Male Harp Player of the Early Spedos Type
Getty Conversations

A conversation with Nicole Budrovich, Curatorial Assistant, Getty Museum, and Beth Harris, Executive Director, Smarthistory, in front of Male Harp Player of the Early Spedos Type, Cyclades, 2700–2300 B.C.E, marble, 35.8 x 9.5 x 28.1 cm. Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Four thousand years ago, in the Cycladic Islands in the Aegean Sea, a sculptor carved this figure from a block of marble. The culture of this time and place had a strong oral tradition, and this sculpture begs one to wonder who this figure is, what he is singing, and who he is singing for.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Getty Villa, and we’re looking at a really ancient sculpture. We’re talking more than 4,000 years ago.

Dr. Nicole Budrovich: [0:14] This comes from the Cyclades, these islands in the Aegean.

Dr. Harris: [0:18] Usually, at this time in the 3rd millennium, we’re thinking about the cultures of ancient Egypt. We might think of a sculpture like the “Seated Scribe”; or we think about ancient Mesopotamia, perhaps the “Standard of Ur.”

[0:31] But both of those cultures had writing. Here we are in these islands, in the Aegean, between Greece and Asia Minor, and this is a culture that didn’t have writing and produced these beautiful marble sculptures that we so much want to learn more about.

Dr. Budrovich: [0:49] They speak to a culture that would have had oral traditions and stories, but we don’t actually have the records to show it, so we only have the objects themselves.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] About 5 percent of the sculptures that come out of this area were male figures doing something, but 95 percent of what remains are female figures.

Dr. Budrovich: [1:11] Most of the sculpture from this period shows women with their arms crossed. The fact that he’s male is very rare, and they’re all doing some active engagement, whether it’s bearing a cup or playing instruments, or a little bit later, we have them wearing a baldric.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] It really engages us, the way that he seems to have his chin lifted and is about to sing. Some of the figures seem to be actively playing the harp, but this figure seems to be at a moment of rest, and we can almost hear him or the breath that he takes before beginning to sing.

Dr. Budrovich: [1:49] It’s hard to not think of Homer and the oral tradition of epic poetry, but it’s not the best line to draw because this is so much more ancient than Homer.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] We’ve described him as male, but he has no obvious male attributes.

Dr. Budrovich: [2:02] This figure is very smooth, very abstracted. It’s the activity that he’s engaging in that defines his gender, and also the fact that female figures from the same period did have their anatomy identified.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] We think about Greek art, and we go immediately to the male nude, and there are many beautiful examples of that here at the Getty, but this is not in that very naturalistic tradition. This figure is very abstracted. By that, I mean that the forms of his body are simplified, without any indication of musculature, of the structure of the body.

Dr. Budrovich: [2:42] We are seeing it today with all of its original polychromy gone, so that even simplifies it more. That simplicity was so exciting to artists in the 20th century; it inspired these great works by Picasso and other artists who looked to antiquity and found these forms that felt modern.

[2:58] It’s worth mentioning, many Cycladic objects that you find in museums today are not from documented archaeological excavations. There’s systematic looting in the 20th century, so this is something that archaeologists and art historians grapple with, is understanding their context given that we have lost so much of that history. Is it a god? Is it an actual musician? Is it the deceased?

Dr. Harris: [3:21] Whether they’re deities or whether this represented a figure that would play the harp for a person in the afterlife, these figures had an important and unifying meaning to the people of the ancient Cyclades.

Dr. Budrovich: [3:36] These were very specific to this region. These island, seafaring people who found ways to craft these beautiful marble sculptures from local materials.

Dr. Harris: [3:45] This is the Bronze Age, so this is the beginnings of metallurgy. The sculptor would have worked with local minerals like obsidian, emery, pumice, to carve this figure out of a block of marble.

[4:01] Imagine how easy it would have been to take a chisel and accidentally cut a little bit too much and lose that beautiful graceful arc of the top of the harp. This is an incredibly skilled artisan and the resources of this culture are going into making the female figures and these male figures. It really makes me want to know what he’s singing and who he’s singing for.

[4:28] [music]

Learn more about “Male Harp Player of the Early Spedos Type” in Getty’s collection online

Pat Getz-Preziosi, Early Cycladic Sculpture, rev. ed. (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994).

Martin van Schaik, The Marble Harp Players from the Cyclades (Utrecht: Dutch Study Group on Music Archaeology [NWM], 1998).

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Cite this page as: Nicole Budrovich and Dr. Beth Harris, "Male Harp Player of the Early Spedos Type
Getty Conversations," in Smarthistory, May 17, 2023, accessed July 18, 2024,