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The sea near Lošinj had been keeping a big secret for over 2,000 years. A tourist diver's accidental dive in 1996 triggered a series of events which led to the most beautiful discovery of the Adriatic underwater world – a priceless sculpture. We will probably never know what exactly happened to it and how it ended up on the seabed near the island of Vela Orjula in the Lošinj archipelago. But the discovery, recovery, restoration, and new life of the handsome statue of an ancient Greek athlete have become an intriguing story in the new history of Croatian culture, with elements of a drama, a thriller and a spectacle.
Soon after its recovery from the seabed, experts decided this bronze statue, asleep since classical antiquity and woken up in our time, was a true archaeological sensation. Shortly after, Apoxyomenos became a cultural and tourist attraction, tagged as a real treasure of cultural heritage, and commonly referred to as the quiet ambassador of Croatian culture worldwide. The highlight of this incredible story of the reborn Apoxyomenos, which started with its discovery at the depth of 45 meters and which achieved remarkable proportions after its visits to the world's greatest museums, culminated at his very own museum.
The bronze statue of the young athlete is a unique find in the Adriatic and the world. The wholeness and the beauty of the creation of this work of art are impressive. The sculpture shows an athlete of perfect proportions removing the oil, sweat and sand from his body with a strigil. This procedure was called apoxyesis in Greek, and the sculpture showing it - the Apoxyomenos. A special reason for experts' enthusiasm was the fact that the statue had been found complete – the only thing missing was the little finger on its left hand. Unfortunately, the strigil and the eyes, which are assumed to have been inserts, were not found.
The Lošinj Apoxyomenos was made of bronze, a copper-and-tin alloy with an admixture of lead, and formed of at least seven large parts cast separately, fused together using liquid bronze. The shaping of the body, especially his curly hair, was made easier by the expensive and fragile bronze. The shaping of the hair is particularly interesting, as the hair, wet with sweat and oil, tousled in rich curls and raised and smoothened above the forehead, was accurately portrayed. In order to accentuate the liveliness of the sculpture, the lips and nipples of the sculpture were made of reddish copper inserts. The artistic provenance of the statue was determined by its bowed head and its gaze directed towards the hands.
Apoxyomenos spent thousands of years soundly sleeping underwater, between two rocks, which prevented it from falling to greater depths. It was noticed during a dive that the head was in the original position, although the joint with the body had given in. The statue was half filled with sand and marine sediment, and the back, a part of the head and neck, as well as the rear part of the right leg were covered in sand and silt. The front part of the body and the head were covered with a layer of limestone incrustation. Marine organisms, shells, grass, and fossils had taken care of the sculpture at the bottom of the sea for two thousand years, ensuring its protection from harmful effects and a high degree of preservation.
The detailed restoration of the Apoxyomenos statue, led by Croatian and Italian experts, traced this extremely well-preserved sculpture back to the 2nd or 1st century BC. In order to remove the harmful salts, pool desalination was done first. The restoration process of removing the thick layer of incrustation was done only mechanically, without the use of chemical substances. Restorers were careful not to damage the original patina, excellently preserved on the front of the statue and on its head, beneath the thick incrustation. After a total of six years of restoration, the Apoxyomenos statue finally appeared in all its beauty.
The Apoxyomenos statue is hollow but that was not the case at the time of the discovery. During the restoration, a large amount of organic material - pieces of wood, twigs, leaves, remains of diverse seeds and fruits, and remains of insects – were found in the body of the statue. Then, upon further research, a rather bizarre fact was established: a small rodent had lived inside the statue in the classical age. It is assumed the rodent was a field mouse. It could have crept in the statue through the hole in the sole of the left foot, and it is assumed it had lived in the statue before the statue was displayed, while lying stored in a shady place, in an outlying part of a settlement.
The restorers found an entire nest, made of grasses, twigs and leaves, in the left arm of the bronze statue. Laurel leaves, which had probably been used to close the entrance of the nest, were also found there and so were the remains of the fruits the mouse was fed on. Particularly interesting finds are walnuts and stones of fruits such as olives, cherries and peaches, bitten to the core, where bite marks of the small rodent are clearly visible. Three samples of the organic material found there were ‘sacrificed’ in order to determine their age by carbon-14 (C14) dating, which enabled the determination of the accurate age of the sculpture.
