University of Virginia Returns Rare Archaic Sculptures to Italy

January 03, 2008

Jan. 3, 2008 — Two acroliths — images of the goddesses Demeter and Kore, created about 525 B.C. of cloth, wood and Greek island marble — will be returned to Italy, the University of Virginia announced today.

In 2002, the sculptures were donated to the University with the approval of the Italian authorities, with the understanding that after a five-year period, required by the terms of the gift, they would be repatriated. During this period the sculptures have been displayed at the University of Virginia Art Museum.

The life-size acroliths — statues with cloth-draped bodies and stone extremities — were initially discovered about 1978 by clandestine diggers at the Sicilian Greek city of Morgantina, in a sanctuary outside the city walls. After leaving Italy, they passed through the London antiquities market into the private sector.

What remains of the sculptures today are the stone heads, hands and feet of the two goddesses. It is believed that the same sculptor carved both works. The two smiling goddesses originally sat side-by-side in a small temple with their hands extended, probably holding ears of wheat — representing Demeter as the goddess of the grain harvest and Kore, also called Persephone, as the queen of the underworld.

"As original archaic Greek statues in the acrolithic technique, these are exceedingly rare sculptures," said U.Va. art history professor Malcolm Bell III, who has directed the U.Va. archaeological excavations in the classical and Hellenistic city of Morgantina, Sicily, since 1980.
"What is also remarkable is that we know where the sculptures were found — not just the general provenance at the Sicilian city of Morgantina, but in a specific sanctuary of Demeter and Kore. The repatriation of the sculptures is therefore especially appropriate and important because they can be put back in their original historical, cultural and religious context," Bell said.

"We have been grateful for the opportunity to study and exhibit these ancient treasures at the University of Virginia," said Elizabeth Hutton Turner, vice provost for the arts and interim director of the U.Va. Art Museum. "What better lesson for our students than to be good stewards of great art and to do the right thing by repatriating these works."

Bell served as an advisor for both the United States and Italy for an accord that was signed in 2001 that declares that imported Italian antiquities whose origins could not be proven by Jan. 19, 2001 must be returned. Since 2001, he has served as a consultant to the Italian government on issues regarding the illegal antiquities market and the repatriation of Italian works in collections in the United States, which will both help protect archaeology sites and also promote an understanding of the context in which the works were created and used. 

"By returning the acroliths, we can help to reverse the destructive process of pillaging, which deprives archaeological sites of so much of their meaning, and strips major works of art like these of their functional history," Bell said. "The University of Virginia Art Museum has served as temporary custodian of these wonderful sculptures, and we are now very happy that they can return to the place where they were once venerated — where from cloth, wood and imported marble they were fashioned into images symbolizing the hopes of men and women for agricultural prosperity and a blessed existence after death. We are grateful to the Italian authorities for their approval of the arrangement, which makes possible the repatriation."      

Sometime in February, the sculptures will be presented to carabinieri of the special group assigned to the protection of national patrimony, and later this year they will be exhibited in the Morgantina Museum, along with votive offerings and other objects found in the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore.

To celebrate the return of the sculptures the University of Virginia will hold a symposium, "The Goddesses Return," on Feb. 2. Scholars from the United States and Italy will discuss these cult images, and a panel composed of present and former museum directors and the director general of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Properties will consider the leading issues of museum ethics, the antiquities market and the preservation of archaeological sites. The event will be held at U.Va.'s Harrison Small Special Collections Library from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Bell has been professor of Greek art and archaeology at the University of Virginia since 1980 and teaches classes in Greek sculpture and painting, the Greek city, the art and architecture of ancient Sicily. He has served as Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art and as professor-in-charge of the School of Classical Studies at the American Academy in Rome.

His publications have concerned Greek art and culture in Sicily and his research interests include the history of city planning. He is preparing a book on the civic architecture of Morgantina, a monograph on the classical sources of Thomas Jefferson's architecture at the University of Virginia.