Boxing Masterpiece Coming to America

By Robert Ecksel on May 31, 2013
Boxing Masterpiece Coming to America
We've inherited many things from the ancient Greeks for which we should be grateful.

Discoloration on the fighter’s hand and foot suggests that they were touched frequently, possibly, and deservedly, in veneration…

“Life is short, art is long, opportunity is fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.”—Hippocrates

Ancient Greece was the birthplace of Western Civilization. The Ancient Greeks bequeathed to us philosophy, theater, education, government, literature and poetry, music and dance, art and architecture, science and technology, and religion and mythology. The Greeks gave us the Olympics. They are also credited with bringing boxing out of the shadows into the bright light of day.

It’s fair to say that without the influence of ancient Greek culture, we’d be considerably more savage and more superstitious than we are today.

In 1885 on the southern slope of the Quirinal Hill in Rome, near the ancient Baths of Constantine, a bronze statue depicting a seated boxer was excavated. The sculpture was in excellent condition, especially considering its age, and appeared to have been buried intentionally, possibly to save it from the Visigoths that ravaged Rome in the fifth century A.D.

The realistic Hellenistic Greek statue dates from between the late fourth and the second century B.C. Known as the Boxer at Quirinal, Terme Boxer, and Boxer at Rest, it was designated a masterpiece by those qualified to make such designations, and that designation has stood the test of time.

The pugilist is shown seated, resting after a match, and is as detailed as a high definition photograph. He is an older man, bearded, veteran of many a scrap. His hands are covered with kynodésme, a precursor to the modern-day boxing glove. He has a heavily muscled upper torso. His nose is flattened. He has cauliflower ears. His right eye is swollen. His lips are scarred and sunken, suggesting missing teeth. And drops of blood from his head wounds, inlayed in copper to contrast with the bronze, trickle down his shoulder, right arm, thigh and leg.

Discoloration on the fighter’s hand and foot suggests that they were touched frequently, possibly, and deservedly, in veneration.

F.B. Tarbell writes in A History of Greek Art, “The statue represents a naked boxer of herculean frame, his hands armed with the aestus or boxing-gloves made of leather. The man is evidently a professional ‘bruiser’ of the lowest type. He is just resting after an encounter, and no detail is spared to bring out the nature of his occupation. Swollen ears were the conventional mark of the boxer at all periods, but here the effect is still further enhanced by scratches and drops of blood. Moreover, the nose and cheeks bear evidence of having been badly ‘punished,’ and the moustache is clotted with blood. From top to toe the statue exhibits the highest grade of technical skill. One would like very much to know what was the original purpose of the work. It may have been a votive statue, dedicated by a victorious boxer at Olympia or elsewhere. A bronze head of similar brutality found at Olympia bears witness that the refined statues of athletes produced in the best period of Greek art and set up in that precinct were forced at a later day to accept such low companionship. Or it may be that this boxer is not an actual person at all, and that the statue belongs to the domain of genre. In either case it testifies to the coarse taste of the age.”

It doesn’t sound like Professor Tarbell was a big fight fan. But whether the statue “testifies to the coarse taste of the age” or is an accurate depiction of a pugilist as rest is very much open to debate. What is not open to debate is that this remarkable sculpture, normally on display at the Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, is coming to America, specifically to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a special six-week exhibition called The Boxer: An Ancient Masterpiece, beginning on June 1.

“We are proud to host the Boxer at Rest,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Met. “More than 2,000 years have passed since this virtuoso work of art was created, yet the powerful realism of its subject continues to captivate viewers today.”

We’ve inherited many things from the ancient Greeks for which we should be grateful, not least of which is the iconic, timeless bronze sculpture, Boxer at Rest.

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Apollonius, Boxer at Rest, c. 100 B.C.E.

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  1. Paul F Miller 01:56am, 06/11/2013

    It would be a shame to see this statue and not read one of its great interpretations in the form of Pugilist at Rest, the short story that made the reputation of contemporary writer, Thom Jones. It appeared in the New Yorker in the early 1990s, but is available now in a collection of his short stories. This statue, obviously, supplies the title and well as much rumination. The short story is terribly impressive and the author was also a boxer.

  2. tuxtucis 12:39pm, 06/09/2013

    As professional archaeologist who loves boxing as I am, I always considered the Terme Boxer as one of my favorites masterpieces…

  3. Mike Silver 05:27pm, 06/02/2013

    All who love boxing should make a pilgrimage to the Met to see this masterpiece in person. I saw it several years ago in Rome. It is larger than life size. If the boxer stood up he would be about 7 feet tall. The Romans destroyed many Greek masterpieces. Thankfully this one survived.

  4. Jason 02:08pm, 06/01/2013

    He looks like he would have fought at 175. And the narrators can’t know for sure if he was defeated. It simply looks like a captured moment to me.

    So glad this was posted.

  5. Clarence George 04:40am, 06/01/2013

    The inspiration for Thom Jones’ “The Pugilist at Rest.”

  6. Chris 09:36pm, 05/31/2013

    It’s always refreshing to visit this site and read intellectually stimulating material about a sport most people consider barbaric and violent. I’ve known about this exhibition for a couple of months, and can’t wait to see it in person. I hope all who decide to visit the Met and witness this wonderful work of art enjoy it.

  7. Michael Hegan 07:14pm, 05/31/2013

    Mr Ecksel….

    This was a great article…...we pre television , cell phone….other hand held sparklies…..who were radio and newspaper raised folks have always said….‘There was life on earth….before we were born.”

  8. peter 02:29pm, 05/31/2013

    A beautiful, honest work of art. I will be buying a stack of postcards featuring this work when I visit the museum. The video says it is not a heroic statue, yet I think it is. And it stimulates so many questions for the viewer: Who was this man? Was he a champion? Was he a slave? What was his best punch? Will he be fighting again soon? How long has he been fighting? Was he a ‘George Chuvalo’ type fighter? Who would have won—he or George Chuvalo? Excellent article!

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:39pm, 05/31/2013

    I’ve seen photos but I wasn’t aware of the significance of this masterpiece….until now….thanks.

  10. The Fight Film Collector 08:48am, 05/31/2013

    Enriching perspective, Robert.  Thank you.

  11. Ted 08:21am, 05/31/2013

    Looks like Ward’s hand. Great stuff, Robert.

  12. Jason 08:17am, 05/31/2013

    Amazing. Really amazing. Not much has changed over the centuries. Someone cared enough about the sport, or maybe this man who might have been a famous champion, to mold and shape a perfect statue. Not much different than today.

  13. didier 08:13am, 05/31/2013

    Beautiful article about a beautiful statue.

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