Thursday, 3 November 2011

A Mangled Torso Described

"How are we to understand the fact that the paradigm of supreme beauty is provided by the statue of a crippled divinity which has no face to express any feeling, nor arms or legs to command or carry out any action?"

Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator (p. 65)

Winkelmann’s Description of the Torso Belvedere in Rome (1759)

Reader, I now lead thee to that celebrated trunk of Hercules, of whose exalted beauties every praise falls short; I introduce thee to a performance the sublimest in its kind, and the most perfect offspring of art among those that have escaped the havoc of time. But how shall I describe a statue destitute of all those parts which nature makes the chief standard of beauty, and the interpreters of the soul? As of a mighty oak, that, felled by the axe, has lost all its lofty branches, nothing remains but the trunk: thus mangled is the figure of our hero, without head, arms, breast, or legs.

The first look perhaps will shew thee nothing but a huge deformed block; but if thou art able to penetrate the mysteries of art, attention will open all her glories to thine eye; thou shalt see Alcides the hero transfused into the marble.

Where the poet ceased, the artist began; they leave him as soon as, matched with the goddess of eternal youth, he mixes with the gods, but the artist shows us his deified form, and, as it were, an immortal frame, in which humanity is only left to make visible that strength and ease, by which the hero had become conqueror of the world.

In the mighty outlines of this body I see the unsubdued force of him who crushed the giants in the Plegraean plains, whilst the undulating contour reminds me, at the same time, of that elastic flexibility, that winged haste, from which all the various transformations of Achelous could not escape.

There appears in every part of this body, as in so many pictures every particular feat of the hero. As from the usefulness of the different parts of a building, we judge of the judicious plan of the architect; so here, from the harmonious variety of powers which the artist stamped on every different part, we may form an idea of his extensive views.

I cannot behold the few remains of the shoulders, without remembering, that their expanded strength, like two mountains, was supposed to have supported the zodiac. With what grandeur does the chest rise! how magnificent is its vaulted orb! Such was the chest on which Antaeus and Geryon, though three-bodied, were crushed; no chest of an Olympian Pancratiast; no chest of a Spartan victor, though sprung from heroes, could rise with such magnificence.


By a mysterious art, our mind, through all these feats of the hero’s force, is led to the perfections of his soul; a monument which you in vain look for among the poets; they sing the power of his arms alone. But here, not even a hint is left of violence or lascivious love; from the calm repose of the parts, the grand and settled soul appears; the man who became the emblem of virtue; who, from his love of justice alone, faced every obvious danger; who restored security to the earth, and peace to its inhabitants.

Translated by Henry Fuseli (1765)

See also
A Monster Observatory: Disability and the Fourth Plinth

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