The Croatian Apoxyomenos is one of the rare preserved Greek statues which used to adorn Greek temples and cities, especially their training grounds (gymnasion, palaistra). The statue was raised from the sea in the vicinity of the islet of Vele Orjule near Lošinj, in 1999. After comprehensive conservation work, which took all of six years, it was presented to the public in Zagreb in 2006, together with an extensive exhibition.
The Croatian Apoxyomenos is a 192cm-high bronze statue, set on a well-preserved original plinth of a height of 10 cm. It portrays a young athlete who has just completed his bout or exercise, in a moment of relaxation, when he is totally intent on cleaning his body of oil, sweat and dust (Gr. apoxyesis), and thus it is called the Apoxyomenos.
The statue was found on the sea bed off the islet of Vele Orjule, near Lošinj. It was a chance find by René Wouters, a Belgian tourist. The finding of the statue was reported to the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia in the autumn of 1998, and thereafter the project programme was developed, and the goals were set: protection of the underwater archaeological site and the find, and prevention of possible destruction and looting. However, prompted by the threat of illegal diving activities at the site, an urgent raising operation was launched.
On 27 April 1999, a team comprising fourteen divers from the Ministry of Culture, the Special Police and the Submar d.o.o. company of Mali Lošinj, plus technical staff, raised the statue from the sea, after, as would later be confirmed, practically two thousand years.
During June 1999, systematic archaeological investigation of the site was carried out, in search of other finds and the remains of the ship. The search resulted in the finding of fragments of the bronze base of the statue, one of two lead anchor arms, and the remains of three more fragmented amphorae to accompany the two found almost undamaged during the raising of the statue.
On the basis of research carried out to date, it can be assumed that the statue was the cargo of a Roman ship, sailing northwards to one of the major cities, such as Aquileia, Ravenna or Pula, or to one of the sophisticated centres outside the cities, such as the luxurious villa in Verige Bay on the island of Veli Brijun, dating from the early Empire.
The conservation work, initiated in October 2000, was carried out in the Workshop for Metal of the Croatian Conservation Institute in Zagreb, monitored by a special commission set up for this purpose.
The first conservation operation to be carried out was desalination, with the aim of removing soluble salts, and in particular the harmful chlorides. This was followed by the removal of the incrustations, done exclusively mechanically, without the application of any chemical preparations, and it lasted, with several interruptions, for three years. The mechanical removal of the hard incrustation was particularly demanding in places where the original patina was not preserved and the surface of the bronze wall was significantly mineralized.
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Today, the statue would not be able to stand upright if a special internal support construction had not been installed. This takes all the weight of the statue and transfers it from the right, standing leg, taking the strain in the contrapposto position, to twenty or so sites on the statue in the areas of the head, shoulders, arms, torso and hips, all ending in an anti-seismic base.
All phases of the conservation interventions and auxiliary investigations have been documented in a number of ways (photographic documentation, technical and financial reports, conservation diary, gammagraphic images, videoscopic images, detailed archaeological drawing, three dimensional scans etc.).
In parallel with the work on the statue, a comprehensive programme of conservation and restoration investigation was developed in cooperation with the Italian institute Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Florence. The aim of the investigation was to determine the state of preservation of the statue and to learn more about the construction materials, the production techniques, and the chronological and geographical location of the statue's production. The investigation has confirmed that the statue was cast in bronze, with the use of the indirect lost-wax process, and that it consists of seven parts cast separately: the head, torso, legs, arms and genitals. The bronze is about 3 to 5 mm thick, with the exception of the head, where the bronze is thicker in the area of the hair, nose and ears. Since no clay core was found inside, the whole of the interior surface, which bears witness to the processes with which the statue was cast, joined and repaired, was photographed with an endoscopic camera.
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The wish to make the bronze statue look really lifelike can be seen in the working of the eyes, the inserts of which, alas, were not found, and in the lips and nipples, made of reddish copper sheet metal.
A small bronze plinth (ht. 10 cm) was welded onto the feet of the statue. The front, left and right sides are decorated with an ornament of squares and swastikas somewhat in the shape of a meander, while the rear side is not decorated. It can be assumed then that the statue was most likely meant to be placed in a niche or by a wall, and since no other traces of a different anchoring can be found, it can be concluded that this bronze plinth was the original decoration of the stone base of the statue.
Organic material from the interior of the statue
After the raising of the statue from the sea, quite large amounts of marine sediments and organic material were found in the interior. This was the first time ever that palaeobotanical analysis had led to the reconstruction of the structure of the nest, and the contents of the diet, of a small rodent from the ancient period, one that chose for its habitat a valuable bronze statue, into which it could have crept through the hole in the sole of the left leg and through a damaged area of the right leg.
Interesting information about the dating was provided by C14 analysis of three quite large samples: the oldest was estimated to be a peach stone, from about 20 BC; a worked piece of wood was dated to a time about AD 50, and a piece of semi-charred wood to about AD 110. This then indirectly determined the period of activity of the rodent, which presumably occurred after the making of the statue but before it was shipped and transported as far as the islet of Vele Orjule. Hence a conclusion can be drawn that the statue was probably stored for some lengthy period of time in an outlying part of a settlement, where the rodent denizen could find all the sources of the plant material found.
