THE Museum of Fine Arts Universal Art collection is exhibiting, for the first time in Cuba and in Latin America, 23 chalcographies depicting friezes from the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae, Greece, accompanied by plaster casts of three blocks of friezes, donated by the Winckelmann Institute.
The engravings, which are part of the Julio Lobo collection, were published in a limited edition in 1814 in Rome, based on drawings made on-site by the German Martin von Wagner (1777-1858).
Thanks to his audacity —because Von Wagner drew and edited without the consent of archeologists— humanity can now enjoy this exquisite sculptural art from the Classical Greek period.
A World Heritage Site since 1886, the Temple of Apollo Epicurius (he was given this surname, which can mean rescuer or liberator, either for having supported the citizens of Arcadia in their fight against Sparta, or for having protected them against the plague during the Peloponnesian War) at Bassae is one of the most-studied buildings from ancient Greece because of its uncommon characteristics.
In the first place, it is aligned in a north-south direction, in contrast to the majority of Greek temples, which are east-west. This position is owing to the very small amount of space available on the steep, narrow mountainsides. To compensate for this difficulty, the building has an opening in its east wall to let in light, which moreover illuminated the statue of its deity.
Another unique characteristic was its decor, which includes the three classic orders – Doric columns on the peristyle, Ionic in the portico and Corinthian in the interior. While its exterior is little-adorned, its interior exhibits the friezes that now, in engravings and plaster casts, may be seen in Havana, the 23 blocks with scenes of battles, Greeks against Amazons and centaurs.
The temple in honor of Apollo was planned by Ictinus, the creator of no less than the Parthenon, in Athens. The temple is believed to have been built between 450 and 425 B.C.
The location of the Temple of Apollo Epicurius was located in a mountainous area of Peloponnesia that contributed to its preservation, far away from wars and even the acid rain that is wearing down other monuments close to major cities.
While it was discovered in the 18th century, excavation did not begin until 1810 by scientists Charles Robert Cockerell and Otto Magnus von Stackelberg. More thorough investigation was done in 1836, and the oldest Corinthian capitals were revealed.
Unfortunately for Greek culture, the 23 friezes in marble were taken away by Cockerell in 1815 to the British Museum, where they are now on exhibit, together with the famous Elgin Marbles collection of friezes that were also taken away, from the Parthenon.
Since the great Greek actress Melina Mercouri was minister of culture, Greece has justly demanded their return, given they are part of the country’s heritage.
It was precisely from those originals now in London that the Winckelmann Institute in Berlin proceeded to make the plaster casts, and it made three to donate to the Dihigo Musuem of the University of Havana, which has lent them to the Museum of Fine Arts to accompany the significant exhibition of 23 engravings.
Regarding the exhibition and some explanations, we talked with María Amelia Castro, a Greek art specialist at the museum.
What kind of relations exist between the Museum of Fine Arts and the Winckelmann?
"The Winckelmann Institute for the study of classic archeology at Humboldt University in Berlin has provided us with scientific advisement for many years, not just for this exhibition, but for previous projects. We even have a great joint project – the publication of a well-reasoned catalog of the entire Lagunilla Collection, our great collection of ancient art. At the Winckelmann Institute, we carried out the entire investigation related to this exhibition; it provided us with a bibliography, viewing similar engravings, meeting with specialists. It is scientific help that goes back many years."
Tell us about the donation.
"The plaster casts are exceptionally valuable. While they are not works of art in and of themselves, they are reproduced on a scale that allows those of us who cannot travel to all of the museums in the world to appreciate the work in its original size, its main characteristics and above all its texture, in its projection. Moreover, these are not just any, commercial-type plaster casts that are made on a mass scale; their molds were taken from the originals in the 19th century, during the time that they were sold to the British Museum in London. This is something that cannot be repeated, because molds will never again be taken from those originals. The Winckelmann Institute, which possesses one of the best collections of plaster casts in Europe, has the molds, and reproduced three of these fragments for us, donated to the Faculty of Arts and Literature, which is where the plaster cast museum is. They will be used the entire time as a theoretical and technical support for the exhibition, and when it closes on May 26, they will be returned to the University of Havana’s Dihigo Museum, where they can always be studied."
It complements the exhibition…
"That’s right. We present the engravings, and with those three plaster casts, we give the public the opportunity to compare the engraving with the natural size of the fragments, and they can recognize many aspects."
A lot is owing to Von Wagner…
"The Temple of Apollo Epicurius is so unique, with such an importance and specific particularities, that of course there is a large bibliography, many publications. There are excellent photos, lithographs, everything offered by technology, but the first one to draw it, there, at the foot of the fragment, was Martin von Wagner, who later became a draftsman and a representative of King Louis of Bavaria to try to buy a fragment. Von Wagner became an important figure, a great collector, architect, engraver and painter. There is a museum named after him in Germany."
The engravings belong to the Julio Lobo Collection…
"The file with these engravings using the chalcography technique, according to the data in our archives, entered the National Museum in 1972. In effect, their origin is the National Library’s Julio Lobo Collection, which had it in its care, and probably because of its characteristics, it became part of the Museum of Fine Art’s collections. Now these engravings are going to be exhibited for the first time in Cuba, and I am sure for the first time in Latin America, because it was a limited and special edition in the early 19th century. I have seen two similar copies in very specialized libraries in Europe."
The exhibition "Engravings of the friezes from the Temple of Apollo Epicurius," in the temporary exhibition gallery on the fourth floor of the Universal Art building, may be seen from April 4 to May 26.
An interesting webpage on the temple, with excerpts from folks who have visited it, notes (inter alia):
It remained undiscovered because of its isolation, until a French architect came upon it accidentally in 1765 and brought it to the attention of the academic world; the archeological investigation were profitable but prejudicial to the integrity of the monument, that was divested of the internal architrave of the cella, with the Ionic 22 frieze’s sculptured plates (with the Centauromachy and the Amazonomachy, maybe sculpted by Kallimachos), acquired in 1814 by order of the future king George IV of England and transferred to the British Museum with the oldest Corinthian capital. It was restored in 1902 and in 1965 and is now entirely shored up and covered by a tent (the restoration and consolidation works continue), because its critical state.