The Hope Athena is a Roman 2nd century AD copy after a Greek original of the late 5th century BC. It was named Hope Athena in honor of Thomas Hope, the man who paid for the excavation of the statue and its placement in a museum. It is made of white marble. The article The Hope Athena in Los Angeles County Museum website suggests it measures 86 x 28 x 22 1/2 inches. A standing, youthful woman is represented. Her head is a bit tilted forward and her gaze seems pensive, calm and serene almost as if she is in the process of thinking. Both her eyes are missing something which suggests that they were originally inlaid with another material. On her head she is wearing a helmet which covers part of her hair, while the rest flows freely on her back and chest. Her nose has been damaged while both her arms are missing. Her dress is full of drapes and folds and covers all her body down to her feet both of which are visible to the viewer. Her left leg is slightly bent. She is wearing a chiton, a mantle, a breastplate with the face of a gorgon and sandals on her feet.
As mentioned before the statue is made of marble a medium often used by the Romans when copying earlier Greek works. It is possible that this is marble derived either from the Cararra Mountains near Rome or from mount Penteli in Athens, Greece. According to Martin Robetson’s A Shorter History of Greek Art, Athens was a major copying centre during the Roman times (102). The Greek islands of Paros, Naxos and Thasos were also renowned for their high quality marble, but since transportation in antiquity was much more difficult than today, it is unlikely that they would have been preferred (Thinkquest library online). Apart from the evident availability, marble is a strong material able to survive in time –as the existence of many marble statues from the Roman times suggests- and therefore considered fit to adorn either public or rich private spaces. The surface of the material is smooth, can be easily carved and often resembles human skin, something that makes it an ideal medium to depict the human body realistically (Wikipedia). Furthermore, the white color of the material was easily painted with bright colors to fit the tastes of the period (Thinkquest library online). The primary disadvantage of marble appeared after the mid of the 20th century when air pollution and acid rain became the material’s biggest enemies (Thinkquest library online). Other disadvantages include the yellow stains that might appear on its surface when touched as it absorbs skin oils and the need to add special supports in order to sustain the different postures of the statues, especially ones that represent movement (Wikipedia).
The process of carving needs great amounts of time and skill in order to be successfully completed. The sculptor would begin the process by choosing one large piece of stone and would then start shaping the form with the use of two main tools: the hammer and the chisel. The surface that would emerge would be rough and therefore the sculptor would proceed to polishing by using a stone tool named patina. According to Walter Arnold’s article Marble and Stone Carving: Tools and Techniques of an Ancient Art, it was at this stage that the basic characteristics of the face and the body would emerge. Then a further polishing of the statue would be needed, a process called ganosis (Thinkquest Library online). At this stage the details of the specific characteristics would emerge and the statue would be very close to its final form. The Romans would use one more tool for perfecting the outcome: the drill. The head, arms and legs would be attached separately in the main body with pegs so that the details on them could be carved more easily. The ancient Romans, like the ancient Greeks before them, would then paint the marble and the final outcome would be strikingly different than the one we see today. Bright colors would adorn the cloths, hair and face of the statues, while the eyes were usually inlaid with other materials for a more vivid and naturalistic effect (Thinkquest library online).
This is not a statue of a mere human. It is a statue of a goddess, Athena from the classical Greek pantheon. It is believed that this particular statue was inspired by the famous ivory and gold statue of Athena Parthenos, created by the famous sculpture Pheidias for the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis (Los Angeles County Museum online). Originally, the goddess would probably hold a small Nike in her one hand and a lance on her other (Los Angeles County Museum online). Athena was the patron deity of the city of Athens the center of the Classical civilization and one of the most important goddesses of the ancient Greek Pantheon. She was the goddess of wisdom, the household crafts and just war (Stebbins). She was the favorite child of Zeus, the great leader of the Olympian gods. Homer in The Odyssey stresses her role as goddess of the crafts (VI 201-282):
“It was as when a man adds old to a silver vessel, a craftsman taught by Hephaestus and Athene to master his art through all its range, so that everything he makes is beautiful”
Homer also describes her as a “tall and lovely” woman “with skill to make works of beauty” as she exclaims to Odysseus “I am renowned among all the gods for wiles and wisdom” (Homer Odyssey XIII 244-331).
The culture that created this work of art is Rome at the height of its power, during the period of the Empire, when the Romans ruled a great part of the then known world.
The Romans emerged in the 6th century BC and in the next centuries started conquering their neighboring kingdoms. By the first century AD, they had conquered most of the Mediterranean world and Europe establishing a great and powerful empire, which was ruled from the capital, Rome. The emperor was at the top of the social ladder governing the often troubled vast empire (Pbs Empires online). Various different emperors built the buildings and monuments that can still be seen in Rome today in order to demonstrate their magnificence and power. It was during this time that some great works of architecture were created. The Colosseum was built in the 1st century AD under the emperor, Vespasian; the famous Pantheon was created in the second century AD by the emperor Hadrian while the Roman Agora and the streets of the city were greatly embellished with statues, columns and arches (Tansey and Kleiner 224-234). As the article The Roman Empire in the Pbs website suggests, the character and personality of the emperor usually determined the course of the empire during his lifetime and there were times when cruel emperors were assassinated. The upper classes consisted of Senators and Patricians, who enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle in magnificent villas and were the patrons of works of art like the statue of the Hope Athena (Pbs Empires online). Lower on the social ladder were the Pleibians, free people who did not however have land or property and often worked for the upper classes. Their lives were much more difficult as they lived in small, often poorly constructed houses and had to work to make a living (Pbs Empires online). In the worst position of all were the slaves who were denied of their freedom (Pbs Empires online).
Although rebellions among the conquered people were common, this was a universal world with open trade routes throughout the Empire which allowed not only for the transmission of goods but also of art and ideas. The Romans were open to influence. In Martin Robertson’s A Shorter History of Greek Art it is stated that they were highly influenced by Classical Greek art, incorporated many of the Greek ideals in their own creations and at the same time copied extensively Greek works of sculpture (102). It is thanks to them that the figure of the Hope Athena survives today.
The theme of this artwork is wisdom in the sense of reason, creativity and thinking. Apart from being the main quality embodied in the goddess Athena, it is also present masterly in this work of art. Her pensive gaze, calm face and relaxed posture all point to an individual who thinks before she acts, who considers the implications of her actions and although an exponent of war –as her helmet and aegis denotes- would probably opt for peace when given the choice. The fact that a young woman is depicted with this quality shows that this can not only be achieved with old age, but is achieved through personal resolve and strength of character. In that sense, the Hope Athena is very relevant to contemporary global societies marred by economic instability and political upheavals. It sends a message of resilience, perseverance and patience that could be helpful for everyone, male or female, as Athena herself is not limited to just one gender.
Arnold, W.S. “Marble and Stone Carving: Tools and Techniques of an Ancient Art”. Sculpture Reseources N.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. http://www.stonecarver.com/carvtool.html
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Walter Shewring. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1980.
“Marble sculpture”. Wikipedia. N.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marble_sculpture
Robertson, M. A Shorter History of Greek Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Stebbins, E. “Pallas Athena, Goddess of Wisdom”. Sweet Briar College, Virginia. N.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. http://www.arthistory.sbc.edu/imageswomen/
Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.
“The Hope Athena”. Los Angeles County Museum online. N.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. http://collectionsonline.lacma.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=15579;type=101
“The Roman Empire”. Pbs Empires. N.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/index.html