One of Europe’s most breathtaking new museums is on the Croatian island of Lošinj
The arrival of this other-worldly museum with its timeless cargo might just help to change our preconceptions of Adriatic tourism. The sun, sea and scampi are still here, but there is also a new appreciation of modernity, ingenuity and good design - a glimpse of the Mediterranean future, in other words, as well as the Mediterranean past.
It’s not often that a statue gets a whole museum to itself. Even sculptures as iconic as Michelangelo’s David or the Venus de Milo have to put up with a supporting cast of other exhibits.
This is not something that will ever worry the Apoxyomenos (Apoksiomen in Croatian), the 1.9-metre tall, 300kg bronze hunk that forms the centrepiece of the Museum of the Apoxyomenos, opened in the Adriatic island town of Mali Lošinj on April 30 2016.
With the statue’s image plastered across posters and brochures throughout the northern Adriatic, apoxyomenos looks set to be the name on everybody’s lips in summer 2016. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t so difficult to pronounce.
At least the Croatian version of the word is one syllable shorter. Indeed ‘Apoksiomen’ carries a decidedly more exotic sound than the Ancient Greek original, as if the statue is a visitor from outer space, or a time traveller from a distant future.
A bit of a scrape
Dating in fact from the first century BC, the statue was shipwrecked off the coast of Lošinj island on its way from Greece to northern Italy. It spent the best part of two millennia on the seabed before being rediscovered by a holidaying Belgian scuba-diver spotted in 1996. Painstakingly restored in Florence and Zagreb before going on show in several Croatian cities, it soon became something of a national sensation. It has since been loaned out to the Louvre, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the British Museum in London – where it played a starring role in the Defining Beauty exhibition of spring 2015.
It’s an undoubtedly iconic piece of work, portraying a handsome young sportsman giving himself a rub-down after a bout of exercise – the Ancient Greek word apoxyomenos means something like ‘a man giving himself a bit of a scrape’. The subject was a popular one in Hellenistic art: rather like the Discus Thrower, it was an idealized form that said almost everything the ancient Greeks wanted to say about masculine beauty, vitality and grace.
The statue would have originally held a bladed instrument known a strigil – used for cleaning sweat and oil from the skin. However the sculpture’s original strigil has been lost, leaving the Apoksiomen’s hands hovering emptily just in front of his crotch. When viewed from a distance, it all looks rather naughty.
Standing on the palm-fringed waterfront of quaint, harbour-hugging Mali Lošinj (largest town on the island of Lošinj), the museum is a talking point in its own right. Rijeka architects Saša Randić and Idis Turato (professional partners when the museum was first mooted, Randić and Turato have since gone their separate ways) designed a multiple-roomed exhibition area housed in a metal-clad cage, which was then placed inside the shell of the 19th-century Kvarner Palace. The palace’s decorous seafront-facing façade has retained its original appearance.
Admitted fifteen at a time at twenty-minute intervals, visitors progress through a sequence of display areas detailing the history of the statue and its long years of painstaking restoration. The room containing the statue itself is kept until last, creating a sense of anticipation which is rather like waiting for the onstage arrival of a major rock band. The only thing missing is the sight of a roadie intoning “one, two” into a microphone before scurrying back towards the wings.
According to Turato, the distinctive look of each room was inspired by the films of Stanley Kubrick – and his way of suggesting different moods by giving each interior space a strong colour. The all-white, pod-like space that holds the statue itself is, as Turato himself admits, a direct echo of the final scenes of Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A room where visitors can sit and watch videos is covered from floor to ceiling in a huge psychedelic carpet, its blue-green swirls recalling the Adriatic Sea.
The idea of the Apoksiomen as a celebrity is given tongue-in-cheek treatment in the so-called media room, in which almost every press cutting ever devoted to the statue is reproduced on the walls. The room contains a neat visual gag: the real sculpture’s buttocks can be glimpsed through a small window in the ceiling.
Lošinj is a long way from the mainland, and despite being one of the most visited islands in Croatia (it was the 6th most popular tourist destination in 2015), it still feels like the unspoiled, pre-modern periphery of Europe rather than its culturally dynamic heart. It’s just not the kind of place where you would expect to find a major museum like this. Had the statue found a long-term home in Rijeka or Zagreb, however, it would have been just another treasure in a broad national collection – here on Lošinj, it provides the whole island with a signature.
The arrival of this other-worldly museum with its timeless cargo might just help to change our preconceptions of Adriatic tourism. The sun, sea and scampi are still here, but there is also a new appreciation of contemporaneity, ingenuity and good design - a glimpse of the Mediterranean future, in other words, as well as the Mediterranean past.
Museum of the Apoxyomenos, Riva lošinjskih kapetana 13, Mali Lošinj (tel. 051 734 260; www.muzejapoksiomena.hr). Open daily 10am-6pm; adults 75kn; children and seniors 40Kn
© Jonathan Bousfield
All photographs © Maja Bosnić & Ivan Dorotić