Another Perspective

The Dying Gaul

Dignity incarnated in marble—a Washington rarity.

By 1.28.14

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Imagine, for a moment, that you are doing excavation work in your backyard, desirous of adding a family room on to your house, when the contractor unearths, oh, one of the civilization’s three or four greatest sculptures, one of antiquity’s wondrous masterpieces.

Such is the case with the magnificent Dying Gaul, a depiction of a fatally wounded warrior facing his final end, on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., compliments of the Capitoline Museum in Rome and the Italian government. It dates from the first or second century A.D., most likely a Roman copy, in marble, of a Greek bronze from Pergamon, a Hellenized city in Asia Minor, now Turkey. It was cast in the third century B.C. to celebrate the defeat of the invading Gauls or Celts, a fierce people whose reach extended even to the wilds of Ireland.

This exhibit is part of The Dream of Rome and 2013—The Year of Italian Culture in the U.S. Quaere: Isn’t every year the year of Italian culture? Never mind. Readers may recall my post regarding Michelangelo’s impressive David-Apollo, brought over from Florence as part of the latter program. While the Florentine sculpture had come to America previously, in 1949, the Dying Gaul had left Italy only once before, in 1797, as contraband, in the baggage of Napoleon’s army, headed for Paris to be placed in the Louvre. With the Emperor’s demise, it returned to Rome in 1816.

According to the excellent materials furnished by the National Gallery, this sculpture along with another, the Gaul Committing Suicide with His Wife, sometimes called The Galatian Suicide, was brought to Rome “possibly” by Nero in the first century A.D., mindful, no doubt, of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and its larger significance, at least in the minds of ancient Greeks and Romans, “the triumph of civilization over barbarism.”

Kelly Crow, writing in the Wall Street Journal, cites Parisi Presicce, director of the Capitoline Museum, the owner of the Dying Gaul, that Caesar likely brought the bronze original to Rome around 43 B.C. since its marble copy was unearthed on land Caesar owned, now in the vicinity of the Via Veneto. The bronze would have been melted down for weaponry.

High school Latin scholars, struggling to translate Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, may only recall that “Gaul is divided into three parts…” and have forgotten the fate of Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe, who united the Gauls in revolt against Rome in the region that is now France. Defeated by Caesar, he surrendered, was imprisoned for years, dragged through Rome as part of the traditional triumph, and then subjected to ritual strangulation. I mention these grim facts, not to deconstruct the Dying Gaul as a work of art, but only to draw a line between the poignant, sympathetic rendering of the vanquished Celtby its anonymous artist and what may have been a far less sympathetic attitude of most Greeks and Romans. After all, the Dying Gaul and The Galatian Suicide, were commissioned by the King of Pergamon to adorn the Sanctuary of Athena, protector of the city, in commemoration of victory over the Gauls whom Polybius, a historian in the second century B.C., described as fighting “wearing nothing but their weapons.… Very terrifying too were the appearance and gestures of the naked warriors… all in the prime of life, and finely built men.”

So when and how was this outstanding artifact discovered? Sometime between 1621 and 1623, the marble statue was found by a nephew of the pope, the art collector Cardinal Ludovici Ludovisi, during excavations on the foundations of his villa. The good Cardinal knew he had stumbled upon a thing of value. He immediately invested in restoring the sculpture, including the addition of a new right arm and the removal of the last vestiges of color pigment with acid and pumice stone. From that moment on, the Dying Gaul became all the rage in Europe and, eventually, a “must see” on the Grand Tour. Eighteen museums hold plaster copies from the Baroque era. Thomas Jefferson had it on his wish list for Monticello.

The National Gallery has placed the Dying Gaul in its rotunda area, thus allowing the visitor a 360 degree view and the ability to carefully appreciate the classicism in this dramatic, idealized representation of the human anatomy. It is just over three feet high and six feet long.

The dying warrior is lying on the ground, his right had supporting his torso, head bowed, left hand and arm on his right leg. His matted hair (his dreadlocks were shaved off at some point), mustache, and muscular physique reveal a man who can handle himself in combat. Yet, his face grimaces with the recognition and acceptance of his imminent demise. The Dying Gaul is stoical dignity incarnated in marble.

This is a work comparable to Michelangelo’s best and often compared with the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Mercifully, the National Gallery has extended the exhibition through March 16. So you don’t have to take the Grand Tour to view this masterpiece of Western art.

While you are in the building, you might also want to catch the remarkable showing of Byzantine art, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections,” featuring 170 items — mosaics, icons, ceramics, jewelry, and manuscripts. The exhibit is accompanied by an excellent short film showcasing the many works of art found in several remaining Byzantine churches. The interpretive materials do a fantastic job of describing this amazing artistry and craftsmanship as well as their history, theology, and sacramental function in an empire that existed for over eleven hundred years.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.