by Linda Lappin
Not too long ago, I made a trip to Florence to visit an old friend who has dwelled in my unconscious for a very long time, ever since I first laid eyes on her at the Archaeological Museum: the Chimera. This bronze statue, cast in one piece, depicting a three-headed beast composed of a lion, a goat, and a snake is considered by many art historians to be among the major masterpieces not only of Etruscan sculpture, but of all ancient religious art that has come down to us from anywhere the world over. After years of absence, she does not disappoint, radiating electrifying power and intensity.
The sculpture, eighty centimeters tall, shows a regal beast on the defense, with a jagged mane of spikes, its sinuous body tensed to pounce, ribs protruding from its sleek, gaunt sides, suggesting hunger. Its open jaws roar in pain and fury. The extremely realistic, flat-eared goat head sprouting from its spine leans downwards, shedding drops of blood on the base of its neck. Soulful eyes gaze out helplessly as a vicious serpent, which is the Chimera’s own tail, stretches out to strike, seizing the goat’s horn in its jaws.
The Chimera, as notes Ugo Bardi distinguished chemistry professor at the University of Florence, environmental blogger, and author of a study on the beast, Il Libro Della Chimera, (edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 2008,) is portrayed in a moment of suffering. She is a fighter, but she is losing. Bardi goes on to say that the Etruscan artist who made this Chimera, roughly in about 400 B.C. may have wanted to express the fate of his people who at that time were gradually being overcome by the Romans. Or perhaps he wished to express his own destiny, that of all human beings, who will eventually be overcome in a final, individual battle. “We are all chimeras,” Bardi suggests.
Once face to face alone with this astonishing creature your first desire is to reach out and caress its smooth sides and haunches, then to run your hand across the cold bronze spikes of its mane and hackles and test the sharpness of the claws. But your next immediate response will be a question: But what does it mean? for this curious three-headed combo must mean something. What Ugo Bardi sets out to do in his thought-provoking study is to illuminate that meaning on many levels.
First, he provides us with a historical account of its discovery unearthed by workers digging outside the Arezzo city walls in 1553, her transferal to Florence where she captivated Cosimo I De Medici, and soon became a symbol of Tuscan cultural and political identity. He describes the vogue for Etruscan culture to which she contributed, as scholars tried to link the undeciphered Etruscan language to Hebrew and sought traces of the mysterious race who were the forefathers of the Renaissance Tuscans, rivals to the Renaissance Romans. He explains why indeed she is not a fake, as some have claimed. He investigates her mythic background as a fire-breathing female creature who laid waste the land of Lycia until she was slain by the hero Bellerophon, riding on Pegasus. To kill the Chimera, Bellerophon shot a wedge of lead to the animal’s throat, where it melted on contact with her fiery breath, causing her to die of suffocation. Bardi reminds us that the Chimera was no monster but a goddess. Later accounts attempted to rationalize the myth, by claiming that she represented a volcano.
Readers will find all this and more in Bardi’s exhaustive study which includes a fascinating essay on the origins of the myth of the Chimera and the female archetype it represents, akin to both the Sphinx and the Great Mother. Citing both Freud and Joseph Campbell, he traces the recurrence of this archetype in religion and art from Mesopotamia to the present day, offering a psychoanalytical interpretation for the myth as an Oedipal rite of passage.
Thus far, we might say that in the Libro Della Chimera Bardi has assembled all the known facts and lore about this mystifying beast, along with a beautiful selection of photographs and drawings, but he goes even further, to make a momentous discovery of his own which may indeed lead us to solve the enigma of her essential meaning.
When the Chimera was pulled out of the earth, she was found to have a word engraved on her right foreleg TINSEVIL, which over the centuries has been interpreted in dozens of ways, related to the Etruscan god of thunder, Tin. Bardi conducts his own linguistic research on this term and finds connection with one of Europe’s most ancient and mysterious languages: Basque. From this he derives an extraordinary theory as to the Chimera’s true meaning and identity.
In many cultures letters and words are sacred, not mere abstract symbols of sounds, but seeds from which may germinate emotions, visions, entire universes. When spoken aloud or merely formulated in the mind, words can conjure gods and demons, materialize blessings or curses, shatter a brick wall into fragments or even make the limbs of a statue shudder to life. Such power may lie dormant in the word TINSEVIL, for it has also inspired Bardi’s newest literary project, a novel, about which soon I hope the world will have news.
Il Libro della Chimera is at present only available in Italian but much of the material can be found in English on his wonderful website Ugo Bardi Chimera Site
The book in Italian may be purchased here
Ugo Bardi, one of the most followed environmental bloggers in Italy, writes beautifully in English on some very scary topics about which he is expert: collapsing systems and planet plundering. Follow him here