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Art Review

Ferocious talent

It's here, with a roar. Italy has sent its superb, ancient Chimaera

August 04, 2009|Christopher Knight | ART CRITIC

The Chimaera of Arezzo has arrived at the Getty Villa on the edge of Malibu, the first time the famous ancient Etruscan sculpture has traveled to the United States. When you see it, you'll know immediately why the magnificent bronze is regarded as a textbook work of art (Page 181 of my tattered copy of Gardner's introductory "Art Through the Ages," to be precise). The Chimaera grabs your attention and won't let go.

Not bad for a mythological monster that's more than 2,400 years old. The sculpture shows how one masterpiece can be enough to anchor a thoroughly satisfying exhibition.

A Chimaera fuses the body of a fire-breathing lion with a coiling serpent in the place of its tail, capable of guarding the rear flank; for good measure, a horned goat emerges from the lion's back. Altogether this chomping, hissing, butting flamethrower is a hybrid as frighteningly improbable as something from "Alien" in the movies or a Blue Dog Democrat in Congress.

The ancient Chimaera (pronounced ki-MEER-uh) was dug up at the gate to the Tuscan town of Arezzo in 1553. Now it stands in grand isolation on a pedestal in the center of a Getty Villa gallery. About 4 1/4 feet long, it pulls back on its haunches with its front legs stretched out, talons unsheathed, like a wounded animal refusing surrender.

The roaring head, encircled by curving rows of tufted fur, strains upward and bends to the right. Behind it the goat's head mirrors this pose but in the opposite direction. So the bodily motion goes down, back, up, left and right, yielding a marvelously animated dynamism. Skin is pulled taut over powerful musculature, while parallel curves, alternating shadow with light, articulate the beast's gaunt rib cage. This is an animal with living, breathing innards, not just a ferocious outward demeanor.

Look closely and you'll spot a couple of stylized floral rosettes on the goat's neck and the lion's hind end -- in fact, engorged drops of blood, spurting from stabbed flesh. The beast has been wounded, no doubt from the fatal assault by the long-lost bronze figure of the Greek hero Bellerophon riding his winged steed, Pegasus -- victors in the mythical ancient battle. The Chimaera of Arezzo is what remains of a surely amazing sculptural grouping, fabricated by a supremely gifted artist and his bronze casting crew, circa 400 BC.

The periphery of the gallery holds a variety of objects -- 29 carved gems, painted vases, coins, illustrated books, small statuettes -- which serve two related purposes. One is to demonstrate the widespread use of the creature as an image in ancient Italy; the other is to note the impact made by the discovery of this particular bronze, dug up at Arezzo at a particularly apposite moment in the 16th century.

Cosimo I de' Medici, the authoritarian grand duke of Tuscany who claimed the newly unearthed bronze and immediately had it installed in his Florentine palace, was in an expansionist mode. Rome was the rival to Florence, but Cosimo was seeking to consolidate his territory in the region between the two city-states. The area roughly coincided with the ancient kingdom of Etruria, whose kings once also ruled Rome.

Installing Medici family members as pope (Leo X and his successor, Clement VII) was one way to get that ball rolling. But for a shrewd political warrior like Cosimo, emblematic power also resided in the display of a stunning Etruscan sculpture of a vanquished beast. Now he had a brilliant work of ancient art to rival Rome's poised "She-wolf," the protective bronze animal whose suckling babies (Romulus and Remus) were added during the Renaissance. History was symbolically asserted to be on Cosimo's side -- no small thing in an age that was mad for building on the glory and grandeur of the ancient world.

The practice of adding modern elements to ancient art is unthinkable today, but once it was common. When the Chimaera was found, for instance, it had no tail. A serpent fragment is recorded among the pieces dug up, but the tail we see today was added in 1785.

Credit for that goes to sculptor Francesco Carradori or his teacher at Florence's academy, Innocenzo Spinazzi. Whoever made it certainly knew powerful design.

The serpent rises in a long Rococo S-curve straight over the beast's spine, splitting the difference between the other two heads curving left and right. The composition meant that the snake's fangs would clamp down on the goat's right horn. (Like the serpent, the broken horn was also fixed.) It's a startling vision -- a ferocious beast wildly biting itself in the chaotic throes of life-or-death combat.

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