The sculpture I’m about to talk about probably isn’t one that you would expect in an article titled “the ugly and the unusual”. It’s the Belvedere Torso. Famed for its beauty, it’s certainly not ugly – I’ve seen a cast of it in The Ashmolean, and I’d definitely say it’s one of the fittest sculptures I’ve ever seen. But, perhaps, in a way, it is a little unusual, if only because of the debate surrounding what it actually depicts.
The original is in the Vatican Museum, and they’re fairly sure that it depicts Ajax (a hero in the Trojan War) contemplating his suicide. Others are pretty sure he’s Herakles (because he’s so fit, y’know).
However, the torso is much more likely to depict someone far from as heroic as Ajax and Herakles. The torso has an animal skin draped across his left leg, which has often been identified as a lion skin, supporting the argument that this is Herakles, as he is famed for slaying the Nemean Lion and carting its skin around with him. However, the “lion skin” is lacking a key feature of lion skins: a mane.
It actually looks a lot more like a panther skin. The torso is also slightly contorted, leaning forwards and down very slightly, as if he is looking at something in his hands – perhaps he is playing an instrument. Satyrs were known for having animal skins and playing instruments, but it is quite a jump to just now presume that this is a satyr. However, there is one final, and fairly conclusive, thing that points to this being a satyr. In the back of the torso, at the base of his spine, there is a small hole. A small hole which a tail could very easily be inserted into.
Generally, though, satyrs aren’t depicted as particularly beautiful. But this one is, making it rather unusual.
Perhaps here the beauty of the sculpture has not been used to show heroism, as in the case of Herakles and Ajax, but to invoke in the viewer an acute sense of the upcoming pain the figure will experience: the figure could well be Marsyas, the satyr who committed hubris by challenging the god of music, Apollo, to a musical contest. After all, he does appear to be holding an instrument. Whatever the sculpture depicts, it is stunning, and it’s always good to have a debate.
Next time: a bronze figurine of Ajax….