Bronzi di Riace: 50th Anniversary of the Discovery of the Riace Bronzes

Walking on a sandy beach, most of us don’t have much more hope than of spotting a decent seashell. There are those who hunt for treasures, armed with metal detectors on land, simple goggles in shallow water and elaborate equipment further out to sea. Very few ever find anything of value, but those who do, keep the dream alive, such as with the sunken bronzes, discovered 50 years ago in the Ionian Sea just off the coast of a town called Riace in Calabria, South Italy. The body parts protruding from the sand turned out to be spectacular statues hailing from ancient times and are known as the Bronzi di Riace, the Bronzes of Riace.


From that fateful moment in time, the 16th of August 1972, the day following Ferragosto, Italy’s popular summer holiday where anyone who’s anybody is celebrating with family and friends, often at the seaside, the two statues have been the center of discussion. Of course, the news was international, such an important discovery, world-class bronze statues from ancient Greece lying at the sea floor just 230 meters (about a tenth of a mile) from the coast at a depth of eight meters (26 feet).

Bronzi di Riace

A curious crowd gathered to get a glimpse of one of the Riace Bronzes upon the discovery in August 1972

How did they get there? Shipwrecked without any other objects or evidence of a sunken vessel? Thrown overboard to get rid of their weight in a storm? Buried for protection and then lost? When and by whom were they made? The Bronzi di Riace have been poked and prodded, examined under microscopes and scrutinized in every context imaginable.

Bronzi di Riace

The Riace Bronzes –Statues A and B (alternating)

Scholars’ hypotheses vary widely as to their identifications. Do the sculptures represent Tydeus and Amphiarasus, two mythological Greek warriors from the group Seven against Thebes, the statues of which were said to have graced ancient Argos? Or had they stood in Delphi or Olympia, also known for their statuary, before an unfortunate journey to Rome?

And who created these masterworks? Found off the coast of Riace and housed at the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria, could the statues have an artistic connection with Calabria? Much of Southern Italy was part of Greater Greece, after all, and Daniele Castrizio, Reggio native and antiquities scholar, asserts that the Bronzi di Riace were made by Pythagoras of Reggio, ancient Greek sculptor, renowned for his work in bronze and active in both Greater Greece and the Peloponnese peninsula. Castrizio contends that the statues represent Polynices and Eteocles and were made by this local sculptor, who was born in Samo, today in the Province of Reggio Calabria.

Bronzi di Riace

The Riace Bronzes as they were originally displayed in Reggio’s Archeological Museum


From the time of the initial finding and cleaning, the Riace Bronzes have been admired for both their beauty and anatomical detail. Only a sculptor with the very highest technical skills and artistic sensibilities could have created such works. I would think that the world would be content to leave it at that, to enjoy these masterpieces as they are, but there will always be the imitators as well as those who want to know exactly who they represented and how they looked upon creation 2,500 years ago.

Bronzi di Riace

Riace Bronzes, Statue “A”

To address the matter, the German archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann launched a full-force study and, with his team, came to the conclusion that the Bronzi di Riace represented Erechtheus and Eumolpus. I remember a German friend sending me a color copy of the original Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper clipping in 2015 with the announcement presented as fact. The article’s technicolor photos were as eye opening as the self-assuredness of the hypothesis. Since then, Brinkmann has been sharing his splashy news with museums around the world in the form of life-size reproductions of the statues.

Reconstruction of Riace Bronze Statue A

“Tell us your name, warrior” – article announcing Brinkmann’s hypothesis in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from May 2, 2015

For the 50th anniversary year of the discovery, copies of the Bronzi di Riace in interpretive color have hit New York City’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the exhibition “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color.”


Regular museumgoers have been aware of color in the ancient world for some time now despite the MET’s characterization of the event as “groundbreaking.” (The press release also defines the word “polychromy” for visitors not able to figure it out…) For example, the following photo shows the use of color in ancient Greece from Reggio Calabria’s archeological museum. The row of waterspouts in the shape of lions’ heads comes from a sanctuary in ancient Kaulon (Monasterace today). The missing portions are in white to distinguish them from the original pieces in color.

color in antiquity

Colorfully decorative drain spouts in the shape of lions’ heads from ancient Kaulon at the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria

The MET’s exhibition features numerous reproductions fashioned in full color as a result of “advanced scientific techniques.” Apparently, our vision of an off-white ancient world, every so often tinged with a spot of light color has been all wrong and the only way to make that point is to slap us in the face with the outlandish. These experts want to jar us straight back to antiquity!

Reproduction of ancient Greek art in color

Brinkmann’s reconstruction of the so-called Chios Kore from the Athenian Acropolis (2012), marble stucco on polymethyl methacrylate, natural pigments in egg tempera

Funny thing that in their effort to show us how these sculptures looked thousands of years ago, the experts didn’t stop to say, “Hey, maybe she wasn’t born with broken arms and a beat-up head…” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against “cutting-edge scientific methods” in an art museum. However, “juxtaposing” a handful of unattractive reproductions that no doubt cost a fortune with beautifully weathered originals and marketing the display as “truly an exhibition that brings history to life” overreaches boundaries for such an historically illustrious institution.