The sculpture of such value and importance deserved an equally special home – a museum for one artefact. The museum was built within Kvarner Palace, in the very centre of Mali Lošinj. After the reconstruction, the palace retained the external appearance but the inner part was reshaped. The body of the new museum was inserted into a space defined by exterior walls and the roof of the existing palace. A white architectural structure, which contains the exhibition display, floats among the walls of the blue ground floor and the inner facade of the palace. That steel 'cage' is lined with smooth tin segments, with countless welds, done by Lošinj's shipbuilders.
The bold architecture of the museum steers the visitor towards the perfect sculpture, placed out of any time and space context for which it was intended. The passage through the museum is the sequencing of rooms with a completely different ambience, aspect and content, which inform visitors and prepare them for the climax – the encounter with the statue. The architecture, the exhibition display and the interior of the museum are the work of architects, restorers, designers, scientists, historians, artists, photographers, engineers, and other experts who jointly created an unusual and unique space, a singular permanent home for a singular sculpture.
Many museums in larger Croatian towns wished to host the Apoxyomenos sculpture but after a long period of uncertainty and a lot of effort made by the local community, individuals and professionals, it was decided that the new museum was going to be built in Mali Lošinj, on the island of Lošinj, just eight kilometres from the site of the discovery of the sculpture. The local community unanimously agreed that Apoxyomenos was coming home! With the Museum of Apoxyomenos, Mali Lošinj gained not only a beautiful sculpture and magnificent architecture but also a new town lookout. A kaleidoscopic outlook is situated at the very top of the Museum, offering a spectacular view over the Mali Lošinj port.
The ancient athlete deserved to find his eternal home on the island of vitality, which had been preparing for his arrival for seventeen years, from his discovery and recovery until his return on the island. Lošinj, as Apoxyomenos's final destination and a tourist destination, adapted and based its story on Apoxyomenos itself, classical antiquity and its gastronomy, botany, ancient culture and care, as well as activities related to sport and health. Where else could the handsome young athlete have ended up if not on the island where health, vitality and sport are priorities?
After completing a six-year restoration process and a ten-year tour to Croatian towns and the most important museums in the world, from the Louvre in Paris to the J.P. Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Apoxyomenos statue arrived to its own museum. The beautiful bronze young man, 1.92 m tall and weighing 308 kilograms, proudly stands in the centre of the completely monochromatic White Room at the very top of the Museum. Positioned in the centre, on a rather small plinth, Apoxyomenos is suddenly extremely close. One can move around it and observe it from all sides. While looking it in the eyes, all that remains are you and the sculpture.
A translucent textile installation, made to measure to fit Apoxyomenos's room, is the spatial pedestal where the encounter with the Apoxyomenos sculpture takes place at the climax of the tour of the Museum. Diffuse, discreet lighting and a neutral background for the presentation of the ancient statue were achieved thanks to this installation. The space was shaped into a membrane made of translucent and elastic textile, with soft and smooth forms, and the whole process was carried out as a sophisticated task involving applied architectural solutions and a sartorial structure. The combination of dematerialised space, soft light from the glass floor, diffuse lighting from the surrounding walls and indirect daylight from a hidden window reveals the details and the beauty of the statue dominating the space.
The mysterious discovery, sensational recovery from the sea, impressive facts about its value, huge interest in the exhibitions, hyped visits to important museums worldwide, political clashes regarding the location of the museum, and, finally, the construction and completion of the sumptuous museum are just a small part of the numerous Apoxyomenos-related topics which filled thousands of newspaper columns and articles. The popularity and fame of the icon in the media is documented in the Yellow Room of the Museum, which offers an archive of articles, texts, press releases and media reports, illustrating the levels of incessant media attention and presence.
The story about the popularity of Apoxyomenos did not stop with the completion of the construction and the opening of the Museum, On the contrary, it continues through the unceasing following and storing of all new media releases regarding the Museum and Apoxyomenos, as well as thanks to systematic interaction with visitors. The guests of the Museum are invited to share their photographs and impressions from the Museum on social media, and tag them with appropriate hashtags. Visitors’ direct feedback creates a new online image of the Museum and its story, allowing Apoxyomenos's popularity and the phenomenon of this remarkable ancient sculpture to continue to exist in the modern world.