Depicting just the torso and upper legs of a male figure seated on a rock, the Belvedere Torso is a remarkable fragment of classical sculpture. Although fractured, what remains is a powerful evocation of masculine physicality: the broad shoulders, the colossal chest with its rippling muscles, those mighty legs; the sheer mass of this body is breathtaking. It truly is a tour de force of ancient sculpture.
We do not know who this statue originally depicted, what narrative it confronts us with. It is seemingly the depiction of a body under stress, or perhaps at rest. The torso appears to collapse under its own weight, the muscles of the abdomen contracting, the remains of a hand pressing into a thigh for support. Some have suggested that it represents the hero Ajax contemplating his suicide, transforming this heroic body into a tragic one; others believe it to be Herakles, exhausted after completion of his Labours. Certainly the lion-skin, on which he sits, as well as his superhuman physique, would support this interpretation. Nevertheless, he resists conclusive interpretation, and we are left instead with the emotive, physical weight of this body.
But what I love about this sculpture is exactly its enigmatic, abstract quality. Nameless, faceless, the Belvedere Torso becomes an anonymous epitome of ideal manliness, made all the more arresting for its broken, truncated state. Shape-shifting through time, it has transformed into a provocative, confrontational, sensuous object in its own right; it expresses the ambiguities of heroism, the fragility of even great bodies. And in its bold abstraction of form, the articulation of different planes, its exploration of volume, the Torso as it appears now is inescapably modern, forcing us to notice its materiality as well as its subject.
It is also a work with an intriguing afterlife, one made palpable in the form of this plaster cast in the Museum of Classical Archaeology. The original sculpture has been celebrated since its discovery in the 15th century and had a profound influence on Michelangelo, amongst other Renaissance artists. It provided the model for his depiction of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while he deemed it too perfect as a fragment to restore, despite requests from Pope Julius II to do so. By the 1700s, it was regarded as a work of superlative genius, an object symbolic of ‘Greek Art’ itself (although, in fact, Roman), and as such it was admired, desired, copied, and collected often in the form of casts like this. As fragment, the Torso has long astounded viewers, and it continues to do so.
Do you have a Museum Favourite that you’d like to share? It can be from the Cast Gallery, or any other Cambridge museum with (broadly) Classics-related collections – please get in touch via email@example.com!