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Designing a colossus


Heliodromus

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You may want to get a snack, or just click "exit" 🙂

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We've already discussed this reconstructed Colossal Constantine that has just been put on display in Rome, but I think it's interesting to look at it a little closer and realize what an interpretive work this is. I'm really not sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, in broad strokes, it's roughly what it would have looked like - a 40ft high seated Constantine - probably best appreciated in person (I imagine) for it's visceral effect due to sheer size. On the other hand, once you go beyond these seated emperor basics, the details that would make it interesting - just how is Constantine depicting himself at this date - are all conjecture, maybe not even particularly well informed conjecture.

The reconstruction was made by Factum Foundation, whose founder Adam Lowe, has made these comments about it:

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We’re not trying to build a fake object,” Lowe adds. “We’re trying to build something that physically and emotionally engages and that intellectually stimulates you

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It’s somewhere between documenting and recreating and interpreting,” Lowe tells Euronews’ Theo Farrant. “But I really hope that this is the beginning of a revolution about how to share and how to show

So, at least he's not trying to claim that it's necessarily historically accurate, although I'd imagine the casual viewing public will just assume that it is.

To understand just how much of this is conjecture, let's look at the key surviving pieces this is based on.

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That's it. So, other than scale, and an identity/head of Constantine, all we have is that it was a seated figure (per the bent knee), with right arm bent, and a right hand in a grasping/pointing pose (more on that later). There is no indication of clothing, although this being an emperor it's reasonable to assume that he wasn't naked, not that they were always so modest. There are also a couple of bare feet and an ankle, but these don't add any additional information beyond the pose of the feet. The head has slots cut at the temple on either side, which might indicate some type of attached headwear..

So, based on these known facts, the statue might minimally have looked something like this one of Claudius (from Palermo), but with raised right arm rather than left. Of course we know that these depictions are basically depicting the emperor as Zeus, so the raised hand might generically be assumed to be holding a sceptre.

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Moving on from what is actually known about the statue, per the fragments, let's see how Factum Foundation proceeded with the reconstruction (or however one might choose to characterize it).

For reasons they haven't shared, Factum chose three specific statues as inspiration for how to pose Constantine in this recreation. In the end the specific choices aren't really important since elements of each were copied, and others ignored. The statues used as inspiration were the Augustus-as-Zeus from the Hermitage (St. Petersberg, Russia), the seated Claudius from the Ara Pacis, and the seated Hercules from the Palazzo Altemps. The latter two were "3-D scanned" along with the surviving pieces of the statue itself.

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Some of the reporting has the Factum statue based on the pose of the Ara Pacis Claudius, which may have been the original intention per a poster at Factum's workshop shown in their video, but evidentially this was subsequently changed to use the Palazzo Altempts Hercules as the base figure, with only the drapery copied from Claudius (mirror flipped per Constantine's bare right knee). This type of heroic bare chested seated pose already suggests Zeus, and any inspiration from the Hermitage Augustus seems to have been in adopting that type of Zeus-like depiction.

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So far, so good, the emperor now has a body and some only slightly speculative drapery. But, now come the important details that will make this historically accurate (as far as can be guessed) or not. What is Constantine's raised/bent right arm and grasping/pointing right hand doing, and what is his (entirely missing) left arm and hand doing? Was something (wreath, etc) attached to his head?

Other than his arm being raised, and any historical considerations, the best clue as to what the right arm was doing comes from the hand, but this is where it starts to get tricky, since there are TWO right hands!! When the fragments of the statue were originally found by the basilca in 1486, a fragmented right had was found that had a missing index finger, and a "dowel" attachment recess at the TOP of the closed fist. Sometime after the pieces had been moved to their current location (by none other than Michaelangelo), the missing index finger was "restored", as was the habit at the time, with one in a pointing gesture. Until recently this hand has not been on display. Later, in 1744 another colossal hand, closely matching the first, was found "in the Capitol", but with this one having an attachment recess at the BOTTOM of the closed fist. This second (much more intact) hand is the one that has been on display in recent years at the Palazzo dei Conservatori courtyard.

Here are the two surviving hands, and the one that Factum ended up going with ...

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It seems to be generally assumed that the two right hands may represent both the original state, and a later modified one, of the statue, and one might therefore assume that the one found by the Basilica is the later one that had most recently been a part of the statue. In any case, this "later" hand, with it's renaissance index finger, is the one that Factum chose to use. The workshop poster shown above indicates they may have originally been intending to use the hand as-is with it's pointing index finger, but it seems that (maybe as part of hand selection) they had settled on his hand holding a sceptre, and didn't like the pointing finger (anyways a renaissance addition), so chose to change it to a curled one.

Choosing to use the assumed later hand has dating/depiction implications (what is Constantine holding, and wearing on his head), but there is no indication that Factum took this into consideration. Perhaps they didn't consider the existence of two right hands to have any significance ?

Having arrived at a Zeus-like emperor, now holding a sceptre, it seems natural that he should also be holding a globe (and not inconsistent with Constantine's pre-320 AD coinage showing him mirroring Sol, holding a globe), so in the absence of any surviving left hand Factum chose to copy the hand of the Capitoline bronze colossus, and give him a globe.

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Having Constantine holding a globe is reasonable speculation, but the execution of this seems questionable due to the choice to have his arm held out horizontally without any support, and the materials originally used. The Factum reconstruction is made out of light weight resin, with multiple parts connected to a metal core, and so material strength did not pose any constraint on how they posed him.

