- Museum number
- Object: The Townley Discobolus
The Discobolus: marble statue of an athlete stooping to throw the discus. One of several Roman copies made of a lost bronze original made in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Myron. The head is wrongly restored and should be turned to watch the discus.
- Production date
Height: 1.70 metres
Height: 1690 millimetres
Width: 1050 millimetres
Depth: 630 millimetres
- Curator's comments
The Townley Discobolus, a Graeco-Roman copy of a fifth-century BC bronze statue, was excavated at Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli near Rome in 1791, and purchased by the dealer Thomas Jenkins the following year. After restoration by Carlo Albacini it was offered for sale in England and purchased by Charles Townley for the considerable sum of £400.
Jenkins assured Townley that in form and quality the Discobolus was comparable to the famous version owned by the Massimo family, which had been discovered ten years before and which the antiquarian Carlo Fea had since identified as a copy of the famous statue by the Greek sculptor Myron. Although the head of Townley's statue had been broken off, Jenkins claimed that it had been discovered lying beside the torso on the site, writing to Townley on 27 September 1794: 'The Head of Your Statue was not only found with it, but I believe You will See it is Precisely the Same Vein of Marble, that in Rome, there never was the slightest doubt of its authenticity'.
Townley remained worried, however, on several points, and upon its arrival in London in 1794 he wrote to Jenkins, asking why the head of his statue faced outwards, and was not turned back to observe the discus, as in the Massimo version. Jenkins consulted the papal antiquary Visconti, who produced an elaborate theory, arguing that the posture of the Massimo Discobolus was 'forced, & Certainly disgusting to the Sight', and that the artist of Townley's statue had simply improved Myron's defective pose.
Soon afterwards another headless torso of a discobolus was excavated at the same site and was acquired by Visconti for the papal collection at the Vatican; when a modern head was provided for it Visconti chose to base the restoration on the Townley forgery, rather than on the authentic statue in the Massimo collection.
It seems clear that the head of the Discobolus is not original to the torso. Nevertheless, it is unquestionably antique and has been matched with consummate skill. The head is of the same Carrara statuary marble and does, indeed, have the same veining as the torso, although it is obviously reworked; it is probable that the two statues which provided the head and torso originated from the same quarry at Carrara.
This is an interesting example of a forgery being given legitimacy by academic experts, and itself becoming an admired prototype; although Richard Payne Knight published the head as a foreign addition in 1809, the British Museum itself attempted to deny the fact as late as 1861.
Literature: R. Payne Knight, Specimens of Ancient Sculpture, London 1809, pl. xxix; A. H. Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. British Museum I, London 1890, pp. 90-1; S. Howard, 'Some Eighteenth-Century Restorations of Myron's "Discobolus",' Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 25 (1962), pp. 330-4; F. Haskell & N. Penny, Taste and the Antique: the lure of classical sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven & London 1981, pp. 199-202; J. Raeder, Die statuarische Ausstattung der Villa Hadriana bei Tivoli, Frankfurt 1983, p. 38; B. Cook, The Townley Marbles, London 1985, pp. 43-5.
Cook 2013, nr. 292:
A copy of the Discobolus of Myron, with an alien head set at the wrong angle (of the many surviving examples of the type, the only one complete with its ancient head is the copy formerly in the Lancelotti Palace, later in Munich, and now in the Museo delle Terme, Rome).
Found in Hadrian’s Villa in 1791 and at first claimed by Jenkins to have its own head and its original surface (TY 7/511), although the latter claim was later withdrawn (letter dated 3 March 1792, TY 7/512; cf. TY 7/521, dated 2 September 1792, where it was admitted that the statue had been cleaned with acid, brush, and sand).
On 22 January 1791, Jenkins wrote to Townley that new excavations had been undertaken at Hadrian’s Villa by the Pope’s nephew (TY 7/505). The finds were brought to Rome. Townley acquired three items: the base of a candelabrum, a head of Bacchus, and the Discobolus.
In TY 7/511, Jenkins reported that the Pope had refused an export licence, but this decision was reversed later in the year on political grounds: according to Jenkins the Vatican was anxious to be obliging to the English because of the danger from the French (TY 7/523/1, 21 November 1792). Meanwhile, the Marquis of Lansdowne expressed an interest in acquiring the Discobolus, as well as a Hercules from the same excavation (TY 7/513, dated 17 March 1792), but he later agreed that Townley should have it (TY 7/1083, draft of a letter from CT to Lansdowne). On 18 August 1792 (replying to Townley’s letter of 24 July), Jenkins confirmed Townley’s claim to the Discobolus (TY 7/520). Even after the export licence was received, the statue was delayed at Leghorn because of danger from the French (TY 7/525, 23 March 1793). It was still there on 31 August 1793 (TY 7/530), but shortly before the end of November, Townley was able to inform Jenkins that it had arrived in London, this news being acknowledged with surprise by Jenkins on 2 January 1774 (TY 7/531).
