Oliver Gilkes contemplates an ancient masterpiece plucked from the sea.
The modern town of Mazara del Vallo lies on the south-western coast of Sicily. Created as a Phoenician outpost, it became a border post lying between the Phoenician and Carthaginian entrepôt at Motya/Marsala and the westernmost Greek colony at Selinunte. The medieval Arab conquerors appreciated its proximity to North Africa, and thus it became a major political and cultural centre as well as a working harbour. Its historic centre contains a number of typical Arab-Norman Sicilian treasures.
Its modern fortunes have not been so kind, as it has suffered economic decline and troubling social issues. Yet it remains a major fishing port and recent immigration from North Africa means the old traditional centre of the town, the Casbah, has a Berber and Muslim population again. Investment by regional governments has spruced up the city and it proudly displays one of Sicily’s most remarkable ancient treasures: the Dancing Satyr.
The Church of St Egidio is a solid, blocky Arab-Norman style building dating to the 14th century, capped by two traditional red domes. Below the crossing, on a special anti-seismic base, rather pointless in view of the ancient stone vaulting arching overhead, is the lone bronze sculpture of the dancing satyr. The town’s fishermen were responsible for its recovery in 1998, when it became tangled in their nets and was hauled aboard.
An understandable desire by many to see this as an original 4th-century BC work by the sculptor Praxiteles has, on sober reflection, given way to the conclusion that it is much more likely to have been part of a 3rd- or 2nd-century BC Dionysiac group of satyrs with accompanying maenads dancing in wild abandon.
The sea has taken its tithe of bronze, leaving a tattered hollow figure, which was pieced back together by the Central Conservation Institute in Rome. Tattered it may be, but the sculptor’s intent has endured, leaving an almost elemental figure, its interrupted form giving unexpected power and strength. The posture of orgiastic Bacchic frenzy, with head thrown back and arms spread wide, is now transformed into a feat of magical acrobatics as it vaults across the empty space of the church.
Studies in bronze
Sicily and southern Italy has a habit of producing unexpected masterpieces, from excavations, recovered loot, or chance finds. A number have come from the sea, which – in the case of bronze figures (always considered acme by ancient connoisseurs) – has preserved what was melted down on land. Some originated in wrecks, others from buildings on fast-eroding coasts, ancient votives, or as the result of battles. Most famous are the Riace bronzes, the two giant warriors, this time universally agreed to be 5th century in date, found by a sponge diver off the Calabrian coast. Now beautifully restored, they are in the National Museum in Reggio Calabria, a short ferry ride from Messina in Sicily, in a special climate-controlled sanctum. Another is the ‘victorious youth’ recovered in the Adriatic by Italian fishermen and purchased by John Paul Getty. While it may have come from international waters, the Italian state has laid a claim. More prosaic are the Bronze ramming beaks, Roman and Carthaginian, the principal armament of an ancient warship, that have been found off the Aegadian Islands in western Sicily, where in 241 BC Gaius Lutatius Catulus crushed the Carthaginian fleet and ended the First Punic War.
Bronze does not make all the running, though: marble gets a look-in too. The Charioteer of Motya, an extraordinary Geek sculpture probably taken as booty by the Carthaginians during the war of 409 BC, was used as part of a barricade during the last desperate defence of the island fortress of Motya against the avenging leagued Hellenic cities. Additionally, the grand ‘Goddess of Aidone’, generally seen as a statue of Demeter searching the world for her stolen daughter Persephone, is a 4th-century BC original carved by a Sicilian master. It was illegally excavated at the site of Morgantina, and sold, but recovered by the Italian state from the Getty Museum following a long legal dispute. It can now be seen at the museum in Aidone.
These latter sculptures have seized the limelight from the fragmentary satyr, leaping its magical and solitary revel in St Egidio’s nave. Nevertheless, to me it is the most beguiling of all the sculptures that have come from Sicily’s coasts and hills in recent decades. If you get an opportunity, do pay him a visit.
The Dancing Satyr
Address: Piazza Plebiscito, Chiesa di Sant’Egidio, 91026 Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, Italy
Open: 9am-4pm Tuesday to Saturday, 9am-noon Sundays and holidays (COVID-19 restrictions permitting)
This article appeared in issue 105 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazin