Statue of a Nubian Athlete

LL 201


This statue is of a Nubian athlete. Nubia was one of the earliest civilizations of ancient north-east Africa. It is a region in present-day Egypt and Sudan. Athletics contests involving boxing were a popular form of entertainment in Roman times. Boxing was one of the most rigorous and dangerous disciplines of all athletic competitions. Reinforced gloves were introduced to increase the impact, which often led to the death of a contestant. Boxers were often professionals and could win fame and prizes even if they were not Roman citizens. The statue is supported by a small figure of the Greek hero, Herakles, identified by his lion skin. The statue is made of grey veined black marble known as negro antico, found in North Africa or Greece. This type of marble was used to signal that the figure represented is a Black athlete. It was originally thought to be of entirely ancient origin but is now known to have been considerably altered in the 18th century. At this time there was a craze for acquiring sculpture from Ancient Greece or Rome. Many statues discovered during excavation work were fragmented or damaged but were often restored in such a convincing way that is difficult to tell the difference between the antique parts and later additions. The parts that have been restored on this statue include the arms, both legs and feet, the plinth, the head, and parts of the torso. The original ancient sculpture that inspired this statue was probably made in bronze that had acquired a black texture. Artists associated with the Neo-Classical movement took inspiration from heroic male nudes in the art of ancient Greece and Rome, such as this statue. The writings of the homosexual historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717 - 1768) inspired the movement. His own erotic taste influenced his writings on art history and he used examples from ancient Greek and Roman to portray the younger male nude as the perfection of beauty. The twisted body of the athlete in this statue, and the play of light on the dark marble, emphasise his sensuality and physicality. This would have appealed to the Neo-Classical interest in the erotic and the exotic which tended to over-emphasise the exoticism and sensuality of foreign cultures. It often represented people from the Middle East, North Africa, South West and South East Asia as objects of desire.