In 1972, Stefano Mariottini, an engineer from Rome, was snorkeling off the coast of Monasterace near Riace. He noticed a human hand sticking out of the sand, so he called the police, deciding that it was a corpse.
From the bottom of the Ionian Sea, two statues of “Warriors from Riace” were raised – ancient Greek bronze statues of the 5th century BC.
Forty years ago, on the morning of August 16 1972, Stefano Mariottini, a chemist from Rome on a scuba-diving holiday, was gliding through the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea a few hundred yards off the coast of Calabria when he was startled to see, thrusting from the sea floor below him, what looked like a human arm. The deep south of Italy is just across the water from Sicily with its Mafia connections, and as signor Mariottini swam closer, he feared at first that he might have come upon the remains of a corpse.
But no police were to be involved here: what was cautiously dredged from beneath the calm blue surface and borne ashore to the village of Riace, proved to be a pair of statues, larger than life-size, nude and flamboyantly male, two of the finest examples of mid-fifth-century-BC Greek sculpture to be found anywhere in the world. Wrapped in the soft Calabrian sand, the Riace bronzes had slept on the seabed for 2,500 years.
The presence of the bronzes transformed Reggio Calabria from a stopover on the drive south to Sicily to a destination in itself. Fighting off central government plans to move the bronzes to a major national museum, the town stubbornly claimed ownership and insisted their statues should remain where they belonged. A lengthy process of restoration work began.
In due course, the bronzes were allowed out on loan to Florence and Rome. They were permitted a triumphant tour of Italy; they were celebrated on postage stamps. Safely back in the Museo Nazionale in Reggio Calabria, they were placed on permanent exhibition as the star exhibits of what had hitherto been a little-visited museum. And the restoration went on; removal of encrustation and the corrosive effects of the seawater, damage of various sorts, all needed skilled attention to preserve the statues. And 40 years later, the work remains ongoing.
For half a lifetime I’ve wanted to see the Riace bronzes. Over the years, as I trawled Italy for its treasures (Ravenna for the mosaics, Arezzo for the Piero frescoes, Orvieto for the Signorelli chapel) the bronzes were always lurking, put off until next time. I almost got there once from Sicily. I ran out of time in Naples. Puglia offered other distractions.
But this time the bronzes were top of my list. The simple route would have been a flight to Reggio itself, but the town is not famed for its charm, so I decided this could be an opportunity to explore some of Calabria’s coastline, while catching up at last with my Greek heroes.
The Costa degli Dei, the coast of the gods, is 40 kilometres of shoreline along Italy’s south-eastern coast – an area little-known to British tourists, though George Gissing made the trip and wrote eloquently about it in By the Ionian Sea. The Romans were here, and the Greeks before them – Calabria lies within Magna Graecia, the name itself a leftover of the Byzantine Empire. The small town of Tropea was to be my base.
The local airport, Lamezia Terme, is 55km (35 miles) from my destination, and out of season the buses and local trains dwindle to about two a day. I settle for a taxi, the road winding through fishing villages and small towns, the intervening landscape scarred by nondescript, sad-looking development attempts. Along the coastline there are steep cliffs and glimpses of narrow, curving beaches.
The old town of Tropea sits on a headland overlooking the volcanic island of Stromboli. The centro storico literally edges the soaring clifftop; a maze of alleyways lined with faded 18th-century palazzi built on even older foundations. The rise and fall of empires was accompanied by the occasional earthquake, and often the later buildings grew from the medieval rubble that lay beneath. There are several punti di visto – public “balconies” – around the Tropean clifftop, each with spectacular coastal views and most with steps (in one case, over 200, cut into the cliff face) leading down to one of several white sandy beaches spread out below
Tropea is one of those Italian towns – Lucca in the north is another – that seem to cast a spell on the visitor: with no great art or ancient ruins to offer, the place exerts a pull, composed of charm and a sense of restfulness. Days pass. You fail to leave. So might the sirens have worked their legendary seductive magic; not far away to the north are the waters where Odysseus lashed himself to the mast and stopped his sailors’ ears with beeswax so that he could hear the sirens’ song and live to tell the tale.
The murmur of Tropean surf on shore is itself something of a siren spell, but I reminded myself I was here for the bronzes, and finally, strapped into a shared people carrier, I swerved and bumped my way to Reggio Calabria. The ride took about an hour (the local train takes twice as long).
We navigated Scilla – Homer’s Scylla – its fortress and looming crag poised high above the shore, across the strait from gaping-mouthed Charybdis, and drove safely on, but alarm bells rang when I heard that the bronzes were not at present in the museum itself, but nearby, in the laboratorio.
They were in restauro – two words to strike dread into the heart of the visitor. The Piero della Francesca frescoes in Arezzo were in restauro for a decade before the wraps finally came off.
The land is littered with the broken hearts of visitors who travelled across the world to discover the object of their journey is indefinitely in restauro, behind closed doors or under plastic sheeting. I feared the worst.
Reggio itself proved an agreeable surprise: largely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1908, it’s a mix of architectural styles, the seafront elegant, a long, panoramic promenade lined with palm trees interspersed with rather pricey cafés.
We reach the laboratorio, and here they are, at long last, close enough to touch, though sealed off by a glass wall; not the looming figures I was expecting, larger than life, familiar from so many illustrations, but supine, cradled in protective wooden crossbeams, not resplendent, but fallen warriors, touching in their vulnerability.
Archeologists and historians have still not established their identity. Military heroes, say some; others suggest they could be athletes. Or possibly characters in a play by Euripides. Another theory places them as part of a group from Delphi.
There is, too, the mystery of how they came to be lying on the seabed off the Calabrian coast. Here, most experts are roughly in agreement: en route from Greece to Rome, caught in a storm, the statues were thrown from a ship to lighten its load – or possibly the rough seas dislodged them from their place on deck. No wreck was found on the seabed.
Marvels of the sculptors’ art, the pair have an intense humanity. Lifelike, natural, relaxed. Nothing stiff or emblematic. They could almost be turning to each other to exchange a word. And from March, we are assured, they will be upright once more, on new, improved earthquake-proof bases, in the Museo Nazionale.
Statues A and B, as they have come to be known, were almost certainly not by the same sculptor: statue A, the younger warrior could be the work of the leading Attic sculptor Myron, known for his mastery of movement and ability to capture a likeness, while B could be by Alkamenes, a pupil of Phidias. Each is a masterpiece.
I study their limbs, the muscles, veins and subtle hollows; the riotous curls and luxuriant beards.
Their eyes are inlaid ivory and glass, the teeth glint silver; eyelashes, lips and nipples are copper. As I peer more closely my breath clouds the glass; for a moment the prone figures are obscured, they seem to hover in a mist.
Spartan mothers sent their sons into battle instructing them to come back with their shields – or on them. Death or glory. The Riace heroes have lost their shields, fists clenched around what once were handles. But they retain their glory.
So, at last, I have seen the bronzes. Not in their arrogant splendour; that was a disappointment, yes, but the statues themselves could never disappoint.
And besides, had I not gone to Calabria I would have missed the serendipitous discovery of Tropea, never tasted the local sweet red onions or seen the setting sun sink into the open mouth of Stromboli