The Croatian Apoxyomenos

After seven years of extremely extensive conservation and restoration operations, it is our great pleasure to present to you the restored ancient statue Apoxyomenos, known to the public since spring 1999, when it was raised from the seabed off the islet of Vele Orjule near Losinj in Croatia.

The Croatian Apoxyomenos

Finding of the statue and underwater archaeological investigation
The ancient bronze statue Apoxyomenos, the figure of a young athlete (h. 192 cm), was found in 1996 by a Belgian tourist, M. René Wouters, under the sea off the little island of Vele Orjule, near Losinj in Croatia. The statue was lying on a sandy seabed, stuck between two rocks, at a depth of approximately 45 m.

In 1998, this find, of incalculable value, was reported to the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia. The Ministry of Culture took over the coordination of the project, which envisaged systematic submarine archaeological exploration, the raising of the statue and its conservation-restoration. But before the beginning of the investigation, in spring 1999 Croatian Minister of Culture Bozo Biskupic, for security reasons, made a decision that the statue ought to be raised at once, to forestall unlawful diving operations at the site.
The raising action involved experts from the Ministry of Culture and the Archaeological Museum in Zadar, as well as Special Police and professional divers.
The statute was finally brought to the surface on April 27, 1999, and during June that year, extensive underwater investigations at the site were carried out in quest of any other valuable finds there might be.

Immediately after the raising, a team of experts examined the statue, and gammagraphic imaging was carried out to provide a better picture of the state of preservation of the statue.
The front of the statue was completely covered with a thick layer of incrustation (organogenic calcium deposits) that had protected the bronze structure and the original patina against the harmful effects of marine galvanochemical processes. But the rear of the statue, which had lain in the sand, was much more seriously corroded. While still in the sea, the lead join of head and neck had completely given way, and the head had thus come apart from the body; cracks on the left shoulder and the front and rear of the upper right leg were observed. The little finger was missing from the left hand, and the inserts that should have been in the eye sockets were unfortunately not to be found.

Conservation-restoration works and investigations

From the very beginning, the Croatian Conservation Institute (Hrvatski restauratorski zavod) had been involved in the project by having built a structure used during the raising, the transportation and desalination of the statue, and subsequently during the systematic conservation and restoration works until the statue was ultimately capable of being presented.
The first conservation procedure had to be desalination, the aim being to slow down and then halt the corrosion processes resulting from the presence of dissolved salts.

For the performance of the conservation and restoration operations, a team of two was chosen: Giuliano Tordi, the Italian restorer, who led the conservation and restoration works, in association with Antonio Serbetic, restorer specialist and head of the Metal Laboratory of the Croatian Conservation Institute.
The operations were watched over by a commission of experts, consisting of Academician Nenad Cambi, Academician Igor Fiskovic, Dr Mario Jurisic, Professor Ante Rendic Miocevic and the chairman, Miljenko Domijan, who also coordinated works as chief conservator of the Ministry of Culture.
The removal of the thick layer of incrustation was a long-lasting and meticulous operation, which was done only mechanically, with precise hand and power tools, the aim being to preserve the original patina in places where it was still in existence. No chemical substances were used in the removal of the incrustation.

Then came consolidation of the most serious cracks and breaks; this was done with arametal, or araldite resin, with additional reinforcements using brass struts in the right leg area. The procedure is totally reversible, and the reconstructed spots are very slightly recessed, so that the results of the operation should be distinguishable at close quarters.
An exceptionally interesting find was that of the small, original bronze base that must have been broken off when the statue fell into the sea. The found parts, which included the base plate and the four lateral sides, decorated with square and swastika ornamentation, were also reinforced with brass inserts and arametal.

Today, the statue would not able to stand were it not for the special internal support construction that has been installed. It bears the entire weight of the statue, transmitting it from the right foot, loaded in the contrapposto position, to some twenty places in the head, shoulders, arms, torso, hips, and ending in an anti-seismic base.

