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Statue of a Nubian Athlete, 18th-century Italian, by an unknown sculptor


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About the artwork

This is a statue of a Nubian athlete. It was originally thought to be of entirely ancient origin, but is now known to have been considerably altered in the 18th-century. The parts that must have been restored at this time are the arms below the shoulders, both feet, the plinth and the right leg support, the head, as well as parts of the torso and the two legs.

This statue is made of grey veined black marble known as negro antico which can be found in North Africa or Greece. It was used because the figure represented is a black athlete. The original ancient sculpture which inspired this statue was probably made in bronze which had acquired a black texture. The choice of black marble for an 18th-century statue may have been an attempt to imitate the black texture of the original ancient bronze one. The use of coloured marble from quarries in Greece, Asia and North Africa symbolised the power and expansion of the Roman Empire.

An interest in the classical civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome was generated by the excavations of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompei in 1748. Together with the historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s (1717-1768) writing on classical art, this led to the development of a movement in art known as Neo-Classicism . In the later 18th-century there was a mania for acquiring artefacts, particularly sculpture from Ancient Greece or Rome. Many statues discovered during excavation work were often fragmented or damaged. These were restored or re-carved, often in such a convincing way that is difficult to tell the difference between the antique parts and later additions.

Athletic contests were a popular spectacle and entertainment for Roman Emperors and the Roman people. Classical authors refer to boxing or pugilatus (the Latin word) as the most rigorous and dangerous discipline of all athletic competitions. As the public was used to even more bloody contests by armed gladiators, armoured gloves were introduced in boxing to increase the impact of the fighters’ fists and the violence of the contest. This sometimes led to the death of one contestant. Boxers were often professionals and even non-Roman fighters could win fame and substantial prizes.

Boxing is a sport of particular importance in the history of art, as well as in black people’s histories and cultures. In 18th-century England boxing was popular with the lower social classes. The majority of professional boxers were former water-men, bakers and road-workers. Boxing also appealed to the nobility, for whom the art of self-defence was a means of establishing their status as well as sharing the physical prowess of classical heroes from the past. History painters at the time used professional boxers as their models because of their physical appearance and musculature. For artists in early 19th-century England there was an important association between boxers as models and the spirit of Greek classical art. The famous critic John Ruskin believed that

‘artists should study the souls of the men in their bodies, not their bodies alone’, and ‘boxing unlike other sports did not waste time, land and energy of soul’.

For the English gentleman boxing was the height of heroic and patriotic masculinity, and also allowed a connection with working class customs and pastimes.

An interesting twist to the history of boxing and its links with both art and black people occurred in Paris during the 1920s. Boxing had been introduced to French society after the French Revolution of 1789 through a sporting society. However, in the early 20th-century, a revival of boxing in Paris occurred through American influence and was associated with fairground and circus attractions. In Paris black boxers were not prohibited from fighting against whites, as they were in America until the late 1890s. However they were still perceived as rather exotic beings, brothers of Africans, even if they were of American origin. One of the black boxers who made a career in Paris was the African American Jack Johnson who came to Paris in 1913. The victories of black boxers challenged the traditional view of black people as submissive to white people. This was particularly appreciated by avant-garde artists who were keen to shock and disrupt traditional society. However, even when they achieved fame and financial independence, black boxers had little freedom to break away from this limited role within society, and were still viewed by many as savage and violent. In more recent times, black boxers have explored several directions, sometimes using their fame and success to reject traditional images and ideas about black people and athletes.