Things I Didn’t Know, Art History Edition: The Colossus

 This blog series is an excuse to keep track of all the random tidbits we uncover in our day-to-day life as students, guides, teachers, and just generally interested and curious people. I know it is not everyone’s prerogative to find out exactly how renaissance babies were swaddled, what 16th century widows wore, or what famous members of the Medici family did with their free time, just to better understand a work of art. So I will spare you our endless Early Modern machinations and just give you the good stuff.
The Colossus (of Rome, Rhodes, and New York):
We’re heading down to Rome tomorrow for a whirlwind tour of the sites and doing some requisite brushing up on our notes. While discussing the Flavian Amphitheater, aka the Colosseum, and the origins of this now ubiquitous nickname, I realized there were some holes in my knowledge that needed plugging up. One question lead to the next and suddenly I had gone from a colossus in Rome to images of a lost colossus in Rhodes, back home to New York to a colossus I too often forget.

Let’s begin in Rome. The Falvian Amphiteahter (Amphitheatrum Flavium), so named after the dynasty that erected it, was constructed (in record speed) between the years 72-80AD.
Shortly before they began this awe-inspiring structure, and just down the road, Emperor Nero (the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty) was making a 30 meter (100 foot, 107 roman feet) bronze statue of himself that would come to be called The Colossus Neronis. When it was finished in 68AD it was erected in a large atrium of Nero’s Domus Aurea, his imperial villa complex, essentially dividing his private home from the city outside.

Left: The Colossus of Nero statue erected next to the Colosseum in Rome; Right: Coin of Emperor Gordian III (238-244 AD), the reverse of which depicts the Flavian amphitheater with the  colossus of Nero.

Left: The Colossus of Nero statue erected next to the Colosseum in Rome; Right: Coin of Emperor Gordian III (238-244 AD), the reverse of which depicts the Flavian amphitheater with the colossus of Nero.

Shortly after Nero’s death in that same year, the Emperor Vespasian added a crown decorated with rays of sunlight and renamed it the Colossus Solis, after the Roman sun god Helios (Sol). Later succeeding emperors would place their own heads atop the colossus just in time to have their successor take it down to make room for their own. Around 128AD, Emperor Hadrian had the statue moved from its original location outside Nero’s Villa to the northwest corner of the Falvian Amphitheater (at this time, this was its only name…though we may speculate people called it the “flav” or something catchy like that). Moving this massive statue required the use of no less than 24 elephants and, no doubt, innumerable slaves.
It was from this Colossus Nero/Helios/your-typical-narcissistic-emperor, that the Flavian Amphitheater got its (initially, nick-) name the Colosseum. The name referred simply to the building’s close proximity to the colossus statue. It’s unclear when the sculpture was destroyed, but it was late enough that most people had forgotten the origin of the nickname. The word “Colosseum” (colosseo in Italian) now refers specifically to this amphitheater in downtown ancient Rome. Our latest literary source of the now practically forgotten colossus statue is this 8th century epigram attributed to the Venerable Bede: Quamdiu stat Colisæus, stat et Roma; quando cadet colisæus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus (“as long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world”). While Rome did fall and so did the Colossus, the world went on (albeit it had a killer hangover to deal with). However, the Colossus Nero was only one piece in a very old and interesting theme in history.
Left: Colossus of Rhodes by Martin Heemskerck; Right: Artist impression of Colossus of Rhodes, illustrated in the Grolier Society's 1911 Book of Knowledge.

Left: Colossus of Rhodes by Martin Heemskerck; Right: Artist impression of Colossus of Rhodes, illustrated in the Grolier Society’s 1911 Book of Knowledge.

