About 5 years ago, I wrote about the Riace Bronzes, which are perhaps the most famous classical bronze statues in Italy today. The post, The Mysteries of the Riace Bronzes (February 2017), listed the questions that emerged after a deep-sea diver discovered the two youths in 1972 in the Ionian waters off the coast of Riace in the region of Calabria: Who were these two figures? Where did they come from? Who created them? Were they smuggled or lost in a shipwreck? Where were they headed?
Many theories abound about the origins of the bronzes. However, many experts today believe that they were created in Argos and Athens, in the workshops of the best artists of antiquity, during the fifth century BC. Now, more than 2,000 years after their creation and 50 years since they were rediscovered, new mysteries have been added, and, thanks to restoration work, new information has come to light.
The team of archaeologists who brought Warrior A and Warrior B, as they were later christened, to the surface from the sea floor noticed something strange. There were no other signs of other antique artifacts in the area. That made the presence of the bronzes there seem quite odd. Porto Foricchio, the nearby port, had been in use in antiquity, but there is little information about its role. Was there a link between the port and the bronzes in terms of origin or destination?
Back in 1972, the scuba diver who first discovered the bronzes said that he had seen a group of statues, one of them with arms wide open and a foot in front of the other. However, this description does not correspond to either Warrior A or Warrior B. Are there more bronzes to be discovered?
After their extraction from the Ionian waters, the bronzes received extensive conservation work in Florence beginning in 1975. A thorough cleaning and study enabled experts to find out how they were made. Despite expert conservation, the health of the bronzes remained at risk: both statues had been filled with sediment during centuries under the sea, and had been soaked in water and salt that corroded the bronze. Two interventions in Reggio Calabria—between 1992 and 1995, and between 2010 and 2013—removed the dangerous sediments and left the statues at half the weight from that of 1972.
Conservation revealed a lot about the original coloring of the bronzes. There was a red hue to both their lips and their nipples. Their eyes were made with glass paste and calcite with small, pink stones for tear ducts. One warrior had teeth made of silver. What surprised restorers and archaeologists the most was the way that their hair and beards were rendered; the alloy used gave them a golden hue, which means that they were both blonde.
Thanks to modern archaeometry, which is the study of ancient materials to date artifacts, the statues were made in the Peloponnesus and then transported to Rome. According to the Anthologia Palatina, a collection of Greek epigrams dating from the 10th century, Emperor Constantine wanted an ancient Greek sculptural group that was housed in Rome to be moved to the new capital, Constantinople in the early 4th century AD. Warrior A and B were most likely part of the collection that never reached the Middle East but sank near Riace.
Other warriors? Riace’s mayor announced that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the rediscovery of the two bronzes, a new archaeological “dig” will be carried out in 2022 in the hopes of finding more artifacts. Throughout this year, Reggio Calabria and all of Italy will celebrate the warriors with events and seminars. The center of Reggio Calabria will become an open-air archaeological museum. From October 2022 through 2023, events will continue across Italy and Europe dedicated to Magna Graecia—the coastal areas of Southern Italy in the present-day regions of Calabria, Apulia, Basilicata, Campania and Sicily that were populated by Greek settlers. At the heart of the celebrations will be these ancient warriors, symbols of strength, beauty, and a glorious past.