100 Works of Art: (Visual) Barberini Faun/Drunken Satyr

The 100 Blog Things challenge series involving art (visual, audio, literary, and film) is less to do with generally-received wisdom about the featured works and more how I feel about them. See the first post for details.

20. Barberini Faun/Drunken Satyr, Unknown sculptor (date unknown: either late third/early second century BCE)

The name of this piece comes from a prior owner of it, rather than the unknown sculptor, and perhaps fittingly I cannot remember how it first came to my attention. It may have been an art documentary – I watch a lot of them – but all I know is that when it came to my attention it held it.

When it comes to sculpture I have a huge boner, as the kids say, for idealised realism. Or, in even less minced words: pretty people who look like they could actually exist. Naturally this is the worst possible preference to have, whether you expand it to non-human sculpture or not, as art that looks like the thing it depicts is considered to be the refuge of the intellectually moribund. As I am more than willing to own up to being of inferior intelligence this isn’t a problem for me, but it is well for everyone else to remember: if you like things, someone, somewhere, is judging you – often by an absurd set of criteria – for the things you like.

Restored from a broken piece found in the moat of the Castel Sant’Angelo and then salivated over by arch-nutter and white-obsessed weirdo J J Winckelmann, restored and generally brought to its current condition by a series of 17/18th century sculptors in Rome, there is plenty of idealised realism to enjoy in it. I am amused, firstly, that the gnarled throne the faun is sprawled over is perfectly-shaped to show off his body: amused because it’s precisely the kind of awful trick I pull when I’m drawing things and want to explain the utterly illogical pose I’ve put something in, but here there is no need as his sprawl is more-or-less natural, even if it is more dignified than most drunks. In reflection of this similarity I once did a fuck-terrible study of this.

The statue doesn’t have the weight and delicacy of a Bernini piece, but then few do. It’s not a work, either, of passionate recording of a known figure, keeping intact both their dignity and their flaws in a fine balance. It’s a mythical creature, with the ridiculous blend of geometric perfection (the curves of musculature in his chest and stomach!) and human perfection (his leg, his face). His weight is realistic, his pose natural, and his expression wholly relatable.

Images of excess without some degree of moralising judgement attached seem (in my ill-educated experience) to be rare in Western art. There is heavenly ecstasy as in Bernini’s St Teresa and there is the over-documented swoon of St Sebastian (who I’m sorry I shall be writing about for a third time before the end of this series), but depictions of gluttony or tipsiness without immediate reference to the lurking spectre of punishment would go against the party line of the Church. This statue, either Hellenistic or Roman, pre-dates the ideas of continence and abjuration of desire that occupy Christianity in its middle ages. Although Stoicism and moderation were well thought-of, Epicureanism was also a cultural force at the time this statue is estimated to have been made, preaching the path of greatest pleasure as the path of the greatest good.

Another angle

Having a beautiful statue in celebration of drunkenness seems to me like an act of the kind of exquisite self-indulgence that Oscar Wilde and his ilk would very definitely approve of, and the debauched, decadent sprawl of a drunk satyr on a bed of skins would, I am sure, make a much more marvellous centrepiece in a bar than a museum – even if it’s almost certain he’d end up with a lap full of drunks every night, I can’t see this fellow complaining. I just wonder what sort of gaudy, glorious colours he was originally painted in.

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