Flashback to ancient Rhodes where, in the 3rd century BC, another colossus loomed over the city’s harbor. The statue of Nero, who gave its name to the Colosseum, was inspired by and possible named after this earlier colossus of the Greek god Helios (making it basically the Colosseum’s granddad). Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, this colossus is described in the words of the great Roman authors Philo and Pliny who saw it first hand and later printed and painted in the highly imaginative minds of the of the artists of middle ages and the Renaissance.
The colossus was erected in the city of Rhodes on the Greek island of Rhodes between 292 and 280 BC. Supposedly by the artist Chares of Lindos, student of the great Lysippos, the colossus stood over 30 meters (100 feet) high, making it one of the tallest statues of the ancient world and requiring twelve years for its completion. Dedicated to Rhodes’ patron god, Helios (God of the Sun), the statue was built to celebrate Rhodes’ victory over the ruler of Cyprus in 305 BC. The money to build the massive monument was obtained through the sale of the deserted equipment left by their vanquished enemy. The statue stood for 56 years until Rhodes suffered a devastating earthquake in 226BC.
It seems that the Rhodian Colossus may have cheated, just a wee bit, in the height department. The Colossus stood on 15 meter (50 foot) high white marble pedestals, giving the statue a total of height of 45 meters (150 feet). The monument’s exact location is still debated, but was likely somewhere near the harbor entrance or else in the harbor itself. The supposed dedication text speaks of the “bronze statue reaching to Olympus,” in its height and to whom “belongs dominion over sea and land.”
Maerten van Heemskerck, Self-Portrait in Rome with the Colosseum 1553, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Maerten van Heemskerck, Self-Portrait in Rome with the Colosseum 1553, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

From this poetic reference to the Colossus “over sea and land” came the later, completely invented, standing position of the statue literally over the harbor entrance. Images of him straddling the harbor with vessels below, for example in a 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck, were proliferated throughout the Renaissance. Aside from this design likely being too difficult to construct with ancient engineering technology, a statue of this kind would have buckled under its own weight well before it reached this stage of completion. Heemskerck’s image was part of series of the Seven Wonders of the World, which, interestingly, included an additional eighth wonder, the Colosseum in Rome. Unlike the rest of his imagined wonders, Heemskerck showed the Colosseum as it looked in his day, in ruins.
Once the Colossus of Rhodes had fallen in the earthquake in 226, its ruins were left to act as a tourist trap of their own for another 800 years. They are even described by Strabo and Pliny the Elder, the latter remarking that someone standing next to the fallen hands could not even wrap their arms around the circumference of the thumb and that each of its individual fingers were larger than most statues.
Left: The Colossus of Rhodes depicted in 1880; Right: Statue of Liberty

Left: The Colossus of Rhodes depicted in 1880; Right: Statue of Liberty

Fast forward to late 19th Century, New York City, where the Statue of Liberty is being installed on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. Looking at the above image, a reconstruction of the Colossus of Rhodes by 19th century engineers (using their understanding of building technology in 3rd Century BC), we can see that, perhaps, Lady Liberty’s design and pose were based on modern historical imagination. We know the artist, Frédéric Bartholdi, had the Colossus of Rhodes in mind for other earlier projects, in particular one in which the form of an ancient Egyptian female acted as a lighthouse just as the Greek god in Rhodes had stood at a harbor with a light to guide ships. Similarly Lady Liberty guides those lost souls into her harbor with her torch. The most direct reference to this ancient inspiration is, of course, her diadem. This detail, which breaks from other iconography used for the goddess Liberty, shows the Lady crowned like Helios with the rays of sunlight that were found on both the Colossus of Rhodes and later the Colossus of Nero. Looking at the Statue of Liberty, we might easily reference a section from the original dedication of the Colossus at Rhodes: “Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence.”
From Rhodes, to Rome, to New York, each colossus would come to represent the identity of a city, spreading ideas of victory, decadence, and freedom.
In Rhodes, there has been talk of actually attempting to rebuild the Colossus. I can’t say I wouldn’t be a wee bit curious and, of course, tourism is a big reason behind the idea. However, the hefty sum it would cost has put the breaks on this plan for many years. In as late as November 2008, it was announced that funding had finally been procured to rebuild one of the seven wonders of the world. Though not quite as the original builders had done 2300 years ago. First of all, this new sculpture will be at least twice as large, ranging from 60- 100 meters and big enough for people to actually walk inside. Second, instead of construction consisting mostly of mud and bronze, this will be a “light sculpture” or, essentially, a light installation. Of course, twice the size means twice the cost and it is estimated the final bill will come in at roughly €200m, a sum that will be fronted by several international donors including a German artist named Gert Hof.
Whether it happens or not (I have not been able to find any further or later information on the progress of the project), I think the third deviation from the original was my favorite part of the concept. Unlike the original, which was built using the money sold from weapons, this colossus will be built using the weapons themselves. Referring to the ancient version’s symbolic message of peace, this colossus will me made using the metal of melted-down weapons from around the world.

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