During the conservation and restoration works, investigations were carried out into the bronze alloy from which the statue was made, of the corrosion products, of the alloy that was used to joint the separately cast parts of the statue, and of material found inside the statue.
The statue consists of seven separately cast parts (legs, arms, torso, head and genitals) and the base. It was made with the indirect lost wax method, traces of the casting and joining processes being particularly easy to see inside the body. But the old founders experienced a certain amount of difficulty in casting their statue, and afterwards had to carry out repairs, putting on hundreds of little patches to cover up the deficiencies.

Most of the analysis was carried out in the Science Laboratory of the Opficio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. The Croatian part of the investigation was carried out in the Science Laboratory of the Croatian Conservation Institute, in collaboration with the Experimental Physics Institute of the Rudjer Boskovic Institute and with experts from the Mineralogy and Petrography Institute in the Geology Department, Faculty of Science, Zagreb University.
Experts of the Musei Civici (Como, Italy) and the Botanical Institute of the Faculty of Science, Zagreb University, carried out investigations into the organic materials that proved the statue had been inhabited by some small rodent, which had built a nest inside the sculpture. Samples of these materials were dated to between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD (20 BC - AD 110). This is a particularly important item of information, for it tells us that at that time the statue had already been made, had probably been damaged and placed flat on the ground somewhere, and, of course, had not yet sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Thanks to these demanding conservation and restoration works, the real beauty of the statute that was hidden behind the thick layers of deposits was finally revealed and it was determined that the statue off Vele Orjule belongs to the well know type of athlete statues.

The Apoxyomenos

The athletes in ancient Greece exercised and competed naked and the oiling of the body was the key ritual in preparation for exercising or competing. After exercising or competing, before washing they would scrape the layer of oil, sand and sweat off their bodies with the strigil (Gr. stlengis, Lat. strigilus).
Just as the oil vessel (Gr. aryballos) and the strigil became the symbolic equipment of the athlete, so the procedure of scraping the body (Gr. apoxyesis) was translated into the celebrated and much-loved depiction of the athlete in Greek art - in his role as Apoxyomenos, the scraper.
The Croatian Apoxyomenos, then, is an athlete who has just completed his bout or his exercise and is shown at a moment of relaxation when he is totally intent on cleaning his body. This might perhaps be the depiction of a winner, or just of a general personification of “the athlete”.

At the end it is certainly worth mentioning is the fact that as many as eight other versions of our statue are known, the best-known being the bronze from Ephesus today in Vienna, a marble statue in Florence, a basalt torso in Castel Gandolfo and a bronze head in Fort Worth, USA.
But of all these known copies and versions, the Croatian Apoxymenos stands out for its completeness and quality.

Academician Nenad Cambi of Split and Professor Vincenzo Saladino of Florence took part in this project by drawing up archaeological and art historical survey on the statue.
Academician Cambi dates this type of statue to about the middle of the 4th century BC and concludes that the statue from the seabed of Vele Orjule is most likely a Hellenistic copy of the 1st-2nd century BC.
Professor Saladino is of the opinion that the prototype of the athlete of the Vele Orjule-Ephesus type can be dated to the period of Hellenism, about 300 BC, and that the dissemination of it via the making of copies started in the 1st century BC. This was the most likely date for the making of the sculpture found by Vele Orjule, in the Losinj Channel, a frequent navigational route leading to the northern part of the Adriatic, to Istria and Italy.

From the research results produced to date, it can be hypothesised that the statue was part of the cargo of some Roman ship. At the actual site of the find, there is no trace of a wreck, and this must have been, then, the place at which the ship attempted to save itself from the ferocious gusting of the north-easterly and cast anchor. It is possible that the retaining ropes might have snapped and allowed the statue to fall overboard, even that it was deliberately jettisoned in a desperate attempt at lightening the vessel.

This major project, lasting from finding to final presentation of the restored sculpture, has been brought to a successful ending. A magnificent monument of culture has been made available for the general public to view, and is also there for interested experts to make further analyses of, to discuss and draw conclusions concerning its style, the time it was made, the artist, the production technology and the historical and cultural context of its origins.

Photography: Vidoslav Barac
Underwater photograph: Danijel Frka
(Photograph collection of the Croatian Conservation Institute)

(c) Croatian Conservation Institute -

(D.H., 09.01.2009)