The Italian Almanac

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Riace bronzes

Secrets of the Bronzes

The team overseeing the restoration of the famed Riace Bronzes has been given permission to embark on a host of tests this September. Chemical, laser and electromagnetic testing will all be applied to the statues to give restorers a clearer idea of where they came from and who created them. The first phase in the program is already under way, with experts mapping out the precise areas to be studied in detail.

The initiative is particularly exciting for those involved as the statues are usually kept under tight lock and key. The Bronzes had not moved from their permanent home in the Reggio Calabria National Museum for 28 years, despite repeated requests.

The Riace Bronzes, last let out in 1981 for a triumphant round-Italy tour, are currently housed in the Calabrian regional government headquarters, where they were transferred for a long-awaited restoration project. They are being kept inside a purpose-built area with a glass front through which visitors are able to follow the delicate restoration work. Over 80,000 people have visited the bronzes in their temporary home, since the project opened to visitors in January. Meanwhile, a complex 'life support system' is being put in place ahead of the testing program to ensure the 2,500-year-old sculptures are subjected to minimal 'stress'.

The Bronzes were discovered in 1972 by a Roman holidaymaker scuba diving off the Calabrian coast and turned out to be one of Italy's most important archaeological finds in the last 100 years. The statues are of two virile men, presumably warriors or gods, who possibly held lances and shields at one time. At around two metres, they are larger than life. The 'older' man, known as Riace B, wears a helmet, while the 'younger' Riace A has nothing covering his rippling hair. Both are naked. Although the statues are cast in bronze, they feature silver lashes and teeth, copper red lips and nipples, and eyes made of ivory, limestone and a glass and amber paste.

Italy has the world's biggest trove of archeological treasures but the Riace Bronzes attracted particular attention. This was partly due to their exceptionally realistic rendering and partly to the general rarity of ancient bronze statues, which tended to be melted down and recycled.