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Equestrian Sculpture of Marcus Aurelius

Empire: Equestrian Sculpture of Marcus Aurelius, bronze, c. 173-76 C.E., (Capitoline Museums, Rome). The original location of the sculpture is unknown though it had been housed in the Lateran Palace since the 8th century until it was placed in the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio by Michelangelo in 1538. The original is now indoors for purposes of conservation. Marcus Aurelius ruled 161-180 C.E. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're in the Capitoline Museums in Rome, looking at the equestrian sculpture of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. We're not exactly sure of the date, but it's sometime around 176 or 180 CE. SPEAKER 2: It's in a new space, because it was suffering some conservation problems and so had to be removed from the Campidoglio, where Michelangelo had put it. SPEAKER 1: And actually, that's an important point, because we don't know where it originally was in Rome. SPEAKER 2: No. What's really important is that this is the only equestrian sculpture of this size to survive from antiquity. SPEAKER 1: And we know that there had been dozens of them in Rome. SPEAKER 2: They were created to celebrate the triumphal return of an emperor. SPEAKER 1: There's so much authority as a result of him on horseback, clearly ruling. His left arm is lightly holding the reins-- or would have been lightly holding the reins of the horse. The right hand protrudes out. SPEAKER 2: Addressing the troops, or addressing the citizens of Rome. SPEAKER 1: There's a sense of confidence in his posture and, of course, in the scale. SPEAKER 2: It is enormous. This survived because it was thought to have represented Constantine, the emperor who made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. And so this wasn't melted down for its bronze the way that almost all other equestrian sculptures were. SPEAKER 1: This could have ended up as a cannon. That's right. SPEAKER 2: So we're lucky it survived. And it had an enormous influence in the Renaissance for artists, beginning with Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci. And of course, also the ability to cast something this size in bronze had also been lost. SPEAKER 1: And it just shows how accomplished the ancient Romans were, both in their handling of the material, but also in the representation, the real understanding of the body, of its musculature. SPEAKER 2: And of the anatomy of the horse, striding forward. It's so animated and lifelike. SPEAKER 1: The folds of the neck as his head pushes downward. SPEAKER 2: And the folds of the drapery that Marcus Aurelius is wearing, how it comes down and drapes over his leg and the back of the horse. SPEAKER 1: There's also something really wonderfully momentary and also, at the same time, I think, very timeless here. The horse is striding, his arm is raised, but there's a wonderful sense of balance. The horse is in motion. He's pulling to the right. SPEAKER 2: He had in his left hand the reins, so there's a tension in that he sort of seems to be pulling back. And the horse pulls its head back a little bit. At the same time, the right side of his body seems to be moving forward. SPEAKER 1: And leaning to the right. SPEAKER 2: There's a kind of animation throughout. SPEAKER 1: There's also this unity between this incredibly powerful animal and Marcus Aurelius. He's in full control of the horse. And I think that that's the point. SPEAKER 2: And even kind of moving forward while pulling the horse back slightly. SPEAKER 1: With his body. SPEAKER 2: Like he's holding it back. SPEAKER 1: And you're right, his left hand is holding the reins, but it's a light touch even though he's in command of this incredibly powerful animal. SPEAKER 2: Is it me or does he seem a little too big for the horse? Do you know if this was cast in one piece? SPEAKER 1: It would have been cast in individual pieces. And then it would have been assembled. And then the bronze would have been worked so as to erase the seams. SPEAKER 2: And so this commemorating of a great man and his great deeds was an important idea in the Renaissance with the flowering of humanism, this recognition of the achievement of an individual, the representation of that individual in a portrait. These were things that had been lost in the Middle Ages. SPEAKER 1: This interest in representation, both of his authority, of his position in society, but also the ability to render the body, and then the interest in rendering. All of those things come together in the Renaissance again, having originally come together, of course, in the classical world.