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Apollo Sauroktonos, or How the Romans Killed the Lizard-Killer
Associated to Place: AncientWorlds > Hellas > Attica > Athens > articles -- by * Dionysia Xanthippos (161 Articles), Historical Article 1 Featured May 24 , 2006
Undaunted by the reputation of two famous Roman copies in marble of Praxiteles' Lizard-Slaying Apollo, DIonysia gives them low marks and presses on to examine two beautiful but lesser-known versions in bronze.
"painted" Apollo sauroktonos 24k.jpg
The Louvre's Apollo Sauroktonos as "painted" by Michael Lahanas
Sitting by the sea in Genoa in 1888 with his new book, Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche felt that with his pen he had fixed fleeting insights "that easily flit by noiselessly, moments I call divine lizards but not with the cruelty of that young Greek god who simply speared the poor little lizard."

A rather tender-hearted sentiment from a writer who admired tough-minded blond beasts and the superman? And why didn't Nietzsche name Apollo the god who personified for him the ideal of serene Apollonian control in contrast to unbridled Dionysian passion? As a professor of classics Nietzsche knew who the god was. He'd seen, surely, the white marble version of Apollo the Lizard-Slayer in the Louvre. Perhaps also the one in Rome. And he surely knew what Pliny had written:

"Praxiteles also, though more successful and consequently better known as a worker in marble, created admirable works in bronze ...He made a young Apollo with an arrow watching a lizard as it creeps up with intent to slay it close at hand; this is known as the Sauroktonos or Lizard-slayer."

Though "Lizard-killer" is the plain sense of "Sauroktonos," the grander-sounding "Lizard-Slayer" better captures its satiric, mock-heroic allusion to the older Apollo, the Apollo Pythios, who with his bow and arrow was to slay the world dragon, the cosmic Python who guarded the sacred navel stone at Delphi that marked the center of the ancient world. But that was not, as in the Christian version of the myth (the War in Heaven between the Good and Bad Angels), an unmitigated triumph of Good over Evil. That serpent was sacred, and Apollo had to atone for killing it.

But back to earth: Like the feral cats that prowl my garden to stalk and kill lizards, the boy Apollo in this ancient sculpture likes to track, tease, and kill lizards. He lazily, languidly, watches a lizard crawl up a tree trunk while he aims an arrow or dart (now lost) in his right hand as from his left hand he dangles an insect or some other tempting tidbit to attract and distract him.

Some scholars read the scene more brutally. One sees the boy as holding a stone in his right hand, waiting to smash the lizard. Sir John Beazley, the famous Oxford scholar of Greek antiques, saw him as toying with a captive lizard tied to a string in his left hand, before spearing him with the other. Not very sporting, I'm afraid. "As flies to little boys, so we are to the gods"?

Yet Nietzsche is not alone in protesting young Apollo's wanton cruelty. Michael Lahanas, who has (as you see) prettied him up by colorizing the Louvre's marble copy in the way the Greeks would have painted their marbles, protests: "Why is Apollo trying to kill a small innocent lizard? Is he so brutal?"

It's not the boy and his cruel game that disgusts me, though. It's the statue. The plug-ugly, ham-handed way it was executed by Roman copyists and stone-carvers who had to redesign it to copy in marble a masterpiece that Praxiteles and his assistants must have made in bronze.


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The Louvre's marble copy of the Apollo Sauroktonos
Of the two most admired, or famous, marble Roman marble copies, the one in the Louvre and the one in the Vatican in Rome, let us start with the well-known copy in the Louvre. Here's how it actually looks:

This statue, one of the famous works of antiquity in the Louvre, is a marble Roman copy of a lost bronze by Praxiteles.

Note the usual stump up the rump (here a limb up behind the leg), plus another to support his trunk. And, oh dear, there's still a third one behind his arm. Not very visible in this view from the front, but pretty obvious from behind. One sign of an original Praxiteles is that his nude figures look just as good from the rear. With three tree branches across his back side, this one utterly flunks that test. Which explains why it's up against a wall. And why you never see a photo of it from the rear.


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The Vatican's marble copy of the Apollo Sauroktonos. photo University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
In the Vatican Apollo, a slimmer, more youthful-looking adolescent leans his whole upper body against the tree, bracing it with his outstretched left arm wedged between two lopped-off limbs at the top of its sawn-off trunk. But that part of his pose is awkard and unconvincing. If he needed the trunk for support, he would more likely be grabbing hold of the limb with his hand, not sticking it up in the air. In the Louvre version, and maybe in the original, that hand was dangling something to attract and distract the lizard. That the lizard here looks back at the boy, as if to return his inquisitive gaze, adds a psycholgical twist; but it lacks the narrative rationale for the upraised arm and hand, which provided a sort of cover story for its mechanical necessity. (By the way, though the Romans were squeamish about public nudity, the figleaf here was probably added after their conversion to Christianity under Constantine? I wish someone could tell me when this wretched practice began!)

