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Berkeley's Plato: Is it a 'find' or a fake?

One professor believes the bust is real and the best surviving image of the philosopher.

May 02, 2003|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

BERKELEY -- UC Berkeley classics professor Stephen Miller had just finished writing a book about athletics and intellectuals in ancient Greece and for its cover he wanted to find a good illustration of Plato -- a prime example of what he was writing about. Not only had the Greek philosopher been one of civilization's foundational thinkers, he'd been a pretty good wrestler as well.

Miller flipped through various museum catalogs and the best image of Plato seemed to be a bust at the Altes Museum in Berlin. The portrait, though, wasn't flattering: The philosopher's head was shaped like a shovel and his beard hung in dreadlocks. Then Miller remembered having come across a bust of Plato years before, stored away at Berkeley's Hearst Anthropology Museum. He went to inspect the sculpture, which had long ago been relegated to the basement.

Something immediately caught Miller's eye: Carved on the shoulders were ribbons, just like the ones awarded to the winners of ancient athletic competitions. It was the first time Miller had seen such a decoration on a Plato likeness. The bust itself had finer features and a more noble bearing than the Berlin statue. But the one scholar who had examined it years before had branded it a modern forgery.

Miller, however, was intrigued. He spent the next year researching the sculpture and is now convinced that not only is it authentic but also that it is the finest extant portrait of the philosopher. Plato died in 347 BC, and no images are known to exist from the time he was alive.

"We have the best surviving image of Plato," Miller said. "That's pretty thrilling."

Miller presented his findings recently in a talk at the university and seemed to win over most of his colleagues. But, so far, no other outside scholars have examined the sculpture to back up Miller's claim.

Among the things that convinced Miller of the bust's genuineness was the fact that scientific tests showed the marble was from the Greek island of Paros. That quarry ceased to produce marble in the late Roman period.

"This sheds completely new and unexpected light on the portraits of Plato," said Andrew Stewart, another UC Berkeley professor and the Hearst museum's co-curator of Greek and Roman sculpture. "It propels our head to the forefront. There's a maxim in archeology: The past is always changing. And that's what Steve's proved."

Not everyone is convinced. G. Max Bernheimer, the director of antiquities for Christie's auction house, said the marble may be Parian, but the bust could still be a forgery. From the Renaissance to modern times, Bernheimer said, forgers have taken old stone, such as broken marble columns, and sculpted fake pieces out of it.

"It's not conclusive by any means," he said. "But I'd love to see it."

Bernheimer said a number of factors have to be taken into consideration, including artistic style, surface weathering and polishing, as well as the tools used to sculpt the bust.

John Twilley, one of the leading experts on ancient sculpture, likened his work to modern forensic science, where clues would help determine the age of a piece.

"Most of the evidence one could find is negative evidence, things that would not have been done in Greek or Roman times," he said.

Technically, the sculpture is a herm, which is a commemorative stone pillar topped with a bust, often used as a signpost in ancient Greece. It has seen better days. Over the years, the statue had been toppled and pitched face first into dirt and water. At one point the head was removed and bathed in acid, cleaning it but also dulling the details and giving the philosopher's face a glazed look.

Twilley said the chemical cleansing of the bust could make it difficult to determine its age, but not impossible. "The thing that might remain after that would be, perhaps, the coarse tool marks that were not finished off with as much care," he said.

Not a great deal is known of the sculpture's origins. About a hundred years ago, newspaper heiress Phoebe Hearst dispatched classical scholar Alfred Emerson to Rome to buy up enough antiquities to fill a museum. In 1902 Emerson purchased the herm from a well-known dealer and included it in a shipment of 88 cases that he sent to California. Emerson's only comments on the artwork were hardly gushing. "Provenance of head is not certain," he noted.

No one paid much more attention to the sculpture until 1966 when one R.J. Smutney, a Berkeley graduate student, included the wording carved on the herm's pedestal for a monograph about Greek and Latin inscriptions around campus. By then, the head had been misplaced and Smutney declared the pedestal a fake.

Almost 40 years later, Miller wandered into the basement. At some point in between, the head had been found and reattached. Miller took a practiced look at the herm. He wasn't a newcomer to ancient artifacts, having spent many years at digs in Greece during his career. His instincts told him that the herm might be genuine.

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