Everything you need to know about the Lošinj Apoxyomenos
Recent years have seen the island of Lošinj reinvent itself as a contemporary cultural destination, thanks in large part to the opening of Croatia’s most talked-about new attraction, the Museum of the Apoxyomenos
By Jonathan Bousfield
An ambitious clutch of spanking new museums has changed the face of Croatian tourism over the last few years; none, however, has been quite so talked about as the Museum of the Apoxyomenos in Mali Lošinj. Devoted to a single Greco-Roman statue of a handsome young athlete, the museum weaves a beguiling narrative around this uniquely charismatic piece of bronze, all presented in electrifying, state-of-the-art style.
The name Apoxyomenos is an ancient Greek term meaning something like ‘The Scraper’, a reference to the habit of athletes of cleansing their skin with a scraping tool known as a strigil. The subject was a common one among classical sculptors, although only a handful of Hellenistic-era copies survive. There are Apoxyomenos statues in Rome, Vienna and Florence, although it’s the Lošinj Apoxyomenos that is considered the most perfect example of the genre yet found. Only the strigil is missing, leaving the statue in an ambiguous open-handed posture that if anything makes it even more compelling.
The discovery of the Apoxyomenos, cast into the Adriatic near Lošinj over 2000 years ago, is an object lesson in how it pays to keep your eyes peeled when exploring the sea bottom. The sponge- and barnacle-covered bronze hunk was first spotted by vacationing Belgian scuba-diver Rene Wouten in 1996; it look the authorities a further 3 years to bring it to the surface. The statue was sent to expert restoration departments in Florence and then Zagreb. It took three years of patient fiddling to remove the encrustations, and a metal skeleton was built inside the statue’s body in order to help it hold its shape.
So what exactly was the Apoxyomenos doing on the seabed near Lošinj?
Grains found in the stomach of a mouse trapped inside the Apoxyomenos’s interior helped archeologists date the statue to the first century BC. It was a time when the Eastern Adriatic was a much-used trade route, its plethora of islands allowing captains to avoid the open sea and hop instead from port to port. There were plenty of rich Roman villas in the northern Adriatic, and it is not difficult to imagine a wealthy Roman from this region ordering such a fine piece of sculpture from a Greek master. It’s possible that the vessel carrying the Apoxyomenos was shipwrecked in a storm, although marine archeologists searching the site have so far found nothing else that might relate to such a disaster. The other main hypothesis is that the Apoxyomenos was thrown overboard in order to help the ship ride out a storm.
Soon after its discovery a replica of the statue was displayed in the regional history museum in Veli Lošinj, whetting the public appetite for the long-awaited appearance of the real thing. With restoration complete, the Apoxyomenos was displayed in Zagreb, Osijek, Rijeka and Split in 2012, becoming something of a national celebrity in the process. The statue was exhibited in Los Angeles, London and Paris, a roving ambassador for the Eastern Adriatic which helped to plant the name of Lošinj in the international subconscious.
Meanwhile a bold new home for the statue was built on Lošinj itself. Rijeka architects Randić and Turato adapted the stately colonnaded Kvarner Palace on the Mali Lošinj waterfront by inserting a huge metal-cage structure into the building’s gutted interior. Opened in April 2016, the museum has become a major draw, and images of the Apoxyomenos can be seen on posters throughout the country. A visit to the museum itself is a compellingly intimate experience, with visitors (limited to a manageable number of entries) moving through various chambers explaining the background to the statue: there’s a recreation of its former seabed resting place as well as a display of all the press-cuttings generated by its discovery, a sly reference to today’s celebrity culture and the Apoxyomenos’s new-found status as an expressionless, inscrutable Adriatic icon. The final room is an all-white cube containing the statue itself: in true showbiz style, the best bit is left till the end.
By exhibiting an ancient statue in a 19th-century villa whose interior has been given a 21st-century makeover, the Apoxyomenos Museum is a fitting metaphor for Lošinj as a whole – an inspirational island that provides us with glimpses of our common European past as well as offering a few pointers as to where we are going in the future.
Museum of the Apoxyomenos, Riva lošinjskih kapetana 13, Mali Lošinj (tel. 051 734 260; www.muzejapoksiomena.hr). Open 9am-10pm Tues-Sun; adults 75kn; children and seniors 40Kn