On the plus side, with a lighter figure the fat and ugly tree trunk in the Louvre version is gone, and good-riddance. Yet the tree area looks cluttered and clumsy, especially the artificial-looking "limb" that sticks out from the bottom of the tree trunk. The middle strut is here dispensed with, but the larger "hole" between boy and tree, while less ugly than a strut, is to my taste an unpleasant void.

It looks as if no marble copy of the Apollo Sauroktonos can avoid being a ham-handed eyesore. We must either get rid of the tree, or use a lighter material. Or both.


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Apollo sauroktonos, bronze. Villa Albani, Rome
This is a bronze copy of Praxiteles' original bronze of the Apollo Sauroktonos. Found in a wine cellar under the Church of St. Balbino in Rome, it was bought by Cardinal Albani for his villa, where it remains today. Note the similar angle, especially of the tree trunk, to the Vatican's marble version. Now, I think, we are getting much closer to a real Praxitelean bronze.

After visiting the Villa Albani in 1858, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his Italian Notebook: "In one of the rooms there is a small bronze Apollo, supposed by Winckelmann to be an original of Praxiteles; but I could not make myself in the least sensible of its merit." That's odd. After visiting the Vatican's marble copy of Praxiteles' Resting Faun (the Barbarini Faun), Hawthorne was so thrilled he wrote a novel about it (The Marble Faun). Did his tepid response to the Albani bronze have anything to do with its diminitive size? By itself, the figure is just 3 feet high.

As for me, this little bronze is so superior in design and feeling to its famous rivals in marble, I'm inclined to agree with old Winckleman that it may be by Praxiteles himself. Except for one thing: its size. Since all the other figures attributed to, or copied from, Praxiteles, (including the only consensus original, the Hermes with the Infant Dionysos), are all life-size, i.e. four or five feet tall, the Albani bronze is probably not from his hand.

And now there is a more compelling candidate for being the original Lizard-Slaying bronze Apollo.


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Apollo Sauroktonos in bronze. The Cleveland Art Museum. Photo C.H. Pete Copleland/The Plain Dealer
It was bought two years ago by the Cleveland Museum of Art for $5 million, and displayed with great fanfare as a world-class coup. Last month the museum was to have hosted a symposium where experts weighed in on whether it might be from the time of, if not the hand of, Praxiteles. But on April 20 the museum postponed the meeting, announcing their Apollo would be lent to the Louvre next spring, where European scholars could examine it.

Cleveland claims its Apollo is "the world's only known large bronze version" of the Lizard Slayer. "Large" here must mean "over three feet," if the Villa Albani bronze is the only rival. Five feet high, the Cleveland bronze is also the most leaning of the four Apollos shown here. Since the tree is missing, it shows no visible means of support. And while this is mainly due to the lightness of its hollow bronze, I suspect a steel rod has been inserted into its right leg and bolted to the stone base through a hole in the metal plate. (Classical sculptors often cast the front of one foot separately, then fastened it with molten lead to a stone base before welding it onto the leg.)

Missing also are the right arm below the elbow, and the left arm from the shoulder, though its hand and part of its forearm still exist detached. These parts, like the lower legs and feet, were probably cast separately, which is why some were lost when the welds finally failed. Like other ancient bronzes, the Lizard Slayer was cast in pieces that were later welded together. And because labor was cheaper than bronze, castings were often so thin they needed patching.

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Bronze lizard from Cleveland's Apollo Sauroktonos. Photo The Cleveland Museum of Art
However, this beautiful bronze has comparatively thick castings, which is probably why so much of it survives. Even though it was found, in 1994, not in the sea but in pieces in a garden in East Germany, it still has its inlaid copper lips and nipples, plus one of its marble eyes. And while the laurel tree Apollo was leaning against may be lost forever, the lizard that was welded to it survives. Here it is, poised as if returning Apollo's gaze, forever defying him to catch and kill him:

~ Table of Contents ~
Fatal Boar Hunts, Fatal Loves: Meleager & Adonis
A Valentine for Camille Flammarion
The Met returns its Euphronios vase!
Camille Flammarion: Romantic Astronomer
The Fountains of Enceladus
The Eye of God
Is Ganymede the Boy from Marathon Bay?
Which satyr would you choose...
The Marathon Boy and the Satyr
Contrapossto from Praxiteles to Rubens and Playboy
The Dancing Satyr - A Lost Bronze of Praxiteles?
Hermes, The Liar Who Invented the Lyre
Inanna Adored: The Uruk Vase
The Moon-God Nanna-Sin Visits his Ziggurat at Ur
Jacob's Ladder
Lilith: Wild Demon of Sex and Death
The Sun God in his Dragon Boat
Lassalle's Post-Modern Male Torso
Brancusi's Torsos: Pure Platonic Forms?
Brancusi on Men and Women: Take the Tate Test?
Four Gods Greet the Rising Sun God
Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo
Culsu & Vanth Lead the Dead into Hades
Aita, the Etruscan Hades
Socrates' Apology: The Background
Hypnos & Thanatos, Sleep & Death
Orestes Pursued by Furies in The Eumenides
Orestes Kills Clytemnestra & Aegisthus
Posted May 15, 2006 - 21:26 , Last Edited: May 25, 2006 - 21:39

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