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An Olympiad's portrait: during excavations at Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli the archaeologist Gavin Hamilton unearthed a classical statue of Hermes, Hamilton's conservation of the sculpture transformed its identity to create an 18th-century image of an Olympic victor inspired by the ideals of ancient Greece.

In the late 18th century, the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, William Petty-Fitzmaurice (1737-1805), assembled the most impressive collection of classical marbles in the British Isles, which he displayed in Lansdowne House, in London's Berkeley Square. (1) Many prime specimens were sold at a Christie's auction in London in 1930, but at a Sotheby's sale in New York in 1972, a very perceptive buyer purchased one choice piece that deserves examination. (2)

The sculpture represents a life-size youth with a smooth complexion and flawless features (Figs. 1-4). (3) The nose is straight and large; from its bridge the razor-sharp ridges of the eyebrows flare out horizontally. The thin-lidded eyes are unmarked and only the rightwards torsion and the slightly parted lips animate the face. The coif is unfinished: at the crown, thick hair clusters, coarsely carved into spiral curls, lack drill holes to define their centres, while the hair at the back is roughly modelled into two large masses divided by a deep furrow. A lump of marble protrudes from the hair at the right, while a branch chiselled into the tresses above the left ear divides into two sprigs bearing a lanceolate leaf and tiny berries--the genus of the foliage remains undetermined. A wide groove encircles the head. The nude bust is ancient, and the uneven fracture around the neck argues for an original connection between the two parts. (4)

Several anomalies are apparent with this work. The lump on the head is the remnant of a wing, which means the piece originally depicted Hermes--since images of the messenger god could include wings sprouting from the hair. (5) The berried branch on the head's left side forms the beginnings of a wreath. An ancient sculptor would certainly have finished such an important attribute. This fact, together with the partially sculpted coif, indicates that the original commission was interrupted before completion. (6) Finally, a dichotomy exists in the carving of the tresses around the forehead and the remaining hair.

These irregularities are explained by the head's afterlife. The marble formed part of the booty unearthed by the Scottish artist, dealer and archaeologist Gavin Hamilton during his excavation of the Pantanello ('little bog') of Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli from 1769 to 1773/74. (7) Working 'underground by lamp-light and ... [with] my men obliged to work past the knees in stinking mud, full of toads and serpents and all kinds of vermin', Hamilton retrieved this marble from the muck. (8) Its famed provenance added to the sculpture's cachet, and the Marquess would certainly have held the find in high esteem with the knowledge that it belonged to Emperor Hadrian.


When Hamilton excavated the piece it was in need of repair and interpretation. He undoubtedly realised that the protrusion in the hair pointed to the marble's identification as Hermes. Yet, instead of restoring the generic head of a deity, the Scotsman commissioned a transformation into the grandly named 'Bust of a Conqueror of the Olympic Games Antiently Crowned with Wild Olives of Bronze'. His motive can be found in the enduring traditions that ultimately led to a revival of the Olympic Games.


Olympia, where Zeus was worshipped, lies in the western Peloponnese on the coast of the Ionian sea. Here the Olympic Games were held--the most prestigious athletic contests of the ancient world. (9) The crown of victory was a wreath that was cut from a wild olive (oleaster) tree that grew within the Altis or Sacred Grove of Zeus (Fig. 8). (10) After being crowned in the Temple of Zeus before Pheidias's colossal, chryselephantine statue of the god, the welcome awaiting the victor in his home town was magnificent. He rode in a quadriga through an entrance made especially for him by demolishing part of the city walls. What need had a community for protection when it had given birth to such a hero? And the victor's fame lived on; he earned the right to erect his statue at Olympia as well as in his hometown, while his fame was lauded in odes and epigrams.

