Figure of an athlete 
c.1st century BC

A major new acquisition by the National Gallery of Victoria through the Felton Bequest represents a late Hellenistic or early Roman adaptation of a statue by, or in the tradition of, Polykleitos of Argos, who flourished between 450 and 420 BC. One of the most celebrated sculptors of classical Greece, Polykleitos was best known for his Doryphoros (‘Spear Carrier’) and associated Canon of proportions, which prescribed the ideal form of the athletic male figure. While none of his original sculptures (mostly of bronze) survive, his work is well known from Roman copies of the 1st century BC and 1st century AD.

The original subject of this figure is probably the Diskophoros (‘Discus Holder’), which is known from about forty fragmentary examples. It represents an athletic male (probably a prize-winning athlete) standing with his weight on the right leg, the left leg trailing behind – a characteristically Polykleitan pose. The head is turned to the right and the right arm is slightly extended from the body. The left arm hangs by the side of the body, though on one example in Rome the left hand may have held a discus (hence the modern name of this type).

Short support struts of marble originally connected the lower arms of the Melbourne figure to the hips (the left strut was ground down in antiquity and replaced with a metal strut) and a large marble tree-stump supported the weight of the statue, connecting at the right thigh. Such struts are standard features of marble copies based on bronze originals.

The expressive and highly accomplished treatment of the musculature distinguishes this work from the standard Roman copies, which imitate in a more mechanical manner the flat, broad, simplified musculature of the mid-5th-century style. The more creative adaptation of the Polykleitan type by the sculptor of this piece reflects the influence of the ‘baroque’ style of late Hellenistic sculpture. The exceptional quality of the present work’s conception, execution and preservation marks it as one of the finest surviving examples of one of Polykleitos’s lost masterpieces.

Timothy Potts