It’s a beautiful, sunny day in the small town of Monasterace on the Calabrian coast of Italy. The date is August 16th, 1972, and holidaymaker Stefano Mariottini is enjoying the final hours of his vacation. Snorkeling in the clear, blue waters of the Ionian Sea just south of the town, he spots something on the ocean floor that will write his name in the history books.
Italy is a country with a rich and colorful history. Having once ruled much of the western world, its cultural and artistic legacy is immeasurable. And let’s not forget the nation’s archaeological treasures. From the melancholy perfection of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the grandeur of Rome’s Colosseum, it’s fair to say that Italy’s buried past has provided a rich and enduring window into life in the ancient world.
In a land packed with ancient wonders, Calabria, on the southern tip of Italy, is somehow even more full. Often described as the country’s “open-air museum,” it seems as though antiquities can be found at every turn. Anything and everything you can think of in relation to ancient civilizations has been found here.
Thanks to its location, the Romans weren’t the only ancient civilization to leave an archaeological – and cultural – footprint. Indeed, in ancient times Calabria was once something of a hotspot for migrating Greeks. Beginning in the eighth century B.C., Hellenic adventurers began to populate this and other parts of southern Italy. So many, in fact, that the Romans later referred to Italy’s southern coastal areas as Magna Graecia – literally, greater Greece.
Of course, when the Roman Empire arrived in southern Italy, this other great civilizing force also influenced not only its politics and commerce, but its art as well. Nonetheless, much of what we consider great Roman art and sculpture also owes an enormous debt to classical Greek forms and techniques.
The town of Monasterace, on Calabria’s east coast, is a perfect example of how entrenched Greek culture was in the region. The place itself was founded by Greek migrants, and the ruins of their settlement, Caulonia, can still be seen today. The myriad ancient artifacts found there prove that eventually the older Hellenic way of life merged almost seamlessly with that of the Romans’.
Now, let’s go back to that beautiful summer’s day in Monasterace. Stefano Mariottini, a chemist and part-time archaeologist, is snorkeling a little over 200 yards out from the Riace Marina. Peering into the Ionian Sea’s crystal-clear waters, the diver notices something incredible.
“I was looking from the surface when I saw a human arm. In that first moment, I thought it was a corpse,” Mariottini told the BBC in 2005. Thankfully, the diver hadn’t found a dead body. Instead, he’d found what has since been labelled “one of Italy’s most important archaeological finds of the last 100 years.”
Indeed, what Mariottini had discovered wasn’t a human body, but a bronze one, and an incredibly old one at that. Realizing what he had uncovered, the amateur archaeologist dug away at the surrounding sand. After a couple of hours’ excavation, the diver had revealed the visage of an ancient Greek warrior. “I was astonished,” he recalled to the BBC. “The face was wonderful.”
The diver’s good luck didn’t end there, however. Not content with just the one amazing statue, Mariottini went on to find a second – yes, a second – warrior. At this point, and perhaps rather sensibly, the chemist reported his findings to the authorities. Just over a week later, both the statues left their watery home for the first time in centuries.
After the statues’ retrieval, the work of restoring them could begin. Once the general muck had been removed it became clear that these statues were something very special indeed. Not that a pair of bronze sculptures turning up at the same time wasn’t an occasion in itself, but these warriors were different.
It is incredibly rare to find full-size bronzes from this period intact, but these figures also confirmed something amazing. They proved Greek traditions had been alive and well in Calabria when they were made. Named the Riace Bronzes, the bearded, naked warriors were in almost mint condition. Their size, style and appearance matched that of the Greeks’ preferred method of sculpture. However, the date they were made, around 450 B.C., put their creation squarely inside the Roman era.
Not only that, but the statues boasted silver teeth, copper nipples and lips, and ivory eyes. These touches certainly show just how intricate the decoration of this kind of sculpture could be. And not even millennia at the foot of the ocean could dull the incredible details carved into the warriors’ faces.
Although no one is sure who created the bronzes, one thing is certain. People love them. When the warriors were first put on show in 1981, more than a million art lovers went to see them. Since then, around 130,000 people a year make the trip to the archaeological museum in Reggio Calabria to view the ancient sculptures for themselves.
As for how they ended up at the bottom of the ocean, again, no one is quite sure. Some believe that they were lost when the vessel they were loaded onto wrecked nearby. No evidence of a shipwreck has ever been found in the area, however. Others think that they were most likely thrown into the ocean on purpose. And while that seems bizarre, offloading cargo is one sure way to stop pirates getting their hands on it.
It’s unlikely that the truth about the warriors’ original journey will ever be known. And while their origin remains a mystery, believe it or not, there’s an even bigger enigma surrounding their discovery. It seems that, around that August day in 1972, something criminal might even have been afoot in Monasterace…
In 2008, one Giuseppe Bragho, a Calabrian art detective, made a controversial claim. According to Bragho, Mariottini didn’t find two statues that day, he found three. And at some point between the diver notifying the authorities of their existence, and the recovery of the bronzes, one of the trio was stolen.
Yes, despite the fact that each statue weighed more than 800lbs when raised from the seabed, apparently, persons unknown were able to remove one without any witnesses whatsoever. To back up these claims, Bragho purports to have “photographed a series of documents that indicate an alarming scenario.” At least, that’s what he told Italy Magazine in 2008.
And what exactly is this “alarming scenario”? It’s Bragho’s claim that the John Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles was linked to this alleged theft of antiquities. The museum, of course, strenuously denies any involvement. In fact, in a statement, it said, “This information is wrong and must be corrected.”
So, a leisurely day at the coast turned into a red letter day for Italian and indeed global archaeology. And while Bragho’s conspiracy might throw a little shade the warriors’ way, it can never diminish the importance, or the sheer beauty, of the bronzes from the bottom of the sea.