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In contrast, the original statue was composed of a brick core with solid marble extremities (arms, legs, head), and maybe some bronze elements (drapery, support?). The marble parts were massive and heavy. Another life-sized copy of the head was machined out of a 25 ton marble block for the Trier Landesmuseum in 2007, which gives some idea about the weight. An unsupported multi-ton marble arm+hand (+globe) attached to a brick core and held horizontal seems a very tall order! Even on much smaller marble statues, such as those shown above (Hercules, etc) it's common to see supports built in due to the limitations of the material, although in the Factum pose the problem would be more a matter of joint strength (joining arm to brick core).

It interesting to note that even using much lighter materials it seems supports may have been used. Phidias' Chryselephantine (ivory on wooden core) Olympian Zeus was posed with his arm resting on his throne, and his similar Athena (at the Acropolis) may have had support too.. the only copy I'm aware of is this marble one (the Varvakeion Athena) which stands a mere 1m tall (vs 12m original) and has thick arms a body builder would be proud of, yet rests her hand on a column which it seems may copy the original.

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The creator of the life-size Nashville Athena (in the Nashville Acropolis!) seems perhaps to have made the same mistake as Factum and using modern materials (an iron + aluminum core) eschewed any support for her arm. It seems highly questionable if a cyprus wood frame would have been rigid enough without the support suggested by the smaller copy.

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It's not apparent why Factum chose to have Constantine's globe-holding arm outstretched like that, but as well as seemingly impractical it looks uncomfortable and unnatural to me! It didn't have to be like that. Here's a similar Constantine-as-Zeus interpretation by U.Virginia that looks much more natural (and also has a decent length sceptre).

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Finally, there is the issue of dating the Colossal Constantine, and using historical knowledge to guide what he should really be holding (sceptre? globe?) and wearing on his head. Constantine had no love for Rome, and after establishing his new capital at Constantinople only visited Rome in 326 AD for his vicennelia, then maybe once again c.328 AD for the burial of Helena. Having gained control of Rome in 312 AD, it seems Constantine would have wanted to put his mark on the city as soon as possible, and take the enviable memory of "conservatori vrbs svae" (re: Maxentius' building program) away from the vanquished Maxentius. A natural step would have been to finish/modify Maxentius' basilica, and put his own colossal likeness inside. How long this work would have taken is debateable, but compared to the effort to build the immense basilica in the first place (done during Maxentius' brief reign?), it seems this type of statue could have been completed fairly quickly, so maybe a date on or before Constantine's decennalia in 315 AD is reasonable, or maybe even sooner c.313-314, with any design decisions of course having had to be made prior to construction.

At this sort of date, 313-315, one might expect Constantine to either be wearing a laurel wreath (too early for diadem), or conceivably a radiate crown if depicting himself as Sol. This would also be too early for a labarum, so a sceptre is certainly possible if the design was Constantine-as-Zeus which although a little odd wouldn't be so surprising for Rome and/or if the statue has been built for Maxentius in the first place. However, if we consider that the early hand with pointing finger and "dowel" recess at base was used at this stage, then maybe he wasn't holding a sceptre at all? It's hard to explain needing a whole new hand if one was just replacing one held staff-like object with another.

If we're assuming the 2nd/replacement right hand (the one found at the basilica) corresponds to a later modification of the statue, then the obvious question is why & when ... What would have changed with Constantine to make him want to update this earlier depiction? Why would he want to be holding something different necessitating a new hand? The most obvious answer might be that with his increasing Christian conviction, and confidence in expressing it, that he wanted to be holding a labarum, not depicted as Zeus or Sol. For him to make any bold statement would seem to imply a later date (we only see the labarum on his coins at Constantinople c.327 AD). One could speculate that it was during his rare vicennalial visit to Rome in 326 AD that he visited the basilica and decided to update the statue. At this date any earlier laurel wreath may also have been changed for a diadem which had just been introduced on his coinage.

It's hard to be certain about any of this, but certainly the date makes a big difference as far as how Constantine wanted to depict himself, and the two different right hands need an explanation.

To close, here's a rather wistful-looking Factum Foundation head honcho Adam Lowe contemplating his creation.

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Edited by Heliodromus
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Just a minor follow up.

There's a video here by Darius Arya on the statue that adds a couple of pieces of information I was unaware of.

1) All pieces of the statue are made from the same Parian marble. Other sources say it was a mix of Carerra and Parian marble, but Darius seems to emphasize this point, so I assume this is correct. The relevance is that Parian marble (from the Greek island of Pharos) is believed not to have been imported into Rome later than around Hadrian's time, so this would indicate the entire statue being of an older date.

2) There is scholarly belief (I'm not sure how widespread) that the statue originated as the cult statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximus from the capitoline hill, with the facial recutting that appears evident reflecting this being reworked (incl. beard removed) into the face of Constantine! This would certainly explain why Constantine is being depicted as a Zeus-like, and maybe also help motivate why he saw a later need to modify the statue.

If we accept that the right hand used for the reconstruction, and originally found by the basilica, comes from the later state of the statue (modified to be more like later Constantine, and less Zeus-like), then the sceptre (which wold have been correct for the earlier state, with the earlier hand) should probably really be a labarum, and Constantine be given a diadem. Alternatively they should have used the presumed earlier hand in keeping with this modified-IOM they went with.

There's a minor mistake in the video where Darius identifies the hand on display in the Capitoline courtyard as the one used for the statue, when you can clearly see from the finger lengths, grasped staff, etc, that this is the earlier (but found later) hand.

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