Collection Spotlight at the Lady Lever Art Gallery: Death in the Nile

Bit under the weather this week, but the highlight of my week was a Collection Spotlight talk at the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight, Wirral.  These talks are short but enjoyable and insightful--usually around half an hour, followed by questions--and they give the public a fantastic understanding of some of the objects on display at the gallery. 

The Lady Lever Gallery

Dr Gina Muskett, curator of Classical Antiquities at the Liverpool World Museum, gave an insightful and engaging talk on one of the most magnificent pieces of sculpture on display in the North rotunda of the gallery: the statue of Antinous.  Antinous, a youth favoured by Hadrian, even after his untimely death in the River Nile, was the subject of many Classical statues commissioned between 130 AD and the death of Hadrian in 138 AD.  Such was the emperor’s devotion to Antinous that not only was a city in Middle Egypt, Antinopolis, named after him, but he was even deified, and given the locus of his unfortunate demise, linked with the Egyptian god Osiris.  This kind of cultural fusion, intended to establish common ground between the Romans and their territories, was far from unique in the Roman world; there are many examples of Romans linking their deities with local cults in Britain, such as the goddess Sulis Minerva, a combination of the local deity Sulis and the Roman Minerva, who had a temple in modern day Bath.  It was particularly interesting to hear about the deification of Antinous, since the deification of someone outside the Imperial family was very unusual.  This led to conspiracy theories, suggesting an element of foul play in his death, though there is little evidence to support their claims.  The lengths taken by Hadrian to deify his young friend demonstrate once again the devotion felt by the emperor towards Antinous, and the grief felt after his death.  

The Antinous Statue

 The talk not only covered the subject of Antinous, but also the history of the sculpture itself.  Rediscovered in the late 18th century, during a revival of interest in the Classical World, the statue, purchased in Italy by Thomas Hope on the aristocratic Grand Tour, was eventually bought by Lord Leverhulme, the famous soap manufacturer, in 1917.  As part of my volunteering at Liverpool World Museum, I have worked on several collections databases. While checking and updating records, I have often looked at the provenance of objects (such as a very sweet little oil lamp, which turned out to be from Pompeii, possibly smuggled out of the ruined town in someone’s pocket) and wondered where they came from before they were bequeathed to the museum: so to hear such a detailed account of this sculpture’s long journey to the Lady Lever Gallery, where so many can enjoy it, was very satisfying.  

An 18th century bust of Hadrian, also on display in the North Rotunda.

The story of the restoration of the statue, which was carved from the famous Parian marble from the Cycladic Islands, was fascinating; hearing how it could be interpreted in its restored state was possibly my favourite part of the whole talk. The Antinous statue was restored in the late 18th century by the Papal sculptor Pierantoni, an artist famous in his own right. It was also amusing to hear that in the 18th century, collectors were not above commissioning modern works to fill gaps in their Classical sculpture collections, resulting in ancient works standing alongside modern creations.  The lower left leg, and the lower parts of both arms have all been restored, with the left hand holding a small jug and the right hand a two-handled vessel. The cracks and marks from this restoration are still clearly visible, as can be seen in the photo below.  These two additions may be small artistic details, but they reveal a great deal about how the restorer interpreted the statue.  The jug and cup could be meant to portray Antinous in a similar way to ‘the cup-bearer’ of the Roman god Jupiter, Ganymede, a youth who also caught the attention of a powerful being. Dr Muskett also offered the suggestion that, given the very beautiful, athletic appearance of the body of the sculpture, Antinous could have been originally depicted in a style similar to that of the athletic sculptures popular in the 5th century BC.  With this in mind, Antinous could initially have been shown in an athletic pose (the restored forearms open a range of positioning possibilities), perhaps raising his right hand to place an athletic crown on his head, and holding some sporting apparatus in his left.  Listening to the different possibilities for the pose of the statue, and how our interpretation changes dramatically based upon which possibility we consider, I appreciated that although we are so lucky to have such a wealth of information on pieces of Classical sculpture such as this, there is still so much to learn, interpret and explore. 

Some of the cracks and marks from the statue's restoration.

The questions asked at the end of the talk were varied and thought-provoking, and I could tell that I was not alone in my excitement.  I always find it interesting to hear other people’s trains of thought.  In this case, the discussions and the explanations provided by Dr Muskett included; examples of other depictions of the young Antinous in the guise of an Egyptian priest (complete with headdress!), the use of court-authorised ‘types’ to ensure uniform representations of figures such as Antinous, and the importance of the judgement of the sculptor when restoring pieces of sculpture such as this, to mention but a few examples.  The range of questions asked demonstrates that Classical sculpture and the Classical World draw interest from people from many different academic backgrounds.  The level of interest and engagement at this talk also confirms the need for more talks like this, in order to satisfy the enthusiasm and curiosity of the public, and to encourage even greater interest in the collections that the Lady Lever Gallery has to offer.


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