Archeaological Museum

First Building

   The first room, beyond the ticket-desk at the entrance of the modern building, contains a variety of small er, miscellaneous pieces. Against the right-hand wall are two superb exhibits that reward close attention: an –ionic capital, and a –trifold ‘volute’ (numbers 6 & 7)—probably a pilaster capital from the portico of the temple of Hera. Both pieces are minor elements of constructions, carved anonymously out of an unremarkable local stone in the 6th century bc: the capital furthermore appears to be unfinished behind. But what astonishes is the arresting plasticity and tactile appeal imparted to such workaday elements: in the capital, for example, no deadening straight lines, no flat surfaces, no mechanically drawn circles, mar its design: it has a perfect, natural curvature and plasticity as if it were a soft and living substance inflated with spirit from inside. Alive, not dead; anonymous, not ostentatious; soft, not rigid; sensual, not cerebral. A moment’s comparison with the deadness of an unimportant architectural element of a modern building (a door frame or cornice) shows how a passion for, and absolute understanding of, material informed the 6th century craftsman in even the most insignificant detail of a building.
   The second room contains some of the best examples—even though fragmentary—of Greece’s 6th century bc, sculptural renaissance on Samos . Many still preserve their dedicatory inscriptions (#16); some, such as the standing, robed female figure (c. 570 bc) (#15) show, by their cylindrical form, how this early sculpture evolved out of the carving of wooden tree-trunks; and all have clear, full volumes underpinning a counter point of surface lines and folds: the best example of this perhaps is the beautiful pattern of folds in the formal robes of the kore holding a bird for offering (#12). The room’s most important exhibit occupies one whole wall—the so called –‘Geneleos group’ (#22) after the name of the sculptor who executed the work around 560 bc, and signed his name on the drapery which covered the left leg of the seated figure to the left. It should be recalled that Hera was the protecting deity of wives, and of marriage, mother hood, and the family: a sculptural group such as this, featuring a husband (reclining right) and wife (seated left), originally framing their three daughters and one infant son, is therefore an appropriate dedication for the Sanctu ary of Hera. The group, whose finer details were once coloured in tempera paint, would have lined the Sacred Way that led to the sanctuary. (A copy has been now placed in the archaeological area of the Heraion, where it was found.) The reclining father must originally have held an object or animal for offering, or a drinking cup, in his hand, and he rests on a beautifully realised tasseled cushion. The figure to his left is a cast of the original statue which is in Berlin: both of the two standing korai bear faintly inscribed names— ‘Ornithe’ and ‘Philippe’—as if the group were a covert advertisement for their nubility. With their right hands they slightly lift the drapery of their robes to reveal their feet: their beau tiful heads probably found their way, long ago, into a distant, private collection.
   Turning the corner into the third room, however, is a revelation. The -Samos Kouros is the largest free-standing Kouros statue to survive from Antiquity—currently 4.7m tall and originally taller, carved in local Samian marble around 575 bc, and still preserving the dedicatory inscription carved down the front of the left thigh: ‘Isches, [of the family] of Rhesis, dedicated [me]’ Striking above all else is the masterful and simple delineation of forms—the violin-like lines of the space between the arms, and abdomen and hips—an area which is particularly problematic to cut; the brilliant rendering of the meniscus of the knee; the volumes of the thorax, shoulders and sternum; and—most extraordinary of all, because it is so hard to predict how it will evolve—the use of the marble’s natural veining to enhance the modelling of the buttocks and shoulders behind. Once again, the hair and features and details would have been painted: holes still visible in the upper spine were probably for the affixing of a gold band which bound the hair above. The face is arresting, and yet serene— the scarcely perceptible smile, reminiscent of faces found in Hindu sculpture. The Ancient Greek word for sculpture is ‘agalma’ (‘that which gives pleasure and honour’); few pieces in all of Greek sculpture, come closer to fulfilling that meaning than this. The piece was found near the Sacred Way at the Heraion in 1980: the floor of the museum had to be specially dug out and made lower in order to accommodate it. Other pieces exhibited in this room (e.g. the fragmentary thighs of a statue, # 28), show that there were probably other, similar giant kouroi statues which populated the site.

Some art aims to describe accurately (later Classical and Hellenistic sculpture does this superbly well); other art re-makes the world according to its own scheme (Cycladic figurines, for example). Archaic art stands on the threshold between these two—stylised and yet convincing, true but still magical. Like so much earlier art, it still works according to a scheme of the appearance of the body; but it has felt and makes us feel, the sensual appeal of the volumes that comprise a body, and of the textiles that cover it. In earlier art, there can be a preponderance of ‘pattern’; while in later Greek art, the desire to describe what the mind knows to be there, can sometimes suffocate attention to the sensuality and the sense of order. But in the narrow, chronological window of Archaic art in the 6th century bc, these two tendencies are perfectly balanced. And the balance releases an un mistakable energy, which can be felt not just in its figurative pieces, but in the abstract ones, too. For this reason it is important to consider the sculpted elements of architecture in this period—friezes, capitals, cornices, etc—to be almost as important as the figure-sculpture itself, for the way in which they ex press an equally deep response to the sensual appeal of volumes and clear forms.
   As with late mediaeval art in Europe, Archaic art is the product of a sophisticated and aristocratic elite; the two share a common emphasis on stylisation, pattern, and elegance. But just as the emphasis on bold volumes and tactile forms in artists such as Donatello and Masaccio in 15th century Florence burst through the limitations of Mediaeval art to create a new, more urgent, visual language, so here, in Archaic art, something similar is happening: the pattern is not just dead pattern, it has vigour and energy; the elegance is not just empty elegance, it is striving for the true proportions and feel of nature. Archaic art has the appeal and inner energy we see again in the earliest Renaissance artists. Just as with them, the moment is only brief; by the middle of the 5th century bc, Greek art has settled comfortably into an easy naturalism from which it never again emerges— until the arrival of the very different world-view of Early Christian art.

Samos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.

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