom of the sea, or buried deep in fields. One statue of young man was recently pulled out of a river in Syria, and found all in pieces, wrapped in fabric which left corrosing patterns all over his bronze skin. His pale sea-green body is scratched, patched, and scarred; his silver eyes are all disintegrated — they look like crumpled tinfoil — but he is still a lovely apparition, reminding me of some lines from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”:

“Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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