The exact origins of the Olympic Games are unknown, although 776 B.C. is the date usually cited as the first official event, and they continued until 393 A.D., when the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I decreed their dissolution. Later, Olympia's monuments were destroyed, and successive waves of invaders laid waste to the site. Devastated over centuries by earthquakes, floods and landslides, then heavily overgrown, Olympia disappeared for 15 centuries. But while it lay buried, the paradigm of a dedicated athlete willing to compete for nothing more than glory and an olive crown continued as an idealistic notion, and since the Renaissance has served as a common reference point for the European mind. (11) Allusions to the Olympic contests and values abound in the works of poets, writers and playwrights such as Alexander Pope, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare.



The aspiration of returning to the glorious ideals of ancient Greece brought about so-called Olympic revivals in numerous countries, and attaching the name Olympic to any sporting festival increased its prestige. (12) Robert Dover's 'Olimpick Games', begun in the early 17th century, provide an example of Hellenic antiquarianism grafted onto the typical pursuits of an English country festival. In 1636, Matthew Walbancke published an anthology of panegyrics devoted to Dover's accomplishment, Annalia Dubrensia: Upon the yeerely celebration of Mr. Robert Dover's Olimpick Games held upon Cotswold-Hills (Fig. 7). (13) In this work, the poet William Denny made a detailed comparison between the old and the new: 'Time long sleep, is now awak'd by thee/Fam'd Dover, who began'st the pedigree/Of Cotswold-sports, where each Olympick game/Is parraleld and drawes, fresh breath from fame.'

In 1733, the opera L'Olimpiade, whose libretto was written by Pietro Metastasio, poet in residence to the Habsburg Court, was first performed to great acclaim in Vienna; it later met with similar success in other European capitals, including London. (14) It evoked the Olympic atmosphere and the honour inherent in its prize: 'These leaves which are the supreme ornament of the victor.' L'Olimpiade helped promulgate the Hellenic ideal as an enduring facet of historical consciousness. (15) A variety of 18th-century ballets and opera-ballets also drew their material from the Olympic tradition: in 1729, Jean-Joseph Mouret's Les Jeux Olympiques premiered in Paris; in 1762, Jean-Georges Noverre's La Mort d'Hercule included specifically choreographed wrestlers competing for the Olympic wreath.

Olympia captured the imagination of the German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) like nowhere else in Greece. He believed that it was there that the spirit of Hellenic civilisation reached its zenith. Through his theory of ideal classical beauty, he drew a direct correlation between physical perfection and the Hellenic lifestyle. In Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, Winckelmann expounded the Games' incentive for physical exercise that gave 'the bodies of the Greeks the strong and manly contours', and when discovered, the statues of the Olympic victors would reveal the true greatness of Greek art. (16)

Naturally, the desire arose to locate and excavate Olympia. Yet despite all the evocations of the Olympic Games' atmosphere and values, the actual site remained unknown. (17) The Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton had assigned the event to Mount Olympus--an understandable mistake. (18) In 1723, the antiquary Bernard de Montfaucon wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Corfu, Cardinal Ange-Marie Quirini, seeking permission to dig at Olympia. (19) Winckelmann repeatedly stated his desire to travel there and made numerous plans to excavate the site, although he had only the vaguest idea of where it was. (20) It was only in 1766 that a breakthrough was made by the English explorer and epigrapher Richard Chandler, a short, plump man who endured Olympia's mosquito-infested environs in a long dress with his head wrapped in a towel. He correctly interpreted Pausanias' second-century Description of Greece (10 books, each dedicated to an area of ancient Greece, describing firsthand observations), and soon revealed the physical ruins of Olympia: wall stubs and Doric columns. The fruits of his experience were published as Travels in Greece. (21)

