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Bronze:

Bronze, the Metal:

Contrary to the familiar image of Greek sculpture as


white marble statues, about half of all sculpture
produced during antiquity was composed of bronze.
The metal is a relatively strong alloy of two other
metals, tin and copper. Bronze was also first and
foremost the medium of ancient weapons used by the
Greeks and most other cultures of their time. The
metals characteristics of durability and strength coupled
with a somewhat simple method of forging, made it
superior for battle compared to the possible alternatives
of stone, wood, tin, copper, or lead weapons. These
facts made bronze a valuable metal needed by leaders
and city states to create armies. None-the-less, bronze
had many other facets of use to which it was applied.
But whenever there was a war, the subsequent need for
bronze caused anything, include the art of statues,
made of the metal to be melted down into swords,
shields, spears, and other weapons of war. The lack of
modern bronze statues today is the result of this past
wartime meltdown process. As a medium, bronze
proved more versatile than marble and actually
contributed to the transition of Greek sculpture into the
Classical Period. The ability of bronze to hold its shape
- no matter how complex - allowed sculptors to more
easily experiment with less rigid poses. During the
Archaic period, sculpture was restricted to the Eastern
influenced stringency of pose, seen in the kore and
kouros figures, partly by the tendency for their medium
of either marble or terra cotta clay to crack if say an arm
was extended or fall over if the body was turned in
some angle. Not only was bronze a stronger lighter and
medium, but leaden weights could easily be placed
inside the hollow feet, enabling any number of
sculptural poses that would otherwise cause the
sculpture to topple over (or crack from internal stress if
the statue was bolted to a base) if it was made of
marble. The construction of life sized bronze statues
involved many complications and required a special
technique that took generations to develop. Creating
solid bronzes that are life size required immense
quantities of the valuable metal which distorted if dried
as a large thick mass, so the trick was casting hollow
sculptures. This type of casting was first mastered in
ancient Mesopotamia, but around 550 BCE, it is
believed that the Greeks developed the technique
independently or that they may have possibly acquired
it from the Egyptians at that time.

Bronze, the Method of Sculpting:

To understand the process of sculpting in bronze it aids


us to look at the how the Greek method evolved. In the
eighth century (900 BCE), before hollow casting in
bronze was understood by the ancient sculptors,
smaller solid statuettes had been made. These
statuettes, typically handheld personal works, had been
carved out of stone thousands of years prior to the
eighth century BCE and their bronze construction was
no great innovation, but it does signify a step along the
path towards hollow casting. Larger, monumental
sculpture in stone had been accomplished by the eighth
century and it was only a matter of time before
monumental sculpture in bronze would appear. The
easiest method to create hollow bronze sculpture is not
to cast them in one piece, but several, say seven or so.
At first, these pieces were simply sheets of bronze
hammered, as bronze is rather malleable or re-formable
by smooching and flattening, and then welded together
to create a closed hollow sculpture sometimes having a
wooden frame. The technique the Greek sculptors
used after 550 BCE to cast full size bronze sculptures is
a bit more complex, for it does not rely on the welding of
metal sheets but the on the making of a single piece
formed directly from a mold.

Beginning with a clay or plaster full size model replete


with all the details of the final work, a mold would be
created. The model, as it was made of a weaker
material than either marble or bronze, was often made
by covering a wooden frame, with head, arms, body,
and legs, with a few layers of clay. The mold is created
by covering the clay original with a half inch thick layer
of wax and then a much thinker layer of clay. Before
the mold (the mold consists of the outer covering of
clay) has dried, several large nails were inserted though
the clay and wax and tightly fit into the inner clay
model. The reason for the nails is they act to brace the
model in place, so it does not move once the wax in
melted away (exiting though a small hole or two drilled
in the mold but latter filled back up with clay), as is done
when the entire mold and model are heated in the next
step.

