It began as something a bit anodyne. Building a highway as part of Italy’s post WWII little Marshall plan to connect Rome to the outlying areas, passing through an ancient Roman way known as the Via Flacca. At this juncture the Via Flacca cut through a promontory, on the south side of which were extensive remains of a Roman villa being excavated; what transpired was an archaeological find of the first magnitude as the highway work sliced through the north side, a grotto that could be seen in the cliff face above a field of artichokes. The master of this grotto had been no other that Tiberius Caesar. …
Another Rhodian hallmark was the masterful handling of drapery over figures disposed in violent action. The noblest example of this is the great winged Nike of Samothrace which is the glory of the Louvre. Epigraphy dates the Nike early in the second century B.C. This would be shortly before the execution of the reliefs for the great altar to Zeus at Pergamum which comprose the most celebrated and influential group of Hellensitic works that have survived. They are believed to have been created under the supervision of the Rhodian Menekratous. The reliefs portray a vast battle between gods and Giants and in them passion and violence are conveyed by the stunning handling of forms and drapery in motion, as well as by the awesome visages. The marble comes close to living, breathing life.
These characteristically Rhodian traits are recalled by one of the authentic treasures found in the grotto- the life-sized group representing Ganymedes being carried off by the eagle. Ganymedes was the son of King Tros, the Dardanian ruler who gave his name to Troy. Enamored of his surpassing beauty, Zeus desired him as his cupbearer on Mount Olympus. Some versions of the myth relate that Zeus himself took the form of an eagle and abducted the youth.
The Ganymedes subject is rare in sculpture, the only major marble being that in the Vatican Museum. Pliny, that copious recorder of sundry information, has described a version of Ganymedes’ abduction which was created by Leochares, the Rhodian remembered as the decorator of the west facade of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, a Wonder of the ancient world. Wrote Pliny, “Leochares represented the eagle which feels what a treasure it is stealing in Ganymedes, and to whom it is bearing him, and using its talons gently, though the boy’s garment protects him.”
Since the subject is so unusual in the sculpture of antiquity which has survived, many assumed that the Vatican statue is the product of Leochares, whose epoch is established as some time around 366 B.C. by a citation in a letter of Plato’s. The American scholar G.M.A. Richter, at the time, pointed out that the Vatican statue is considerably later than this in date, in spite of the Vatican claiming it is the original. If ever in case they decide to put it on the market.
The Ganymedes of the grotto is clad in a short, clinging chiton which beautifully reveals the slightly striding body. This drapery appears close to that of the fluttering garments of the combatants of Pergamum, which were executed some time about 250 B.C. This Ganymedes is a serene figure, resigned to his fate. His body, executed in variegated Anatolian marble with the head of white marble is gently held; the eagle caresses it, even as Pliny said. The proportions of the bird and the youth are more realistic than those of the Vatican group but is likely closer to the date of the great Pergamum work than to Leochares’ supposed date.