Bought from Jenkins for £400 (TY 7/511; cf. TY 10/3, addenda on fo. 28).
Restored by Albacini (G. Vaughan, ‘Albacini and his English Patrons’, Journal of the History of Collections 3/2 (1991), 183-197, 194: CT at first queried the angle of head, but was later ‘reassured’ by TJ; ibid 195).
* Townley drawings 2010,5006.58 to 61, and 2010,5006.90 and 91, the latter two attributed to Dolcibene (I. D. Jenkins);
* Zoffany: B. F. Cook, `The Townley Marbles in Westminster and Bloomsbury’, The British Museum Yearbook, 2 (1977), 36-37, figs. 19-20, no. 1;
* Chambers: B. F. Cook, `The Townley Marbles in Westminster and Bloomsbury’, The British Museum Yearbook, 2 (1977), 48-49, figs. 30-31, no. 12 and dining room 31 (the latter out of place);
* Nollekens: B. F. Cook, `The Townley Marbles in Westminster and Bloomsbury’, The British Museum Yearbook, 2 (1977), 46, figs. 28-29, no. 2 (out of place).
- Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum (1808), X.34;
- Ancient Marbles of the British Museum, XI, pl. 44;
- A Guide to the Graeco-Roman Sculptures in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 2 vols. (London, 1874  and 1876), I, no. 135;
- H. Winnefeld, Die Villa des Hadrien bei Tivoli. JdI Ergänzungsheft III (Berlin, 1895), 162;
- A. H. Smith, A Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum, Vol. I (London 1892), 90-1, no. 250;
- S. Mirone, Mirone d'Eleutere (Catania, 1921), 54, no. 2 (biblio.), pl. 9, fig. 53;
- S. Howard, ‘Some Eighteenth-Century Restorations of Myron’s “Discobolus”’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 25 (1962), 333, pl. 46 d;
- F. Haskell and N. Penny, Taste and the Antique (New Haven and London, 1981), 200, with note 17;
- J. Raeder, Die statuarische Ausstattung der Villa Hadriana bei Tivoli (Frankfurt, 1983), 38;
- B. F. Cook, The Townley Marbles (London, 1985), 42-3, fig. 40;
- M. Jones (ed.), Fake? The Art of Deception (Exhibition Catalogue, London, 1990), 140-2, no. 144;
- G. Vaughan, ‘Albacini and his English Patrons’, Journal of the History of Collections 3/2 (1991), 183-197, 194-195, fig. 12;
- S. Walker, Greek and Roman Portraits (London, 1995), 29, fig. 18.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1980, 5 Jun- 26 Oct, London, BM, The Ancient Olympic Games
2008, 1 May-12 Jul, Shanghai, The Ancient Olympic Games
2008, 2 Aug-31 Sep, Hong Kong, The Ancient Olympic Games
2009, 2 Apr-13 Oct, Alicante, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2010, 2 Feb-4 Apr, Istanbul, National Archaeological Museum
2010, 30 Apr-30 Aug, Seoul, National Museum of Korea, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2010-2011 15 Oct-07 Feb, Taipei, The National Palace Museum, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2010-2011, 11 Mar-12 Jun, Kobe City Museum, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2011, 4 July-25 Sept, Tokyo, The National Museum of Western Art, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2011-2012, 25 Oct-12 Feb, Mexico City, National Anthropological Museum, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2012-2013 6 Oct-6 Jan, Portland Art Museum, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2013, 6 May–6 Oct, Dallas Museum of Art, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2014, 21 Feb-9 Jun, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greek Art and Thought
2014, 2 Aug–9 Nov, Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria, Australia, The Body Beautiful in Greek Art and Thought
2015, 26 Mar-5 Jul, The British Museum, Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art
2017-2018, 10 Nov 2017 - 18 Feb 2018, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, India, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories
2018, 6 May- 30 June, National Museum, New Delhi, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories
- Acquisition date
- Greek and Roman
- Registration number
- Joined objects
Associated Group: G14763 (8 objects)