Zeus’s Athletes: Sports in antiquity

Mendrisio Museum of Art, Canton Ticino, Switzerland

September 12, 2009 – January 10, 2010

The Mendrisio Museum of Art presents a large exhibition dedicated to the art of the  classical antiquity.

Organized on the occasion of the World Cycling-Road Race Championship in Mendrisio, the theme of the exhibition is the figure of the athlete.

Through 150 objects – from sculpture to vascular art, from bronze to small terrecotta – the importance of the figure of the athlete and its gesture is inquired in art, as they have been conceived from the origin of the western culture and therefore handed on, without mutations, till nowdays.

An exhibition that, among torsos, heads, amphoras, bronzes, goblets and typical objects of the world of the arenas, aims to recall all the fascination of the world of sports in antiquity, its values and its mythical history.

It is the first time that Ticino hosts, in the spaces of the renewed and widened complex of Saint Giovanni in Mendrisio, an exhibition of classical antiquities of a such an amplitude, with the arrival of extraordinary pieces from the archaeological collections of some of the greatest European museums: Augst, Basel, Bern, Dresda, Erlangen, Frankfurt, Geneva, Karlsruhe, Kassel, Lausanne, Monaco, Wurzburg and Zurich.

In ancient Greece the sporting activities assume a predominant role in the formation of the individual and are a decisive element in the structuring of the social tissue of the time.

In the Iliad (end VIII B.C.) the funeral games dedicated to Patroclus serve to guarantee the cohesion of the community and, at the same time, they confirm the excellence of the heroes. With the concept of kalos kai agathos (beautiful and good) an absolute male ideal is formed, where the aesthetic aspect is a direct inheritance of the heroic mentality. For this reason the victorious athlete, in the Greek society, benefits of that epic aura: his victories give honour to the community he belongs, which -more or less implicitly- elects him as its “champion” and the figure that represents it in the the most dignified way.

On the background of the Classical Greece, polulated with athletes occupied with intense training, with a life of physical exercises, with contests and victories in the traditional olympic disciplines, the stories narrated by Homer take life: the stories of the great Odysseus, of Aias the son of Telamon, of Antilochus, of the courageous Diomedes and of other heroes of the Iliad. But first among all, still before Homer’s heroes, the mithological figure of Hercules, son of Zeus, appears as the one who for the first time traced the lines of a sacred field, dedicating it to his father and consecrating it to sport and cult.

From a section concentrated on the origins in myth and in history, rich of masterpieces – the Amphora of the geometric period (II half VIII B.C. Institut für Klassische Archäologie di Elangen), another Amphora (570 B.C., d’art et d’histoire di Ginevra) or the athenian goblet of black figures (550 B.C., Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig) – and animated by some works of other ancient civilizations (egyptian, assyrian, nuragic), we pass to the sport disciplines, to the preparation in the arena, the contests and the victories.

Beside the disciplines of the athlets (the foot race, the jumping, the javelin, the pentathlon) competitions as boxing, the pankration (the fight in which it was only forbidden to bite, to scratch and to blind) and the horse contests, find wide space. All classic olympic disciplines, documented in masterpieces as the panathenian Amphora with the wrestlers, work of Exekias (540-535 B.C., Badisches Landesmuseum di Karlsruhe), the Discobolos in bronze of the roman age, inspired by its original  of Myron (450 B.C., Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek di Monaco) or the Goblet painted by Makron, attican ceramic with red figures (490 B.C., Museo Olimpico di Losanna).

The exhibition is decorated also with other masterpieces, among which the famous  Choe of the Painter of Achilles (480-440 a.C., Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig) or the splendid Head of Diadumenos, a roman copy of Polykleitos (420 B.C., Museumslandschaft Hessen di Kassel) or the Panathenian Amphora with wrestlers, attican ceramic with black figures of the Painter of Berlin 1833 (490 B.C., Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek di Monaco) or the Amphora with the portrait of a winner, work of the Painter of Hearst (425-400 a.C., Hellas et Roma di Ginevra), and other interesting findings as the Crown (IV-III B.C.), a Tripod in bronze of the age of Homer (750 B.C.), prize for a winner, an ancient Disc in bronze, or the Hand of a boxer with “caestus” (a first ancient glove) in marble of the roman age that reminds of the cruel encounters painted with great realism by the ancients on vases and amphoras.

A catalogue published by Silvana in collaboration with the Museum of Mendrisio, with 310 images and of 12 contributions, accompanies the exhibition, emphasizing the aesthetic and historical qualities of the object, and concentrating on the figure of the athlete, tragic and heroic, and on the aesthetic and moral ideal that for centuries he bears.

The exhibition is being promoted by the Town of Mendrisio and supported by the International Cycling Union (UCI),  the Bank of the Canton Ticino,  the tourist Agency of Mendrisio and  the Foundation Winterhalter.

Translation from the website of the Mendrisio Museum of Art.

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