Friday, May 8

The Lampbearer

Recently a long-term loan from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, Italy went on display at the Getty Villa. Known as the Statue of an Ephebe (youth) as a Lampbearer, this bronze statue was discovered in Pompeii in 1925 buried in a well-to-do private residence. Being modeled in the style of ancient Greek sculptures of beardless young men, he holds an ornate candelabrum, and so likely served as a functional decorative object in the home.

At the time of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., the house was in the process of renovation. The Ephebe was found in a room off the atrium, apparently being stored out of the way with other bronze decorative pieces while the renovations happened. Traces of a protective cloth which had been draped over it are visible on the shoulders and buttocks of the sculpture--apparently the heat of the blast seared the cloth to the statue. Considering he went through a catastrophic volcanic eruption, the Ephebe survived in amazing condition. He survives with his original marble base, and most of the glass paste that served as inlay for the eyes remains. Three workers--perhaps those completing the renovations--were not as lucky. Their skeletal remains were discovered in the front hall of the house.

As always, I am happy to have a new object to work with in the galleries. He's a great object to use in talking about ancient bronze sculptures because he is so well-preserved. The fact that you can still see most of the glass paste inlays for the eyes is wonderful. So many visitors are unaware that ancient sculptures had inlaid eyes. It is an understandable mistake since in many cases the inlays do not survive. It is always fun to have an object to show them that so clearly illustrates what I tell them about the original appearance of the sculpture.

Also, modern conservation has revealed that the lips and nipples are made of copper and that can now clearly be seen. Bronze sculptors often made use of different colored metals to add life to their sculptures, but often the metals darken so much overtime they are not easily seen with the naked eye. But again, in this case, you can clearly see where copper was used instead of bronze.

I have already used the object several times in my talks, and I look forward to including it on my "Roman Connoisseurship" focus tour this summer. As an object that served to decorate the villa in which it was found, it is the perfect object to use when discussing Roman collecting habits.

Since beginning to discuss this object with visitors, some interesting points have come up. First of all, with a date of 20-10 B.C.E., the Ephebe was going on one hundred years old by the time Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E. This suggests a longevity for the piece and makes me wonder--was it passed down to its last ancient Roman owner, or did he purchase it himself for his collection? Also, the label identifying the statue in our gallery has a very neat-looking image of the statue in situ (as it was found), buried to its knees in detritus. The picture is definitely one that captures the archaeological imagination, but it's been brought to my attention that damage to the sculptures knees would not have allowed it to stand in such a way. That being the case, this photograph was very likely staged when it was taken in 1925. This is not unheard of--there are several examples of staged archaeological photographs. Academic veracity often fell victim to appearances.

Statue of an Ephebe (Youth) as a lampbearer
Roman, ca. 20-10 B.C.E.

I look forward to getting to know my friend the Lampbearer better over the next months during his stay at the Villa. He will reside here for about two years, then he will return home to the museum in Naples where he will be on display not all that far from the house in which he was first discovered.

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