Mozia sizzles in the Sicilian summer sun. The flat island sits in a lagoon just north of Marsala on the west coast of Sicily. The Phoenicians founded a colony on the island in the 8th century BC and named it Motya. They were a Semitic civilization that was located in what today is Syria, Lebanon and north Israel. The Greek gods descended from the Phoenician pantheon and it was the Phoenicians who gave us the alphabet that many Western languages use today.
The Phoenicians connected Mozia to the mainland with a kilometer-long causeway that is now submerged in the lagoon. Walls and towers were built to protect the island from invaders coming from the Sicilian mainland. Gradually, as happened with most Phoenician settlements in Sicily, Carthage took over Mozia and made it into a commercial and military power. Carthage was originally a Phoenician city-state. It gained independence in 650 BC and built an empire that extended over the coast of north Africa, the south of Spain and western Mediterranean islands including Malta, Sardinia and the western-most portion of Sicily.
Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse, conquered and destroyed the island in 397 BC. He executed most Mozia residents who had survived his invasion and enslaved others. Some escaped to found Lilybaeum, which today is the city of Marsala. The city’s name comes from the Arabic Mars-al-Allah.
Mozia slept in the lagoon for centuries until Joseph Whitaker, great-grandson of Benjamin Ingham, founder of a major Marsala wine business in western Sicily, bought the island in 1902. The excavations he began in 1906 continue today. In 1979 archaeologists found the statue that is called the Charioteer of Mozia—also the Euphebus of Mozia or the Youth of Mozia— under earth and rocks and other debris. His head, which sustained damage to the nose and lips and chin, was separated from his body but could be rejoined. His arms and his feet were not found. He seems larger than life despite his missing feet.
There is very little about the Charioteer that scholars agree on. They do agree that because of the band around his chest he is a charioteer. Certainly they agree that he is a masterpiece of unutterable beauty and one of the greatest works of Greek sculpture. They believe he was created by a Sicilian Greek sculptor during the fifth century BC. How the Charioteer came to Mozia is not known.
Some art historians believe that the Charioteer is feminized and soft. They point to his slightly curved stance as feminine and to the pressure of his left hand on his hip as softness. I disagree. Certainly there is no softness in his neck or shoulders, or in his back or chest or legs. No one would describe his gluteus maximus muscles as soft.
Is he effeminate? He is sensual and sexy but I would never describe him as effeminate. The thin chiton he wears, also called a xystis, is not found on most statues of Greek athletes. It was often used by sculptors on female statues but rarely on male statues. Historians know, however, that charioteers wore a chiton during races, as does the famous bronze Delphi Charioteer, probably to keep off the furious dust and dirt of the track. The sculptor of the Charioteer was an expert at carving stone to imitate a thin fabric stuck to a sweaty athletic body.
The chiton covers the Charioteer’s sweating torso and legs, and provides little cover for his genitalia. The wet chiton covering his backside reveals the most perfect gluteus maximus muscles you will see anywhere. He is seductive. He is a tease.
Those who study Greek and Roman statuary, particularly statues of athletes and gods, have become accustomed to ramrod postures—the posture of the kouroi, a posture considered very masculine. They question a relaxed pose. He is definitely sexual. The size of his penis perhaps tell us something about his social status. The small penis found on the statues of most naked Greek athletes was considered a mark of superior social status. Does that mean that the Charioteer is of a lower social rank—a foreigner perhaps? Or an ancient version of a scugnizzo, a street boy, who was groomed and trained by some knowing person to become an award-winning athlete?
If we see the Charioteer’s pose as homoerotic then we must consider the sculptor’s relationship with his client and with his model. The client may have known athletes and may have requested the relaxed pose. We also know nothing about the sculptor’s relationship with his model. Artists are often seduced by their models. Is the Charioteer’s pose the result of the sculptor’s attraction to his model? Or perhaps the relaxed pose is simply one sculptor’s rebellion against the classic ramrod pose of the kouroi. Clearly, this Mozia athlete brings new life and eroticism to Greek sculpture.
