Head of Basilea, art restoration

The Head of Basilea: Discovery, Theft and Restoration in Calabria

Provenance. In the end, it all comes down to that record of ownership, sometimes elusive and often just plain false. The Testa di Basilea or the Head of Basilea is a beautiful bronze sculpture, dating from the period of Greater Greece. It was lost, found and “lost” again. Recently, this notable head from antiquity was given a facelift in a restoration project open to the public at the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria. 

THE DISCOVERY: SHIPWRECK IN THE STRAITS

The bronze head was found in 1969 by fishermen off the coast of Porticello, a district of Villa San Giovanni in the Province of Reggio Calabria. This area on Calabria’s southwestern coastline faces the Strait of Messina at its narrowest point. The bronze piece in question was part of a shipwreck that included various amphoras used for consumer foodstuffs and pieces from three life-sized, bronze statues.

ancient shipwreck

An Ancient Amphora in Reggio Calabria’s Archeological Museum

Apparently, two heads were part of the discovery, but only one made it off the beach through official legal channels. The other just seemed to have disappeared. So the remaining sculpture, referred to as the Head of the Philosopher and quite an extraordinary piece at that, was displayed in Reggio’s museum along with a section of his cloak and a handful of body parts.

And here I wonder why the thief chose one head over the other, whether it was a matter of expediency or if the lesser of the two was purposely selected to make fewer waves. Just thinking out loud—I intend no offense to the poor Head of Basilea, which has taken more than its share of abuse. Perhaps this was simply a case of age discrimination.

Greek bronzes, found in Cannitello, Villa San Giovanni

Head of the Philosopher and Basilea, Archeological Museum, Reggio Calabria

THE THEFT: A SKETCHY PROVENANCE

We now know that the Head of Basilea was sold in 1969, the same year it was found, to a group in Switzerland called the Society for Friends of Ancient Art. These Swiss connoisseurs of ancient Greek art then donated it to the Antikenmuseum in Basel, which translates to Basilea in Italian.

The Testa di Basilea or Head of Basel then sat in a museum vault for almost a quarter of a century. Although very few original Greek bronzes from the 5th century BC exist in the entire world, the museum didn’t seize the opportunity to announce such an important acquisition to the scientific community or display the work for the benefit of its visitors.

Interestingly, in 1978 a very accurate drawing of the head was circulated by the leader of Italy’s delegation for restitutions under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Head of Basilea resurfaced and in 1993 was returned to Italy. The news reports used language that described the restitution as a “donation” and “gift” from Switzerland.

Head of Basilea, art theft, art smuggling

Drawing of the Head of Basilea, the “police sketch”

The name for the piece has stuck, the Testa di Basilea. And perhaps that’s a good thing as it is a reminder of the artifact’s illicit journey as well as the years of silence and hiding. The relic is also referred to as the Head of Porticello B to put it into context of the discovery together with that of the Philosopher (Head A).

TESTA DI BASILEA — THE HEAD OF BASILEA

art restoration, Head of Basilea

The Testa di Basilea in the process of restoration

The Head of Basilea dates from the middle of the 5th century BC and represents a mature male with very curly hair, contoured beard and romanticized features. He would have been a god, athlete or a high-ranking personage of society. Although his eyes have been lost, his full lips made of copper and high cheekbones give him a slightly bemused expression, which is remarkable considering the head-bashing he received back in ancient times.

Thousands of years before the smuggling ordeal, he had been subject to an intentional dismemberment, as he was destined for the melting pot. His valuable metal was to be recycled. The large crack across the top of his nose is the most noticeable blow of the hammer, and ironically, the shipwreck saved him for future generations.

The modern-day smugglers spoiled his original bronze patina with aggressive chemicals in a primitive attempt to clean the surface. After a restoration in Rome, the Head of Basilea went on display in Reggio Calabria’s Archeological Museum, its permanent home together with the above-mentioned Head of the Philosopher and the well-known Riace Bronzes.

THE RESTORATION: HEAD OF BASILEA

art restoration, Head of Basilea

Art Restorer Giuseppe Mantella working on the Head of Basilea with a laser at the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria (cup with residuals of a day’s work)

Almost fifty years have passed since the discovery of these important sculptures in Porticello, and an extensive evaluation and restoration of the Head of Basilea was due. The Calabrian art conservator Giuseppe Mantella led the project, sponsored by the Intesa San Paolo Bank. The work, which was carried out in Reggio’s Archeological Museum in full view of the institution’s many visitors, has just been completed and the Testa di Basilea has a new outlook on life.

Literally. The Head of Basilea must feel rejuvenated as a considerable weight in the form of encrustation that had built up over a couple thousand years has been removed from his entire surface. The specialized tool used in this restoration is none other than a laser, the type dentists use in teeth whitening procedures. Wipe away the residue with a q-tip and the curly details of the beard and hair really pop.

Perhaps by the time he’s ready for his next makeover … er … restoration, a new form of moisturizer will have been developed for his chapped lips. Unfortunately, not much will ever be able to be done with the vacant look in his eyes.

Head of Basilea, art thieves, art restoration

Head of Basilea after the recent restoration


Anxious to see the Testa di Basilea? He will be on display at the exhibition “Restitutizioni 2018” at the Venaria Reale in Torino until September 6th before he returns to his home together with the Riace Bronzes and the Head of the Philosopher at the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria. See the Head of Basilea on one of my small-group tours to Calabria. You can see the itineraries on my Calabria Tour page.Calabria book

Read about another extraordinary ancient artwork smuggled out of Southern Italy in The Enigmatic Persephone or a museum in Reggio with art confiscated from a Mafia boss in The Palazzo della Cultura in Reggio Calabria on my blog. And for an in-depth look at the beautiful land in the toe of the boot, check out Calabria: The Other Italymy non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.

“Like” Calabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook page and follow me on Karen’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for more beautiful pictures and information.

Sign up below to receive the next blog post directly to your email for free.

CALABRIA: THE OTHER ITALY makes a great gift!

Calabria book

Comments 8

    1. Post
      Author
    1. Post
      Author

      Absolutely, and it’s interesting how with new technology, restorers have processes that weren’t available 20-odd years ago during the first restoration in Rome.

  1. This not only had me thinking of my visit to the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum where I learned that only a tiny portion of its 3 million items are for public display, but also of a documentary I had watched awhile ago titled “World’s Most Expensive Stolen Paintings.” There’s so much drama going on behind the staid walls of most galleries!

    1. Post
      Author

      Good point! We tend to focus on the isolated cases we’ve heard or read about, but with all that art in the archives, the number of works that have been stolen is probably so high, it would be hard to imagine – sort of like when you see one mouse, you know there are a lot more.

      1. 😁 Love your mouse-to-stolen-art analogy. While this particular artifact was returned to Calabria (eventually), I have heard that Greece, Egypt, and other countries have been less successful in their requests for returned pieces of antiquity.

        1. Post
          Author

          Yes, the number of restitutions are just “the tip of the iceberg” to the number of non-returned works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.