Contrapposto explained

A discussion about contrapposto while looking at “Idolino” from Pesaro, (Roman), c. 30 B.C.E., bronze, 158 cm (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze), speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


This video was made possible thanks to the Macaulay Family Foundation

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] We’re in the Archaeological Museum in Florence, looking at a life-size male nude figure in bronze.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] Now, we both saw this from down the hallway and thought immediately about contrapposto — the Greek invention in the 5th century B.C.E. — a way of naturalistically representing the human body, a real revolution in Western art.

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] When we stand naturally in a relaxed pose, we tend to stand with our weight on one leg or the other. In fact, if we stand for an extended period of time, we tend to shift our weight from one leg to the other every few minutes. It helps to rest the body.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] Nevertheless, when the Greeks before this, or the Egyptians, represented the human body, they represented the figure standing with their weight equally distributed on both legs, making the figure appear very symmetrical, a way that you very rarely see human beings in the world.

Dr. Zucker: [0:57] I don’t stand like that and it’s actually quite uncomfortable.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] I’m not standing like that right now.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] But to represent a figure with weight on one leg is a much more complex endeavor, because the entire body responds. Contrapposto affects not only the legs but the torso, and to some extent even potentially the shoulders and the head.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] The ultimate effect is a revolutionary one, because it creates a figure who seems to exist in our world by breaking the symmetry of the Archaic Greek figures, of Egyptian pharaohs. By breaking that symmetry, we get a sense of a figure who exists in our own world, a figure who is human like us.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] What I’m seeing first is a kind of S-curve in his spine, so that the hips seem to jut out to his right and his rib cage seems to push to his left.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] Because his weight is on his right leg, his left side is more elongated, because his left leg is relaxed, pulling that hip down, and his right torso is compacted.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] You can see that very clearly if you look at the shift in the axis of the hips. It also allows for that sway not only in his body but in his spine as well.

Dr. Harris: [2:10] And then he looks in the direction of the swayed hip. We also notice [that] while his right leg is straight, his left arm is straight, and his right hand opens up toward us. In other examples of sculptures like this from Classical Greece, for example Polykleitos’ “Doryphoros,” that hand often held a spear. You have the weight-bearing hand on the right, and the weight-bearing leg on the right. The free leg on the left, and the free hand on the left.

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] This affects the shoulders as well. If his right hip juts upward, his left shoulder falls down towards it, and so they’re in opposition. The same is true on the other side. On his left, his hip falls, and his shoulder rises.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] The Greek invention of contrapposto in the 5th century B.C.E. tells us that the Greeks have a different way of thinking about human beings and their place in the world. This first naturalistic image of humanity, of human beings, in the West gives us a sense that the Greeks have a confidence in human beings, in the human mind, in human reason.

[3:15] We see that through their philosophy, through their love of athleticism, through their invention of the Olympics, their study of the heavens, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the great Greek comedies and tragedies. The confidence of Greek culture in humanity, I think, is expressed in contrapposto.

Dr. Zucker: [3:35] This sculpture, because it’s not actually Greek but Roman, a Roman copy of these Greek principles, shows us the influence of these ideas. The way that the ancient Romans emulated the Greeks, saw themselves as the inheritor of this tradition. It is through the Romans that these ideas come down to us today.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] And then are revived in the Renaissance. Here we are in Renaissance Florence, where sculptures like this one were rediscovered, were collected, and artists like Donatello, Nanni di Banco — ultimately, Michelangelo and Raphael and his paintings, will create figures that look back to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, and the tremendous naturalism that the ancient Greeks and Romans achieved.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Contrapposto explained," in Smarthistory, December 2, 2016, accessed July 18, 2024,