"A mingled monster of no mortal kind!" - The Chimera of Arezzo

15 November 1553, the Etruscan bronze sculpture known as “Chimera of Arezzo” was excavated.

"A mingled monster of no mortal kind! / Behind, a dragon's fiery tail was spread; / A goat's rough body bore a lion's head; / Her pitchy nostrils flaky flames expire; / Her gaping throat emits infernal fire." (Homer, Iliad)

The Chimera of Arezzo

Derogatory as it sounds, Etruscan art is usually treated as a provincial variety of the powerful Greek styles, and even though distinct features can be found, the Etruscans followed the artistic development of the cultural superpower quite closely. Around 500 BCE, the twelve cities of the Etruscan League in Northern Italy finally began to skim off cultural influences
, usually known as Archaic in art history, from the Eastern Mediterranean and develop their own variant of the Classical style. By then, especially Etruscan painting and sculpting had distinctly taken form and the people that had lain the foundations for the emerging Roman civilisation began to look towards the Greek cities in Southern Italy again for inspiration. The swansong of Etruscan art began, overshadowed by political developments, when one of their vassal settlements, located on seven hills along the river Tiber, began to pluck off one city state after the other from the league.

Peter Paul Rubens: "Bellerophon, Pegasus and Chimera" (1635)

The Chimera entered European mythology with Homer relating the tale of Bellerophon in Book VI of the Iliad. The rather motley monster with a goat’s head and a snake tail attached to a lion was the offspring of Greek legend’s mightiest and most deadly creature, Typhon, born from the union of Gaia, the earth mother, and Tartarus, the underworld, to take revenge for the defeat of Gaia’s children, the titans and giants, at the hand of the Olympian gods. Typhon, called the “Father of all Monsters” mated with Echnida, half woman, half snake, and sired the Lernaean Hydra, a multi-headed water creature, Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of the Underworld, the Sphinx and the Chimera among a flock of other monstrous beasties with lots of heads that all became adversaries of the Greek heroes at some point of the Greek myths. The Chimera herself might indeed be a far older image, dating back to the fire-breathing lion goddess Sekhmet of Egypt and the winged lions of the ancient Oriental cultures of Sumer and the days of the Epic of Gilgamesh, 4,000 years ago and her actually quite useless goat’s head could be a misinterpretation of a wing. Robert Graves’ idea that the three heads of the Chimera might represent the three seasons or a zodiacal constellation and her death at the hands of Bellerophon marking the transition from matrilineal to patriarchal cultures is by no means far-fetched.

The Chimera depicted on a Greek-style red-figure dish from Apulia (around 350 BCE)

The Chimera of Arezzo was rediscovered during excavation works at the construction of a Medici fortress. The bronze sculpture is about three feet tall and was found without her snake-headed tail, added after other depictions of the creature in the 18th century Created by an unknown Etruscan artist between 500 and 400 BCE, the Chimera is a fine example of the transition of the Archaic to the Classical style in Northern Italy, not as sublime as the marbles of Athenian masters, but with a certain primitive appeal on the savagery of her death-struggle. Her goat’s head already turned aside, incapacitated, the snake head still poised to attack and her lion’s head roaring in fear and defiance. Her right foreleg bears the inscription TINSCVIL, a dedication to Tinia, the Etruscan variant of Zeus. Duke Cosimo de Medici himself was so taken by the find that he, according to the famous memoirs of the Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, cleaned the bronze himself with “some goldsmith tools”. The Chimera of Arezzo can be admired today Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence

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