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19 Feb 2021

The ideal souvenir

Written by Joanna Hedley, Art History and English 2nd year undergraduate student at the University of Aberdeen
Grand room in a castle, with a large stone fireplace on a wood-panelled wall. There is a grand piano next to the window at one end of the room, and paintings and tapestries on the wall.
Fyvie Castle was modernised in the late 19th century by Alexander Leith and his wife Marie Louise, who added paintings, furniture, arms, armour and tapestries to the existing collection
In the heart of Aberdeenshire, Fyvie Castle holds an art collection that Alexander Leith (1847–1925) developed to establish his importance and position in Scottish society.

Leith retired in his 40s from his career as a steel magnate in America and returned to Scotland to reconnect with his Scottish heritage. He purchased Fyvie Castle along with its contents and his American wife imported furniture from her own family home to add to the collection.

Facing Our Past at Fyvie Castle

He collected specific artworks purchased through his dealer in London, and personally in Edinburgh, turning Fyvie into a treasure trove by building on the contents left by those who had previously lived there.

Many households today have smaller versions or copies of artworks that they have seen on their travels, which is why I have chosen to explore the importance of three bronze statues, in terms of their value as souvenirs and how they add ‘ideal’ beauty to a home.

The sculptures

Originally created as marble sculptures of Apollo, Venus and the Wrestlers, now in the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, these three 19th-century bronze statues in Fyvie’s collection are much smaller. They are designed to be portable and for display in private homes, placed on table tops or shelves.

Bronze statue of Venus, looking to the side and with one hand covering her left breast and the other resting on her right thigh.

The bronze sculpture of Venus (Aphrodite in Greece) is shown with her son Cupid beside her, riding a dolphin. This hints at the story of Venus’s birth rising from the sea. Her stance suggests she has been surprised and is modestly covering herself. She is leaning more of her weight on her left leg as she looks in the same direction, so she appears momentarily frozen in anticipation. The statue’s symbolism includes ‘ideal’ beauty –represented by Venus’s fair skin, long hair, toned stomach, long legs and soft curves.

Also worth noting is the dolphin, which in Greece and Rome symbolised divine protection at sea. Dolphins were particularly connected with Venus, who was born emerging from the water on a shell. Venus, as the goddess of love, represented purity and beauty, and this – alongside the overall association with classical mythology – adds to the value this sculpture might have had to a collector like Alexander Leith.

The sculpture of Apollo exudes a greater aura of self-confidence than the other statues in this trio. Named ‘Apollino’ in the original marble, it shows the Greek god leaning against a tree trunk, posing with his right hand on his head.

Bronze statue of Apollo, leaning against a tree trunk and with his right hand on his head.

He proudly displays his body, resting his weight on his right leg and looking out to the left. Apollo had many skills – he was associated with prophecy and healing, he was an archer and a hunter, and he was proficient in music and the arts. His confident position in this sculpture suggests he is arrogant, perhaps bragging about his power. The detailed proportions and facial features make him look realistic. The marble statue’s Ancient Greek precursor was named ‘Lycian Apollo’, with the Greek word ‘lycian’ meaning light. This recalls the Lycian peninsula, where he was taken by his mother after he was born. In the statue, Apollo holds a sinuous pose that – in the same way Venus does – accentuates all the aspects of an ‘ideal’ beauty, while also expressing an aura of confidence that a collector might find desirable in their home.

The third sculpture in this trio depicts two men with muscular builds engaged in wrestling. One is dominating the fight as he holds down the other with one arm, the other swung back in the air to give the illusion he is about to strike his opponent. The other wrestler holds himself up underneath his rival’s weight, but his contorted facial expression makes it seem as though he is struggling.

The detail of their muscles and bodies shows the strength of these men and their exertion. All this action suggests movement and makes the figures realistic. Their bodies are lean and muscular, their faces refined; once again they are the symbol of a beauty that is considered ideal – something to aim towards and emulate. The act of wrestling, a sport highly valued in Greek and Roman cultures, symbolised strength and dominance, something a collector like Alexander Leith may have found appealing.

‘Ideal’ beauty

Ancient Greeks used the human body to understand the world around them. Refining the human form was a way of discovering what a perfectly balanced human might look like. If the body was in harmony, then it was thought the mind could be too. The ideal was defined as fit and slim, tall and youthful, and was personified in the images of gods and immortals. The gods and myths were created to rationalise natural phenomena (like volcanoes and lightning) but also to give mortals something to admire and emulate.

Side view of a bronze statue of Venus, with her right hand covering her left breast and her left hand on her right thigh.

These three sculptures demonstrate the power of perfect balance and harmony. The poses of Venus and Apollo are ‘contrapposto’ – designed to suggest movement and to show how to stand with grace, turn one’s head with poise while looking assured, intelligent and full of the right sort of values. This pose is still used today to accentuate a person’s best features when taking a photograph for social media.

When Europeans started to discover these ancient figures, and replicate them, they kept this aura of perfection and fed it into the human desire to exude power through moral and physical fitness. The 18th-century ‘Grand Tour’ also launched global tourism, with (almost exclusively) young men being sent to continental Europe to explore and learn from the ‘ancient’ world. This industry of travel fed a need for souvenirs, as well as the desires of collectors wishing to purchase objects that could illustrate their experience and expertise. As one writer has put it: ‘The Grand Tour was a couple of years enjoying the best that Europe (especially Italy) had to offer. Parties, ladies, fine food and wine… Head home with a sack full of souvenirs and a full and varied experience of life – this was escapism at its best!’

The small sculptures from Fyvie have interested me because I can see where the ideals of beauty that dominate media today come from; ideals like flawless skin, defined muscles and long glossy hair. Also, it has made me look again at the souvenirs my family brought home from our holidays in Italy.

Our souvenirs

In 2007, we went to Florence and visited the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the statue of David, which was originally sculpted by Michelangelo in 1501–04. Before leaving Italy, my parents bought a small figurine and a magnet of David, from amongst many other possibilities, from tea towels to t-shirts.

This statue is one of many other souvenirs in my home – all with a story behind them of where we went and how we got them. We have a large shelving unit surrounding the television in our living room that my mum uses to display her souvenirs. There is a small replica of the leaning tower of Pisa and a print of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. These trips to Italy (and others to France) were part of my parents’ wish to educate us and has influenced me and my sisters in teaching us more about culture.

The souvenirs add character to our home and have become part of an album of objects that tell the story of our family. When talking about the souvenirs one day, my mum told me: ‘most of the photos, images, artworks are to do with our family and our experiences … I like looking at them as if I’m looking at a photo album’. The souvenirs are important factors in a conversation about the pride my mum feels about the household she has created. For me, while the souvenirs are eye-catching, they really remind me that my parents cared about our education and travelling to Italy was a way to open our eyes to culture and history.

I do believe that the mass production and industrial scale replication of artworks can cause their meaning to be lost, or for the original to become somehow less important. However, souvenirs remind people, in the comfort of their own homes, that art is a vital part of the everyday human experience.

Alexander Leith’s trio of bronze sculptures has taught me to be more conscious of the representation of beauty and to ask where stereotypes begin and how they catch on. I imagine he collected these sculptures because they were the right kind of beautiful object to display in his refurbished castle and would have impressed his guests. Similarly, I realise that our family souvenirs might seem to brag about our travels or education, but I know that souvenirs are also memories on display.

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