After years of conservation work and investigation, it has been confirmed that the statue was most likely made in the 2nd or 1st century BC in a Greek foundry, modelled after an original from the 4th century BC.
The discovery of the statue and the conservation work attracted a lot of attention from the professional and general public, not only because bronze statues, especially those of Greek provenance, are exceptionally rare, but also because this statue belongs to a well-known sculptural type. In fact, there are as many as eight versions of this motif, the athlete cleaning his body after the competition: bronze statues of similar dimensions, one of which comes from Ephesus (Ephesosmuseum, Vienna, Austria) and a separate statue's head (Kimbel Art Museum, Forth Worth, USA). Other known statues are not cast in bronze, but carved in stone: a marble statue from Rome, (nowadays kept in the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence), a basalt torso in Castel Gandolfo, a smaller version in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, marble copies of the head in St. Petersburg, in Brussels and in the Torlonia Museum in Rome. Just how popular this type of statue was is seen from copies of smaller dimensions in the Vatican Museums and the Louvre.
But among all the known versions, the Croatian Apoxyomenos stands out, with its integrity and the beauty of its making, as a work of exceptional quality. The existence of faithful copies in various materials, dimensions and variations indicates that this was a very valuable and celebrated work, which was often reproduced.
All researchers who have dealt with the Ephesus type of this statue – the one that the Croatian Apoxyomenos belongs to – agree that this type of the statue can be dated to the later Classical or early Hellenistic period, ranging from about 360 to 280 BC. Academician Nenad Cambi has dated the statue type to about the middle of the 4th century BC and concluded that the Vele Orjule statue is most likely a Hellenistic copy from the 2nd or 1st century BC, while Prof. Vincenzo Saladino (University of Florence) believes that the prototype of the athlete of the Vele Orjule-Ephesus type can be dated to the age of Hellenism, about 300 BC, and that its diffusion via reproduction started in the 1st century BC. It was probably at that time that the sculpture found off Vele Orjule was made, and later copies show that the statue retained its popularity into the 1st and 2nd centuries.
As one of the priority conservation projects in the field of cultural heritage protection, the project enjoyed continuous support from the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, which also coordinated it; with the involvement of the Oxford Maritime Trust of the UK, which financially supported the raising of the statue from the sea, underwater archaeological investigation and the first phase of conservation work, and the Italian Ministry of Culture, which financially supported a part of the analysis and conservation exploration, coordinated by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure institute.
The project and its participants have received the following awards, which emphasize their excellence in the protection of cultural heritage:
At the national level:
- Vicko Andrić Award (Croatia), 2006 – an annual award, given to project coordinator Miljenko Domijan, chief conservator of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, conservator-restorers Giuliano Tordi and Antonio Šerbetić and conservator / art historian Iskra Karniš Vidovič
At the international level:
- The European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award, 2007 – the project received a medal in the "Works of art" category.
Presentation – Exhibitions
After the completion of conservation work in 2006, the statue, accompanied by a large documentary exhibition, was presented to the public. The exhibition was organized by the Croatian Conservation Institute with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, and it has been shown at several locations before the permanent display of the statue:
- 18 May – 17 September 2006, Zagreb, Zagreb Archaeological Museum
- 30 September 2006 – 30 January 2007, Florence, Italy, Palazzo Medici Riccardi – organized by the Provincia di Firenze and the Croatian Conservation Institute
- 3 February 2007 – 18 January 2008, Zagreb, Zagreb Archaeological Museum
- 21 February – 20 April 2008, Osijek, Osijek Archaeological Museum
- 28 April – 30 June 2008, Rijeka, Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral
- 8 July – 1 December 2008, Split, Split Ethnographic Museum
- 31 March – 7 September 2010, Zadar, Museum of Antique Glass
- 15 September 2010 – 30 January 2011, Zagreb, Klovićevi Dvori Gallery – the statue was displayed within the exhibition "Ancient Greeks on Croatian Soil", organized by the Klovićevi Dvori Gallery
- 3 March – 30 May 2011, Ljubljana, Slovenia, Ljubljana City Museum – the statue was again displayed within the exhibition "Ancient Greeks on Croatian Soil", organized by the Klovićevi Dvori Gallery, with an accompanying exhibition set up by the Croatian Conservation Institute
- Since November 2011, Zagreb, Mimara Museum.
- 22 November 2012 - 25 February 2013, France, Paris, Musée de Louvre
- Hrvatski Apoksiomen/The Croatian Apoxyomenos, exhibition catalogue, (ed.) M. Domijan, I. Karniš, Zagreb, 2006, second revised edition 2008 (link na katalog – Publikacije/knjige i zbornici)
- Apoxyomenos: The Athlete of Croatia/Apoxyomenos: l'Atleta della Croazia, exhibition catalogue, (ed.) Maurizio Michelucci, Florence, 2006, separate editions in Italian and English
- L. Marotti: Apoxyomenos (a film in the "Cultural Heritage" series), Croatian Radio-Television, Zagreb, 2006