The Lost Bronze
In the pre-dawn light of a summer morning in 1964, the 60-
foot fishing trawler Ferrucio Ferri shoved off from the Italian seaport
of Fano and motored south, making a steady eight knots along
Italy’s east coast. When the Ferri reached the peninsula of Ancona,
Romeo Pirani, the boat’s captain, set a course east-southeast, half way
between the dry scirocco wind that blew up from Africa and the cooler
levanti that swept across the Adriatic from Yugoslavia.
The six-man crew dozed. The sea was glassy, but Pirani knew how
temperamental the Adriatic could be this time of year. Just a few
weeks earlier, a sudden storm had blown across the sea, sinking three
boats and killing four fishermen. Weather was not his only worry.
The Second World War had left its mark on the sea and made his job
all the more dangerous. Nets hauled up mines and bombs left behind
decades ago by retreating Nazi forces or their American pursuers.
The arms of many men in Fano bore scars from the acid that oozed
out of the rusting ordnance.
As the sun rose, blinding their eyes, Pirani and his crew sipped
moretta, a hot mixture of rum, brandy, espresso and anise, topped
with a lemon rind and lots of sugar. The strong brew gave the men
not just warmth, but courage. By nightfall, the Ferri had reached its
destination, a spot in international waters roughly midway between
Italy and Yugoslavia. The captain knew of a rocky outcropping that
rose from the seabed where schools of merluza, St. Peter’s Fish and
octopus gathered for safety in the summer heat. Other boats ventured
farther east, into the deep waters off the Yugoslav coast, where they
risked arrest for poaching, But Pirani preferred this hidden shoal.
While fishing there meant occasionally snagging the nets on sharp
rocks, the boat often returned to port full.
The crew cast its nets into the dark waters. They fished all night,
sleeping in shifts.
Just after dawn, the nets tugged, catching a snag. Pirani gunned
the engine and, with a jolt, the nets came free. As some peered over
the side, the crew hauled in its catch: A barnacle-encrusted object that
resembled a man.
“Cest un morto!” cried one of the fishermen. A dead man!
As the sea gave up its secret, it quickly became apparent that the
thing was too rigid and heavy to be a man. The crew dragged it to the
bow of the boat. The life-sized figure weighed about 300 pounds and
had black holes for eyes and was frozen in a curious pose. Its right
hand was raised to its head. Given the thickness of its encrustations,
it looked as if it had been resting on the ocean floor for centuries.
The men went about the immediate work of mending the torn
nets. It was only later, when they stopped for a breakfast of roasted
fish, that one of them grabbed a gaffe and pried off a patch of barnacles.
He let out a yelp.
“Cest de oro!” he cried, pointing at the flash of brilliant yellow. It’s
Pirani pushed through the huddle and looked at the exposed metal.
Not gold, he declared, bronze. None had ever seen anything like it. It
might be worth something. The Ferri’s men made a hasty decision.
Rather than turn it over to local authorities, they would sell the figure
and divvy the profits.
As the Ferri motored back to Fano that afternoon, word came over
the radio that the town was afire with news of the discovery. The
spark had come earlier, when the Captain had mentioned it while
chatting ship-to-shore with his wife. Now crowds had gathered in the
port for the Ferri’s return. Pirani cut the engine and waited until
nightfall. By the time the Ferri pulled into port, it was nearly 3 a.m.
and the docks were deserted.
The crew brought the statue ashore on a handcart, hidden under a
pile of nets, and took it to the house of Pirani’s cousin, who owned the
boat. After a few days, the statue began to smell of rotting fish. The
cousin moved it to a covered garden patio and quietly invited several
local antique sellers to have a look. They offered up to one million
lire, but the crew wanted more.
With the statue’s stench growing stronger by the day, the cousin
fretted that someone would alert police. He asked a friend with a Fiat
600 Mutipla to pick up the bronze statue and take it to a farm outside
town, where they buried it in a cabbage field while they looked for a
A month later, they found Giacomo Barbetti, an antiquarian whose
wealthy family owned a cement factory in Gubbio, 50 miles inland
from Fano. Barbetti said he was prepared to pay several million lire
for the statue but naturally needed to see it first. When the figure
emerged from the cabbage patch, Barbetti brushed aside the dirt,
touched its straight nose and surmised it to be the work of Lysippus,
one of the master sculptors of ancient Greece.
Lysippos was the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great, and his
fame as a sculptor spread throughout the ancient world on the heels of
his patron’s conquests. Lysippos rewrote the canon for Greek sculpture
with figures that were more slender and symmetrical than those
of his predecessors Polycleitus and the great Phidias, sculptor of the
Acropolis friezes. Aside from busts of Alexander, Lysippos was famous
for depicting athletes, and many of his bronzes lined the pathways
of Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic games. Lysippos is said to
have created over 1,500 sculptures in his lifetime, but none was believed
to have survived antiquity.
Except, perhaps, this one. The bronze athlete in the cabbage patch
may well have been one of those lining the pathways to Olympia, only
to become war booty for Rome, whose glory slowly eclipsed that of
Athens. As they swept through the Greek mainland and islands,
Roman soldiers filled thousands of ships with plunder. It was likely in
one such raid that the bronze athlete was torn from its pedestal some
300 years after its creation and loaded on to a waiting transport ship
for Rome. The Adriatic was as fickle then as it is today, whipping up
deadly storms without warning. Around the time of Christ, the ship
bearing the bronze athlete apparently sank to the sea floor, where it
lay for two thousand years.
As Barbetti touched the foul-smelling figure’s nose he clearly saw
something he liked. He offered 3.5 million lire — about $4,000,
enough to buy several houses in Fano at the time. The money was
split among the crew. Captain Pirani’s share was about $1,600, double
his monthly wages.
The bronze, meanwhile, was on the move.