For an observant traveller such as Pausanias, Olympia offered a major attraction. (22) This generally reliable writer left us with detailed topographic information about the location of the wild olive tree and remarked that 'It is called the olive of the Beautiful Crown, and from its leaves are made the crowns which it is customary to give to winners of Olympic contests'. (23) Most importantly, Pausanias hailed Olympia as the acme of the Greek experience: "Many are the sights to be seen in Greece, and many the wonders to be heard; but nothing does heaven bestow more care on [than] ... the Olympic Games.' His tour ends with a list of victor statues, which increased the mythic aura of the Games and the perceived value of its statuary. (24) Pausanias may have been unpopular in antiquity, but by Renaissance times there was widespread interest in his eyewitness account of classical sites. (25) Relying heavily on the guide book, Chandler extolled Olympia: 'This place had been rendered excessively illustrious ... by the renown of the Agon or Games, in which to be victorious was deemed the very summit of human felicity.' Chandler clearly shared Pausanias' conviction that the Olympic Games was one of the great wonders of ancient Greece. (26)

Olympic reference and inspiration constituted a living heritage with well understood allusions in music, dance, literature, aesthetics and archaeology, conjuring up an ideal conception of the Games. Hamilton's transformation of the Lansdowne marble was clearly influenced by Romantic humanism imbued with Olympic values and the Games' role in the development of Greek civilisation. During its restoration, the damaged area of the left brow was reinstated, and the forehead hair recarved. Since the wing stump is almost completely concealed amongst a dense mass of curls, the restorer simply ignored its presence; traces of chisel work in the corresponding area at the left show evidence of the other wing's removal. The partial wreath undoubtedly sparked the Scotsman's idea for transfiguring Hermes' head as an Olympic victor. Since it is virtually impossible to distinguish the foliage from the curly tresses, it was left untouched, and the restorer turned to another scheme--a wide groove was drilled around the heady This channel and Hamilton's ostentatious title were intended for Lord Lansdowne to interpret as evidence of an ancient (lost) crown of 'Wild Olives of Bronze'. The Marquess was to imagine the marble as originally part of a statue topped with a wreath of precious metal, like those listed by Pausanias that had once graced the rows of victor statues at Olympia, and which Emperor Hadrian had later transported to his Villa in Tivoli.





Restorations mirror the taste and understanding of the time, and Hamilton's repair of the Lansdowne marble reflects the fascination with the brilliant history of the Olympic Games. It was this enduring quest for evocations of Olympic ideals that ultimately led to the systematic excavations of the site by German archaeologists, begun in 1875 and still ongoing today. (28) The same fervour also stimulated Baron Pierre de Coubertin to reinstate the modern Olympics at the 1896 Athens Games. (29)

Through their distinctive approaches, both Hamilton and Coubertin deserve praise for encouraging a wider awareness of Olympic ideals. Hamilton's inspired transformation elevated a mundane image of a deity to another sphere. His restoration placed the 'Victor' marble within a historical perspective that honours one of mankind's greatest achievements in promoting cosmopolitanism, peace and individual development. In doing so, he gave us a work of art that evokes universal aspirations to achieve the highest goals.

(1)/ This article is an offshoot from my project of the reconstruction of the Lansdowne collection of classical marbles. For surveys of the Lansdowne collection and the construction of Lansdowne House, with further bibliography, see Adolph Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, Cambridge, 1882, pp. 103-06, 453 71; Jonathan Scott, The Pleasures of Antiquity: British Collectors of Greece and Rome, New Haven and London, 2003, pp. 160-68; Ilaria Bignamini and Clare Hornsby, Digging and Dealing in Eighteenth Century Rome, New Haven and London, 2010, vol. I, pp. 321-26. For more on the Marquess, see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn. May 2010, (J. Cannon).

(2)/ Catalogue of the Celebrated Collection of Ancient Marbles, the Property of the Most Honourable the Marquess of Lansdowne, 5 March 1930, p.77. lot 60; Sotheby's Sales Catalogue of Egyptian, Western Asiatic, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, 4 December 1972, p. 30, lot 122.

(3)/ See Michaelis op cit., Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, Cambridge, 1882, p.452, no. 62, The restorations include the tip of nose, a section of the left brow and a piece of the right side of the neck at the front.

(4)/ There is a diagonal break running from the back across the chest. The repairs of the bust include the base and index plate, the patchwork of the spine, and the left breast. The inside and the rim of the support have been smoothed over.

