After quarrying, if the marble is not to be worked on immediately, it is buried back in the earth: so that it may stay fresh, retain its juices.
In the foundations of the house where, years ago, we used to spend our holidays, an ancient road had been found, with traces of a vehicle on the rock. And, next to it, a funerary stele. A block away, the archaeologists never so much as complained when I slipped in amongst them while they worked. And after they had abandoned the site, I would go and hide small treasures there among the ruins: a torchlight, a square battery, a box of matches, a couple of toy cars. In case of emergency.
I was born opposite the Archaeological Museum. Ever since I was little, every time I went in, I would turn left and keep my head up, looking for the smile of the Kouroi.
Were these funerary statues a debt to the dead dictated by a higher order of things?
How did art give form to such desires?
Almost simultaneously, statues appeared in the temples of the gods as well as on graves. The funerary statue is both a form of the objective debt to the dead and a fulfilment of the spiritual need of the living to have before them the dead person’s likeness.
On my way out, I would slide down the inclined marbles to the left and right of the forecourt’s wide steps. The marble, slightly concave in the middle, worn smooth from wear, was almost soft – and invariably warm.
Aristodikos, the last Kouros, isn’t smiling.
The eyes of Aristodikos are shadowed –not just literally, due to their sockets’ curvature– but also metaphorically, as if by the shadow of memory.
At the Museum, we indeed come across him last in the sequence of Kouroi. Christos Karouzos –Director from 1942 to 1964, formidable archaeologist, unrivaled writer, lover of poetry– who loved and studied him, estimates that he died at the age of twenty five, around 500BC. On precious marble from Paros –the best for moulding the body–, his family asked for his form to be carved in full relief. They set it by the grave next to the road –as was the custom– at the edge of their estate in Mesogeia, in the locality of “Phinikia”. But twenty years later, they also laid the statue down to rest over the buried body, and covered it with soil. To save it from the Persians, about to burn down Attica from end to end, up to the Parthenon.
Almost intact, protected from the sun and rain, the statue then was returned to earth.
It would rise again 25 centuries later.
In 1944, the property owner sends over labourers to till his field. The plough hits on stone. Again and again. They get hold of hoes to dig it out, they unbury a body, whole.
Only the hands are missing. And the feet break off at the delicate ankles.
It would be ungrateful to complain about the degree of its preservation. Only the hands are entirely missing. Of the lesser wounds, the most annoying is the disfigurement of the eyes, lips and especially the nose, most probably caused by the frequent passing over of the plough.
For years the plough passed
over the face
Over and over the plough passed
on the face
They load the statue on a carriage, cover it with straw, take it to the Museum in secret. To the empty Museum: all the statues are already asleep, buried in the soil, under the floor of the halls, since the eve of the German invasion. (Months of secret toil, under Semni Karouzou’s supervision.)
The monuments that were saved are “fortune’s children”.
I still strive to see
what the hands held
weapon or bridle
Or nothing –
full of arrival
They might have held
Except they ‘re missing
Back to the earth
whence they emerged
idle they have returned
by the order of time
The statue does not unfold its world outwards but has gathered its strength in, as if meditating on some inner stirring.
Karouzos, in his study on Aristodikos, includes a long list of attic sculptures from 550-480 BC. There, twice he refers to Rilke:
Stele of two siblings in New York and Berlin – incontestable seems the kinship of the girl’s head with the “Rilke” head in the Louvre
Male head Louvre 695 – which, according to Haussmann, may be the subject of Rilke’s sonnet “Fruehe Apollo”
As sometimes between the yet leafless branches
a morning looks through that is already
radiant with spring: so nothing of his head
could prevent the splendour of all poems
from striking us with almost lethal force;
for there is yet no shadow in his gaze,
his temples are yet too cool for the laurel crown,
and only later from his eyebrows’ arches
will the rose garden lift up on tall stems,
from which petals, loosened, one by one
will drift down on the trembling of his mouth,
which now is yet quiet, never-used, and gleaming
and only drinking something with its smile
as though its song were being instilled in him.
Rilke wrote this poem in Paris, on July 11, 1906. Although in May of that year his term as Rodin’s secretary had ended following a rupture between the two men, his New Poems –the First Book (1907) of which opens with this sonnet– are written under the influence of the great sculptor who seems to have shown him anew how to see and how to reflect.
Three years earlier, near the end of his essay, Auguste Rodin, Rilke had said about his sculptures: “a great gesture seems to live and to force space to participate in its movement.”
Upon the pedestal, rises the youthful form of Aristodikos, slender in its deeper conception. With difficulty might it be said that he is standing. We would be closer to this image of a man imperceptibly moving, were we to say that he witholds movement. Nor is it possible to speak of a state arrived at but, rather, of a force in action.
Funerary statues stop, so far as we can see today, a little after 500 BC, for sixty years or so. Archaeological research has almost unanimously conceded Milchhoefer’s conjecture that a law that came out in Athens, according to Cicero, “a fair while” after Solon, against the lavishness of funerary monuments, must indeed belong to this late archaic period, and possibly to Kleisthenes, as Hirschfeld subsequently hypothesized. Cicero’s source is known to be Demetrius Phalereus and this vir eruditissimus in turn draws information and suggestions for his own radical restrictions on grave monuments from Plato and the preceding attic legislation. An attractive hypothesis, though no more, is that this law is contemporaneous and not unrelated to the law of ostracism.
I might almost not have existed
ARISTODIKO: the name of the dead in the genitive, on the statue’s pedestal.
The mere name of a man is tantamount to anonymity.
The pedestal is preserved, and the name, and the plinth of the statue. But –a strange thing, unexpected for a work such as this– there is no funerary epigram to be found.
not reaching out from the stone
Distance touches it
as pain returns
to its black owner
The eyes no longer
the most beautiful thing
from life renounced
there survives a song
Which one has dripped
on his half-parted lips
so he now sings, upright and whole?
Threshold of song
of a lost youth
breath of statues
silence of images
Space of the heart
suddenly so large