There are few statues more celebrated than the Dying Gaul, and even fewer that can equal its emotional power. It depicts a young man with thick, matted hair, lying on the ground, supporting his slightly turned torso with a muscular right arm. A small slit in his chest and a few drops of gore tell us he is dying, and many people see on his downturned face a look of stoic pain.
The last time the Dying Gaul left Italy was in 1797, after Napoleon invaded the Papal States and helped himself to the absolute cream of Italy’s artistic treasures. The larger-than-life-size statue, likely a Roman replica of an earlier Greek bronze, was hauled off to Paris and triumphantly paraded on its way to the Louvre, where it remained until its return to Italy in 1816.
It is on view at the National Gallery of Art, in the Pantheon-shaped central rotunda, until Jan. 26. It has never been seen in the United States, and its exhibition is part of a year-long cultural program organized by the Italian government. It went on display Thursday morning, a year after another statue, the Michelangelo David-Apollo, arrived for a similar special exhibition to mark the beginning of the 2013 “Year of Italian Culture.”
For many years after the statue was discovered early in the 17th century, the figure was identified as a dying gladiator. But various clues, including a tight-fitting necklace or torque and references in Pliny the Elder (the Roman author) to statues depicting the defeated Gauls, lead most scholars to conclude that he is a member of the far-flung tribe that harassed Mediterranean empires from the Greeks to the Romans.
The Greek original, if the scholarly consensus is correct, was installed in a sanctuary devoted to Athena, in the small but ambitious kingdom of Pergamum (now in Turkey) sometime in the third century B.C. The Attalid kings of Pergamum were a bunch of industrious nobodies who managed to lay claim to a shard of Alexander the Great’s vast but short-lived empire. Rather like the Gulf Arab states today, they used art to build up their international prestige, and Pergamum became a wonder of bombastic architectural excess.
They were later absorbed into Rome, but not before defining what is still called the Pergamene Style, which emphasized emotional appeal and almost Baroque volatility. Nothing defines that style quite as clearly as the Dying Gaul, who is both tragic and sensual, firing both our desire and our sense of compassion.
Almost every book on ancient sculpture includes a photograph of the statue, which is held by the Capitoline Museum in Rome. But photographs give a minimal sense of the work. The young man’s posture is closed, his face turned down, his torso twisted, his left arm crossing his loins to grip his right thigh. His supine body defines a space, into which he appears to stare intently, as if his suffering or fate is physically present on the ground next to him.
Photographs also don’t clearly render the sword (part of a later restoration) and trumpet on the ground beside him. Or the curious circular incisions and pentagram near one of his feet, which baffle scholars today. Nor do they capture the small details of his physical perfection, the veins in his arms, the slight crease of skin around his midsection, and the delicate strength in his hands and feet.
After the statue was discovered, it quickly became a model for artists across Europe. Autocrats commissioned replicas, small bronze reproductions circulated among collectors, and artists studied it, painted it and imitated it. Thomas Jefferson wanted it, or a reproduction of it, for an art gallery he planned but never realized at Monticello.
But we know more about its influence and afterlife as an ancient treasure than we know about what it depicts, who made it and how it was received by its original audience. Some scholars think it may not be a Roman reproduction at all, but a Greek original. Others, including the authors of the Oxford History of Classical Art, question whether the brief reference in Pliny refers to this work.
The data points of the statue’s provenance are several but inconclusive: There are empty plinths for statues in Pergamum which would happily accommodate a statue of this size; there is Pliny’s reference to the Gauls and the Attalid kings who defeated them (“Several artists have represented the battles fought by Attalus and Eumenes with the Galli”), and to Nero, who brought work from Pergamum to Rome, which would explain how it made it from Asia Minor to what is now Italy.
“I find it hard to dismiss Pliny,” says National Gallery curator Susan Arensberg, who organized the exhibition on the American side.
Add to that the Roman’s particular interest in the Gauls — which kept them busy on the battlefield for centuries — and it’s easy to accept the standard narrative. But without a time machine, no one will ever know whether the young man was meant to appeal an ancient sense of pity, sadism or smug triumphalism.
It’s tempting, given his beauty, to assume that pity was at least part of the mix. The particular flavor of that pity, heard as well in plays such as Aeschylus’s “The Persians,” which humanizes a defeated but dangerous enemy, is mostly foreign to contemporary audiences. The closest we might get are cryptic lines from the poet Wilfrid Owen, who died in World War I. Owen wrote that his subject was “the pity of war,” by which he seemed to mean a sense of commonality among soldiers that transcends political or military differences, as if the truth of war is how it connects rather than divides the people who fight it.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” wrote Owen, a sentiment ready made for projection onto this mysterious but deeply beautiful statue.
The Dying Gaul is on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 16 . For more information, visit nga.gov.
An earlier version of this story had an incorrect closing date for the show.