When I visited Mozia in 2015 I took a Marsala city bus to the embarkation point to the island. The Mozia Line has several small boats that will take you to the island in about ten or fifteen minutes. It’s a short trip but you pass by the Salt Museum and get a good look at the windmills and the salt pans.
The island is very flat but sports patches of wildly blooming bright red poppies. The Whitaker Museum seems a bit out of place on this dry patch of an island. We were in the room of the museum where the Charioteer stands when a group of about 30 students from a local school entered the room. They were quiet and were listening to a lecture by their teacher. I was pleased to see young Sicilian faces exploring the Charioteer. I am sure they were being told that he is a masterpiece. I was happy, however, when the lecture ended and the students moved on. Then I could photograph this marble miracle without anyone knowing what I was thinking. That was just between me and the Charioteer. It was private.
The youthful arrogance in his face and in the attitude of his head freezes you. You can’t avoid making a connection. Does his arrogance come from his having just scored a victory—or is it a defense? You can turn and walk away, but you will always wonder what could have happened between you and this seductive young Sicilian athlete.
In 2013 the Charioteer was lovingly—and very carefully—crated and shipped, along with other ancient Sicilian art and artifacts, to the Getty Museum in California. The exhibit, which was called Sicily: Art and Invention between Greece and Rome, moved to the Cleveland Museum of Art in September 2013 and finally in 2014 to the Palazzo Ajuntamicristo in Palermo. When the exhibit closed in June 2014 the Charioteer returned to his home at the Whitaker Museum on Mozia.
Before he left California for Ohio the Charioteer, the star of the Sicily exhibit, almost prevented the exhibit from opening in Cleveland. Cultural officials in Sicily, the Charioteer’s overseers, wanted very high fees for his loan to the other museums. He was being missed on Mozia and they felt someone should pay for his absence. Directors of the Cleveland Museum, not wanting to cancel the Charioteer’s debut in Cleveland, agreed to loan some of their prized Italian paintings, including Caravaggio’s excellent Crucifixion of St. Andrew, to Italian museums if the demands for additional fees were dropped. They were dropped and the athlete from Mozia was crated again and arrived in Cleveland with his stardom in tact.
When I visited Mozia I immediately understood why they missed the Charioteer. It wasn’t so much his sexy pose as it was money. The boats that take you out to the island depend on tourists who visit the Whitaker Museum to see the Greek masterpiece. The Mamma Caura Caffé in the same spot depends on Mozia visitors to buy lunch and dinner and gelati and cooling drinks. The Salt Museum on the pier charges to visit the salt producing factory and then wants to sell you a container of sea salt.
A lot of people depend on the Charioteer for their incomes. If he is showing off in California or Ohio, there is little reason for tourists to visit Mozia. Incomes drop. They want their athlete to come home.
If there is little agreement about his provenance or about the Sicilian Greek master who created him—or about why he was on Mozia and not at Agrigento or Segesta or Gela—everyone agrees that he is a beautiful young athlete. He is sensual and quite sexy. A masterpiece. And he does good things for a lot of peoples’ bank accounts.
The Charioteer will bring you to a better understanding of beauty, beauty that is deep and complex. It can be a catalyst for a flood of imaginings and can take you to places you have not been to before. You are seduced. You want to kiss his pomegranate smile and smell the centuries in his hair.
Sicilian beauty is sometimes swarthy, sometimes blond and blue-eyed. It can be arrogant or impudent, but it always smiles. Melancholy usually lurks behind the smile. It is not an easy beauty. Layered like a complex Bach fugue, it can easily shift from sadness and resignation to proud dignity or passionate jubilance. Sicilian beauty is mysterious and unpredictable and erotic. That is what makes it Sicilian. It is a seductive beauty. A beauty that is part of what it means to be Sicilian, and certainly one of the reasons so many people are attracted to Sicily. And to Sicilians.