Reality is that scientists don’t really know what the ancient colors looked like. Not only do colors fade but chemical elements break down, rendering certainty impossible. The result is conjecture, but what’s interesting is that there is a lot of sameness to the exhibition’s reproductions. Brinkmann’s interpretation of color makes it seem that a clownish palette was somehow in vogue for hundreds if not a thousand years. I step back and look at the elegance of design and symmetry of ancient temples still standing, the exquisite mosaics, vases and other extant objects from antiquity, and I have a hard time accepting that these same people would have glorified what is just plain cartoonish. Century after century of colorblind individuals executing bad “art.”


The magnificent Bronzi di Riace created a sensation upon discovery. The gorgeous bronze statues take your breath away. There isn’t a museum in the world that wouldn’t want to have them as the crowning objects of their collection. To be in their presence at their home in Reggio Calabria’s archeological museum is to be in the presence of great works of art, treasures of ancient times that have survived to speak to us today. Despite their dispassionate names, Statue A and Statue B, the bronzes feel alive, almost as if their flesh and blood have been suspended in time.

Bronzi di Riace

Statue B in Reggio Calabria – the originals do not go on tour

Brinkmann’s replicas in bronze cast, with copper, gemstones, silver, gold, bitumen (a hydrocarbon mixture) and colorants are just that. For me, they bring to mind the many likenesses of dinosaurs that tour the world over. These representations of Mesozoic reptiles, however, have a greater purpose as we haven’t ever seen living, breathing prehistoric creatures. We know what men look like.

Bronzi di Riace

Experimental reconstruction of Riace Bronzes based on Vinzenz Brinkmann’s research with the Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project (photo courtesy of Aquaplanning, Wikimedia Creative Commons)


When we look at the authentic Bronzi di Riace, we’re experiencing art: human creativity and imagination. We don’t need to know the exact colors at inception or who they definitively represent or have represented. We are just happy to have had them with us for 50 years and hope they make it to 100. So if you are looking for a “truly groundbreaking” experience, make your way to Reggio Calabria in the tip of the Italian boot and see these spectacular bronze statues in person.

Ancient Greek statues

The Bronzi di Riace as they appear today in the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria

Join me on one of my comprehensive, small group tours of Calabria and say hello to the Riace Bronzes on a guided tour of Reggio’s archeological museum. See the detailed itineraries on the Calabria Tour page.

Read all about the fascinating Calabrian region in my book Calabria: The Other Italy, described by Publisher’s Weekly as “an intoxicating blend of humor, joy, and reverence for this area in Italy’s deep south,” and explore Calabria’s northern neighbor in my book Basilicata: Authentic Italy, “recommended to readers who appreciate all things Italian” by the Library Journal.Italy books

Follow me on social media: Basilicata Facebook pageCalabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook pageKaren’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for beautiful pictures and information.
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Comments 14

  1. Very interesting. I suppose we can be thankful that no one has tried applying paint to the original bronzes! I liken this to the attempts to recreate what individuals looked like based on their skulls (e.g., King Richard III). At best they are interesting exercises in speculation. But I take it that you are insinuating that in the case of the bronzes, having these “new & improved” versions at other museums allows visitors to tell themselves, “Well, we don’t have to travel all the way down to Reggio when we have already seen them here in Berlin/Paris/London, etc.” And that seems to me akin to people who go to the various Disneylands’ “representations” of European cities and tell themselves, “Well, we don’t have to go to Paris now since we’ve been to the one in Orlando.” Their loss!

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      Yikes, I hadn’t thought about someone trying to apply paint to the original Bronzi! In my mind, poor copies won’t inspire anyone to ever search out the originals. Why would they, even if there was an interpretive sign that explained the originals didn’t look anything like them and that they were much, much better. But in this case, the museum’s marketing machine is reinforcing a negative image for visitors by saying, “This is it!” As I see it, it’s a lot of money and energy focused on mediocrity.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! Nothing that has survived intact shows us that the artists of yesteryear had such gaudy tastes with their color choices. Anyone who can represent the body in such a natural way surely had some higher understanding of beauty in every respect, including color. Bravo, Karen for pointing out the absurdity. Can’t wait to see the bronzes in person!

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  3. Thanks so much for your insightful article! You brought back the feelings I had when I first saw the bronzes in 2005. We were the only ones in the Museo Nazionale that afternoon and when I walked into the room with the bronzes, if felt like we were in the presence of the gods. No one spoke, and I don’t mind saying that I shed a few tears. It’s one of those moments that never leave you. I’ve seen them a couple of times since and the feeling is always the same. I also admit that I cannot swim anywhere in the Mediterranean Sea without keeping one eye out for submerged statues ;-). Grazie!

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  4. I must say that seeing the Bronzes was one of the most amazing art experiences I have ever had. Indescribable actually. The beauty is breathtaking. The world is lucky to have them, and I am glad they are in Calabria

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  5. Ciao Karen
    Seeing these 2 ‘in the flesh’ is high on my ‘to do’ list! I completely agree with you on the absurdity of presenting mediocre replicas. As someone else commented-thank God no one has tried to paint the originals! Mannaggia! Ciao, Cristina

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      Yes, the idea of being buried and thus hidden for 1,000+ years contributes to the mystique and perhaps even saved them from destruction for future generations to enjoy.

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