(5)/ There was great fluidity in the god's apparel and attributes. The addition of wings on the head, which started in the late 5th century B.C., was sporadically applied. For the god's iconography, see Lexicon Iconographum Mythologiae Classicae, Zurich and Munich, 1990, vol. V, pp. 383-85, s.v. Hermes (G. Siebert).

(6)/ Representations of Hermes wearing a wreath certainly exist, but the combination of a foliage crown and wings is very unusual. For examples in literature and representations on Greekvases of Hermes wreathed, see Michael Blech, Studien zum Kranz bei den Griechen, Berlin and New York, 1982, p. 430, no. 9; p. 296, note 125a; p. 271, note 12; p. 273.

(7)/ For more on Gavin Hamilton, see Bignamini a d Hornsby, op. cit., pp.271-81.

(8)/ Excerpt from a letter to Charles Townley, 'An Account of Ancient Marbles found by Mr. Gavin Hamilton in various places near Rome between 1769 and the Month of November 1779', in Biguamini and Hornsby, op. cit., vol. II, p. 117.

(9)/ See Nicholas Yalouris (ed.), The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece; Ancient Olympia and the Olympic Games, Athens, 2004; Nikolaos Kaltsas, Olympia, Athens, 2004, trans, D. Hardy; Olympia Vikatou, Olympia: the archaeological site and the museums, Athens, 2006, trans. M. Caskey.

(10)/ Edward Norman Gardiner, Olympia: Its History and Remains, Oxford, 1925, p. 176; Nikos Psilakis, The Olive Wreath: the wreaths of the Olympic winners, symbolic and moral background. The olive and the olive wreaths in the civilization of the Greeks, Heraklion, 2003, trans. M. Bitsakaki-Psilaki, pp. 89-91.

(11)/ The best survey of the survival of the Olympic Games in literature, opera and ballet, to which part of this article is indebted, is Jeffrey O. Segrave, 'The Olympic Games 393 AD-1896 AD: The Genealogy of an Idea in Literature, Music, and Dance', Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies, vol. XIII, 2004, pp. 53-64.

(12)/ For 'Olympic' festivals from Dover's Cotswold Games to those in Dessau (Germany), Grenoble (Prance) and Raml6sa (Sweden), see Ebert J. Ebert (ed.), Olympia von den Anfangen bis zu Coubertin, Leipzig, 1980, pp. 135-51.

(13)/ The work contains 33 poems praising Dover's games. See F. D. A. Burns, Heigh for Cotswold! A History of Robert Dover's Olympic Games, revised edn., Chipping Campden, 2004. The competitions continued until Dover's death in 1652; they were revived after the Restoration and finally ended in 1852. For more on Dover, see (F. D. A. Burns).

(14)/ See also Raffaele Mellace, L'Ofimpiade di Pietro Metastasio: Strategie e fortuna di un capolavoro, Rome and Venice, 2010.

(15)/ So popular were Metastasio's works that in 1767, John Hoole published The Works of Metastasio; translated from the Italian, London, 1767. Hoole's work was reissued in 1800.

(16)/ Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, London, 1765, trans. H. Fuseli, vol. VI, pp. 169-70. Originally published as Gedanken uber die Naehahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bilhauerkunst, Dresden, 1755. In his History of the Art of Antiquity (trans. H.R, Mallgrave, Los Angeles, 2006, pp. 187-88; originally published as Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Dresden, 1764), Winckelmann singled out statues erected to victors as a powerful incentive for sculptors' creativity.

(17)/ For the rediscovery of Olympia, see Hans Volkmar Herrmann, Olympia. Heiligtum und Wettkampfstatte, Munich, 1972, pp. 200-06; Xeni Arapogianni, Olympia: The Cradle of the Olympic Games, Koropi, 2002, p. 28.

