“Exploring the Peloponnese” is Peter Sommer Travels’ second scheduled tour in Greece in 2018. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog, following last year’s precedents in Crete and the Dodecanese. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
Today was one of the biggest days on our Peloponnese tour, although there are more glories to follow. We spent the entire morning – and a long morning it was – visiting the site of Ancient Olympia, one of the most important religious and social centres of Ancient Greece. It is here that the great athletic contests in the honour of Zeus, known as the Olympics, were held every four years for over 1,150 years, from 776 BC (or earlier) to AD 393. The event was one of the defining moments of Greek identity and culture for all that time, and as a result, the site became enormously significant, a place where this Greek identity was expressed, exercised, experienced, exploited and exchanged.
There is so much to see at Olympia. The gymnasium and palaistra, both training grounds for the athletes, the athletes’ baths, one or several hostelries for important guests, the remains of countless monuments commemorating Olympic and other victories by individuals or city-states, the great 5th-century BC Temple of Zeus that housed the now-lost gold-and-ivory statue of the god that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the venerable Temple of Hera from before 600 BC, other temples, and the stadium supposedly delineated by Herakles/Hercules himself are just some of the monuments to be seen, all neatly described by the travel writer Pausanias in the late second century AD.
One of the individual items Pausanias mentions is a statue of Hermes (the youthful messenger god) carrying the infant Dionysos (the god of wine and more) by Praxiteles, the most famous 4th century BC Athenian sculptor. Pausanias does not say much about the Hermes of Praxiteles, but mentions it being placed in the Temple of Hera. It is in the ruins of that very temple that German archaeologist discovered a well-preserved, but broken, marble statue of high quality in 1874. It has been controversial ever since.
The doubters argue that the statue, whatever Pausanias says, has not been copied at all or enough, that its back is insufficiently finished, that the bar supporting the god against a tree-trunk is a sign of poor workmanship, and various more such arguments. I – and not I alone – would argue that the statue is near-perfect. Its softly-polished finish, making the marble (it’s from Naxos or Paros) look as if it it might feel like flesh, the unbelievably finely-executed contraposto (the curve that goes through the entire body, reflecting how the weight of the figure just rests on one leg), the fine and aloof face, the superb work on the God’s curly hair, all is of the highest quality imaginable, of higher quality – in my opinion – than any other piece of ancient sculpture. This is the real thing: the Hermes of Praxiteles.
If we were to posit that this is not by Praxiteles, a sculptor known for the extremes of sensitivity and sensuality his work could achieve, we would therefore have to posit a similar genius of equal greatness in the Hellenistic or Roman era instead. At the end of the day, it does not matter. The Hermes of Praxiteles at Olympia, whatever its true identity, is the finest of all ancient sculptures, an object of unique beauty and strength and, whoever made it, a masterpiece.
Leaving Olympia, we drove through the mountainous country of Arcadia, the central region of the Peloponnese, to the mountain town of Dimitsana, where we were greeted by a rainbow. Tomorrow, we will explore this rough upland region. We’ll tell you about it…