August 16, 1972-2022: the intricate 50 contemporary years of the Riace Bronzes

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Riace Bronzes, discovered on August 16, 1972. Since then fifty years of intricate events have begun, which we summarize here. With the knowledge that the Bronzes still have much to give to Calabria and the world.

Thursday, August 17, 1972. In an office of the Superintendence of Antiquities of Calabria, in Reggio, the young Roman diver Stefano Mariottini declares that on the afternoon of the previous day he had found“during an underwater dive for fishing purposes, in the locality of Riace [...] a group of statues, presumably of bronze. The two emerging represent nude male figures, one lying on its back, its face covered with a flowing, curly beard, arms outstretched and with one leg over the other. The other statue appears to be lying on its side with one leg folded and has a shield on its left arm. The statues are dark brown except for some lighter parts; they are perfectly preserved, cleanly modeled, with no obvious encrustations. The dimensions are approximately 180 cm.” Two Greek statues had been found that were destined to enter the collective imagination more than any other bronze statues of ancient times, so much so that they were known, from the start, as the Riace Bronzes . That find turns 50 years old today, and is celebrated with a videomapping on the facade of the National Archaeological Museum in Reggio Calabria, which has been the home of those statues since 1981, as well as many other events in the area.

From that August day in 1972 began the intricate, contemporary story of the two bronze statues, about which today, outside the rhetoric that surrounds archaeological discoveries, we know a great deal, if always too little: they were cast-as ascertained by analyses conducted in the 1990s-in the Peloponnese, in the area of the city of Argos, in the second half of the fifth century B.C. At some point in their lives they were juxtaposed to make up the same monument - according to some scholars from the beginning, according to others at later times - since the arm of statue B, the one representing the old man, is replaced as early as ancient times, becoming mirrored to the other. They held spears, helmets and shield, were colored, and arrived in Italy most likely during Roman-era spoliations. When they ended up in the sea at Riace, and why, however, is instead still uncertain and debated today, not least because, outside the tone of official press releases, it is known that the recovery did not take place according to ideal procedures.

It was conducted on August 17 under emergency conditions, by the carabinieri divers of the Messina unit, at a time of year when the structural deficiencies of the peripheral ministerial offices became even more severe due to vacations, in the presence of only one archaeologist, honorary inspector Pier Giovanni Guzzo, and hundreds of locals and curious bathers. It was a complex operation, and not without errors and carelessness: the following year the Center for Underwater Archaeology in Albenga, tasked with ascertaining whether there had been other finds in the area, noted that the point of discovery had not been precisely fixed, and it is known that the few elements dating the context of discovery were misunderstood. Situations due to the shortcomings and structural problems of the state protection machine that, however, given the extraordinary nature of the find and what it represented for Reggio Calabria in particular-a sort of symbol of revival and a city pride-have lent themselves to speculation and accusations of the most varied kinds: from the sale of shields and helmets abroad, to the interest of the Getty Museum. And then presence of an alleged “third statue”, fueled by Mariottini’s first formal complaint, which speaks enthusiastically of a “group” of statues, but, following that, describes precisely the two visible ones, which are the ones known today. Then again, the fact that the discovery award was granted to the Roman diver despite the fact that the first written complaint came from four young boys from Riace, at noon on August 17: the Superintendent, however, testified that he had been notified by Mariottini the previous evening. It is almost obvious, really, that such a find, unearthing two unique statues, which for the people of Riace in particular have become almost “part of the family,” brings with it hypothesis and controversy: an archaeological-scientific event that nonetheless takes on the comparisons of myth. And that myth was born in the very months and years immediately following the discovery.

I bronzi di Riace. Foto Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio Calabria
The Riace Bronzes. Photo National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria

The two statues, after an initial placement in the Museum of Reggio, were moved to Florence for an initial restoration and then briefly exhibited there, then to Rome in 1980 for a second exhibition, and then returned to Calabria in 1981, to new rooms in the national museum specially set up for the purpose. The celebrity of the two statues was through the roof. In the first two months of exhibition at the museum, 300,000 admissions were touched, numbers that the Reggio museum would never touch again in the years to come (in 2019, the record year for Italian museums, it will count 227,000 admissions in 12 months). Since then, they have never left Reggio Calabria, despite multiple attempts especially in recent years, from Expo in Milan to the G7 on the Magdalena: too fragile, impossible to move, but also too strong a bond of the people of Reggio Calabria with the statues, which makes any attempt to lend them out untenable politically, not just scientifically. The Bronzes have twisted the history of the National Museum of Reggio Calabria, becoming not only its beating heart, but also its frontmen and, in the case of funding and staff shortages, its cross, given their delicacy. As when, in 2012, 40 years after they were unearthed, the Bronzes were forced to lie in a hall of the Calabrian regional council, awaiting the reopening of the museum’s halls, which had been closed for three years for a lengthy restoration and the installation of a new air conditioning system, all costing 34 million. They returned to their place only in September 2013, although the new air conditioning system, between 2016 and 2017, had stopped working. And while today the museum, like many others, suffers from a dramatic shortage of staff, reported by the director as early as March 2022, the Bronzes are solidly in place, admirable even during evening hours on several occasions, and in demand far and wide to become the face not only of Reggio but of all of Calabria.

The 50th anniversary loomed large, after the 40th had fallen at the height of the two metal warriors’ difficulties. The calendar of events for the public was rich, although the organization of the celebrations was neither simple nor straightforward. Two press conferences were organized in July-one at the Chamber, one at the Roman Forum-in the presence of the ministerial leadership: held, however, in Rome, and not, as would have seemed obvious, in Calabria. Prior to the July 7 press conference, tears had flown between the president of the region Occhiuto, organizer of the conference, and the metropolitan city of Reggio (where Riace is located), which was excluded from the Roman conference along with the Municipality of Reggio Calabria. The recomposition took place in the days to follow, but on July 5 the metropolitan city had presented (in Reggio) its calendar of events. Today on the website we finally find a very full unified calendar for the months of August and September, including extraordinary museum openings, lectures, evenings, theater performances, exhibitions, and even more pop events such as a Miss Italy selection (the first “Miss Bronzi di Riace”) or DJ sets. Events that fade as the tourist season ends, with an autumn in which, however, the two warriors will be featured in a special episode of the eighth series of Viaggio nella Bellezza, on Rai Cultura, and then in December on Rai Play, and in prime time on Rai3, for a special episode of Ossi di Seppia. In the meantime, two color copies of the Bronzes are at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, after being displayed at the Colosseum in July. Celebrations aside, the feeling is that the two Bronzes still have much to give, to Calabria and to the world.

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