At this point, with the wax gone (a step where the clay
mold and clay model hardened from the firing) and with
the supporting function of the nails, there would exist a
half inch thick air space, between the mold and model.
This space is then filled with molten bronze poured
down in a small hole or two in the mold. When the
bronze has solidified and cooled, the clay mold is
removed, revealing a hollow bronze statue. Well, it is
not really hollow since the clay model has yet to be
removed, but this is easily performed by scraping out
the model from a small opening on the bottom. That
entire process provided the easiest method to produce
hollow bronze sculptures, but whether it or another,
similar though more complicated, method was used by
the first Greek casters cannot be determined. The
other method relied on a mold and a core (in the last
method the model served as the core, but the core in
this method is not the original model) but the major
difference is instead of the mold being one piece it is
made out of several. The first step of this process is the
creation of these mold pieces. Exactly the same steps
are followed as before in covering the clay model with
wax and clay, but now the mold is removed (without
melting away the wax, for this time the wax merely
acted to prevent the clay from adhering to the model) in
pieces: like one piece for the chest one for the back,
two for the sides, and so on. The sculptor also had the
option of applying the clay (composing the mold)
directly onto the clay model (without the wax); this
captured all the details of the original model but it
involved shaving half an inch off the mold such that
bronze could later fill this created space between the
mold and core. Adding another twist to this method, all
the pieces of the mold would be reconstructed, this time
without the model inside, in effect making a hollow clay
mold. Next, an adhesive material would be poured
inside filling the hollow mold, and after the material
dried into a solid form, all the pieces would once again
be removed. The result of these steps is the creation of
a core, which is essentially a carbon copy of the original
clay model. This is actually an important step that
makes this method revolutionary as it preserves the
original model allowing the sculptors assistants to
reproduce the same sculpture any number of times by
simply taking more mold pieces from the model and
then making additional core pieces. The wax is then
removed from the mold pieces and the fine details of
the final sculpture are easily carved into the soft clay
interior of the mold parts. The details are carved into
the inside of the mold because that surface will
eventually be in contact will the molten bronze. Wax is
then put back into the interior of the mold pieces over
the details just added. After the core is complete and
the mold finished and re-waxed this method actually
branches with two different choices to move on from.
The limitations of working with molten bronze
encountered by the first casters probably made the
choice of casting seven or so pieces from the various
mold pieces and the core. This choice is easier to
implement as each bronze piece cast dealt with a small
portion of the entire sculpture like a leg or head, for
example (again nails would support the mold over the
core and the wax would be melted away prior to
addition of the liquid metal). Once enough smaller
bronze pieces were cast they would all be welded
together into the form of the finished sculpture, just like
the hammered bronze sheets were connected by the
more primitive sculptors. The other choice, requisite of
a higher degree of experience in working with larger
quantities of molten bronze, was the casting of one
single bronze piece. This choice involved a complete
reconstruction of the mold over the core, the insertion of
supportive nails, the draining of the waxen inner lining,
and then the filling of the empty space (left behind when
the wax melted away) with molten metal. The name for
these methods of casting bronze sculpture is cire
perdue, translated quite fittingly to "lost wax" as wax is
drained from the mold and "lost" in that sense.

Any sculpture created from any of the previous casting


techniques still needed some finishing touches after it
was removed from the mold and after the core inside
was scrapped out, before it was considered complete.
First, the metal had to smoothed and polished and
some details like hair were carved into the metal. A
varnish was then applied to change the yellow color of
the bronze to a darker or lighter hue, as was desired by
the sculptor. Another finishing step was the addition of
other metals, such as copper nipples and silver or gold
for the lips and jewelry. Enamel or glass was often
inset in the eyes to give them a realistic appearance
and fine strands of copper were sometimes used as
eyelashes and eyebrows. Unlike marble, the nature of
bronze permitted the sculptor to utilize exquisite detail
Riace Bronze: Warrior Figure. and extraordinary shine or dullness; in other words:
although bronze was more costly, it was a versatile and
powerful medium for the art of sculpture. The other
bonus of sculpting in bronze was the ease of
transportation, considering how light a hollow bronze
statue is compared to a counterpart in marble.
Indirectly, this transportation of bronze statues--
primarily those shipped by boat - has helped build our
supply of Greek original bronze sculpture. The not too
uncommon storms that arise out of nowhere in the
Mediterranean occasionally would sink trading vessels
and with them their cargo of bronze statues that would
all be covered with the thick mud at the sea floor.
Although the covering mud makes the discovery of
these sunken statues more difficult, it acts to preserve
the metal that would otherwise corrode away. One
such discovery has provided the Riace Bronzes, two
key transitional sculptures into the Classical period,
belonging specifically to the period, around 450 BCE,
known as the Severe style.