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The original fragment preserves the life-sized torso of a gaunt old man with a stooped upper body, wearing a torn loincloth which fails to conceal his genitals. The strained muscles and sinews of his neck and the slanted plane of the fracture show that his head was stretched forward. This was found during excavations in Aphrodisias in 1989: not in the Hadrianic Baths, as is widely reported of the Berlin torso, but in a large pool (the Canopus). The head, added here as a plaster cast, shows the tense face of an old man with a high, balding forehead, furrowed brow, unkempt hair, and tangled moustache and side whiskers. The mouth is open, as if speaking, and reveals the teeth; the holes for the pupils reinforce the impression that he is staring at the viewer. Thanks to numerous Roman copies in the form of statues and statuettes, the whole figure can be reconstructed: an old fisherman stands with stooped back and buckled knees, his legs spread and his feet planted heavily on the ground, his head poking forward. His narrow loincloth is knotted at the front, but the corners of the cloth fail to cover his private parts; at the back, it has ridden so high up that his buttocks are also exposed. In his sunken left hand, he carried a basket for the fish; his right arm was slightly bent and stretched forward, the hand probably held a fishing rod. These copies show more clearly the marks of age on the old man: leathery skin hanging slackly on breast and belly, a double wrinkle above the navel, prominent veins and sinews, bony shoulders, and bulky ribcage show that his body has been worn out by a lifetime of hard work. This is borne in upon the viewer by the unmistakeable challenge in the gaze with which the old man fixes him. Set up at the edge of the long pool of Aphrodisias, our statue, along with dozens of others, contributed to the magnificent decor of an extravagant piece of architecture. It was made only in the second half of the third century AD, thus more than four hundred years after the creation of the original. That the latter was made in bronze is attested not only by evidence from various structural supports, but also by the fact that either black or grey marble or basalt was used for some of the stone copies. The sculptural type takes its name from a copy in the Louvre, which from the sixteenth century was taken to be a representation of the dying Roman poet, Seneca. The original model, however, belonged to a group of Hellenistic sculptures which depicted fishermen, shepherds, farmers, market women, beggars or cripples in obscene poses and emphasized their physical decay – a stark contrast to the ‘classical’ beauty of the images of gods and heroes to be admired everywhere in shrines and public squares. The figurative arts elevated the ugly to an aesthetic category of its own, which included even the caricature and the grotesque. In a time of political and social upheaval, there was a sharpened awareness, even amongst the middle classes, of the ‘little people’, with their bodies misshapen by heavy labour, illness, and old age. At the same time, however, this was also the expression of an uneasy preoccupation with the infirmity of one’s own body, a vicarious questioning about the meaning of life, projected onto those on the margins of society. Thus, the original of our torso, the first statue of the old fisherman, set up perhaps as an offering by a rich donor in a shrine in Alexandria, may also be interpreted as a penetrating memento mori for the viewer.

Details

  • Title: The Old Fisherman
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: -200
  • Location: Baths of Aphrodisias
  • Physical Dimensions: h66 cm
  • Type: Statue
  • Medium: White large-crystalline marble
  • Inv.-No.: Sk 1630
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-814319
  • External link: Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Verlag Philipp von Zabern / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Gertrud Platz-Horster || Photo: © b p k - || Photo Agency / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Johannes Laurentius
  • Collection: Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz

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