Postcard from Rome: The Discus Thrower

It’s disappointing – even a little chilling — to realize that a passion for literature and art does not guarantee the creation of a healthy intellect or the blossoming of a gentle spirit.

Consider Hitler. An avid reader, he had 16,000 titles in his private library. Even at the end, when Soviet soldiers invaded his Berlin bunker, they found it stocked with several dozen books, according to author Timothy Ryback, author of Hitler’s Private Library (nicely summarized in this January New York Times article).

Hitler loved music, too, as I discovered in depth during the writing of my first novel, The Spanish Bow, in which a Spanish cellist contends with a request to perform for the dictator.

My latest adventures have taken me into the world of another of Hitler’s obsessions: the world of classical art.

With visions of Nazi Germany as the heir of all things classical, Hitler became entranced with a statue called The Discus Thrower, which is a Roman copy of an earlier, lost bronze by an artist named Myron. The statue was created at a cultural high point when Greek sculpture was becoming more realistic and naturalistic; the fact that it is dynamic, and captures an athletic moment no less, fit in perfectly with Hitler’s recent propaganda triumph as host of the 1936 Berlin Olympics as well as his desire to motivate a generation into becoming the physically fit “master race.”

In 1938, probably during his May visit to Italy, he managed to talk Mussolini’s government into releasing this privately owned masterpiece, despite the difficulties of certain export laws and the objections of some. (Later, the Nazis would have the opportunity to loot freely, but this was before the war; delicacy still mattered.)The price was set at 5 million lire.

Here, my newest novel-in-progress begins. “The Discus Thrower” takes place in summer 1938, over three intense days. It tells the story of a young, reserved, poitically naive art curator from Bavaria who is given the privileged duty of transporting the ancient statue north from Rome to Munich, a trip that quickly goes awry. Many disasters befall my art-loving protagonist, and Italy – in its dusty, confusing splendor — lulls him into tricky situations, and into considering aspects of his past he has tried to forget. Body image, genetics, brotherly and passionate love all find their way into the story.

But this has been a formal post – and I meant it to be a postcard! Greetings to all my friends, colleagues and readers who kept this blog hopping while I was away. Until last week, I was enjoying a very fruitful research trip to Italy and Germany, the first highlight of which was seeing the real Discus Thrower itself — by which I mean the Lancellotti Discobolus, for anyone interested in the particulars. The photo at top shows my two children sketching the statue in the National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo facility.

Seeing the statue in person was a pleasure, and seeing it in relation to many lesser artworks from the same period, and a few more impressive ones, was essential to my understanding. Note, however, how empty this room is on the day we visited, as compared to the many other Rome/Florence museums (Uffizi, Borghese Villa) that were so crowded we could barely move through each room.

An ancient statue that once excited and inspired a frightening dictator poses in silence again.

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