(18)/ 'On Mount Olympos to their Hercules/Ordain'd their games Olympick, and so nam'd/Of that great Mountaine; for those pastimes fam'd', in Matthew Walbancke, Annalia Dubrensia: Upon the yeerely celebration of Mr Robert Dover's Olimpick Games held upon Cotswold-Hills, London, 1636, p.5.

(19)/ Antoine Claude Valery, Correspondance inedite de Mabillon et de Montfaucon avec l'Italie, Paris, 1846, vol, III, p. 214, letter 404. See also Ulrich Hausmann (ed.), Handbuch der Archaologie, Munich, 1969,vol. I, p. 12.

(20)/ His idea was to obtain permission from the Porte, the government of the Ottoman Empire, hire 100 workers and excavate the stadium. In a letter to C. G. Heyne of 13 January 1768, he wrote that he was coming to Germany to further this scheme: Walther Rehm and Hans Diepolder (eds.), Johann J. Winckelmann: Briefe, Berlin, 1956, vol. III, p. 358. His correspondence often deals with the possibility of a trip to Greece, but oddly enough, despite his many opportunities, he never visited the country. See David Constantine, Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal, Cambridge and New York, 1984, pp. 116-27.

(21)/ Richard Chandler, Travels in Greece: or an Account of a Tour made at the Expense of the Society of Dilettanti, Oxford, 1776, pp. 289-94. For Chandler's travels and publications on his trip, see Constantine, op. cit., pp. 188-209. For Chandler see also Jason Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti; Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightement, New Haven and London, 2009, pp. 183-35.

(22)/ Pausanias' account of Olympia covers the bulk of books V and VI of Description of Greece. See Pausanias, Description of Greece, Loeb edition, trans. W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod, London, 1926, vol. 2.

(23)/ Description of Greece, book V, chapter 15, paragraph 3.

(24)/ The statue list ends in book VI, chapter 18. See Walter Woodburn Hyde, Olympic Victor Monuments and Greek Athletis Art, Washington, 1921, pp. 339-61.

(25)/ See, for example, Katherine Harloe, 'Pausanias as historian in Winckelmann's History', and Maria Pretzler, 'Prom one connoisseur to another: Pausanias as Winckelmann's guide to analysing Greek art', in Jas Elsner(ed.), Receptions of Pausanias: From Winckelmann to Frazer, special issue of Classical Receptions Journal, vol. II, no. 2, 2010, pp. 174-218. For translations of Pausanias into modern languages before 1900, see Elsner's introduction, p. 170, appendix 1.

(26)/ Chandler, op. cit., p. 293.

(27)/ The treatment of the channel on the Lansdowne marble is inconsistent; at the front the indentation is smooth and shallow, but at the sides the cutting is rough and deep and at the back, drill holes riddle the indentation. On ancient examples the grooves are very distinctly defined from the adjacent hair and are uniformly carved. See portraits with channels carved for the reception of metal crowns in Jutta Rumscheid, Kranz und Krone. Zu Insignien, Siegespreisen und Ehrenzeichen der romischen Kaiserzeit, Tubingen, 2000, plates 27, 1; 32, 3; 33, 3.

(28)/ In 1875, Ernest Curtis headed a group of archaeologists in excavating the site. Wilhelm D6rpfeld led a second group of excavators. See Erich von Bruck (ed.), 100 Jahre deutsche Ausgrabung in Olympia, Munich, 1972, exhibition catalogue, Deutsches Museum Bibliotheksbau Munich; Suzanne L. Marchand, Down from Olympus. Archaeology and Phillellenism in Germany, 1750-1970, Princeton, 1972, pp.97-91.

(29)/ See David C. Young, 'Modern Greece and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games', in William D.E. Coulson and Helmut Kyrieleis (eds.), Proceedings of an International Symposium on the Olympic Games, 5-9 September 1988, Athens, 1992, pp. 175-84; Daniel Bermond, Pierre de Coubertin, Paris, 2008.

Elizabeth Angelicouss is specialises in ancient sculptures in private British museums.
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Date:May 1, 2012
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