Wall Street Journal, 3 September 2011 by Lee Lawrence
The first thing you notice is the pose: About 11 inches tall, he sits with his right leg bent inward as though riding sidesaddle, his upper body torqued, his left leg extended. Then you see the face, most of which is hidden by a cloth that drapes across the bridge of a rather prominent nose, revealing only thick, arched eyebrows and eyes that stare down with fierce intensity.
Fondazione Torino Musei
This Tang dynasty burial figure in a Turin, Italy, museum has left curators and scholars puzzling over its origins.
Made in China during the latter part of the eighth century, this unusual Tang dynasty burial figure today sits on a shelf in the Museo di Arte Orientale (MAO) of Turin, Italy, exuding as much mystery as he does energy. To date, nobody can say exactly who or what he is—his clothes, his pose, his expression don't add up. Even his manufacture is atypical: While almost all other known burial statuettes are hollow and cast in molds, this one is solid clay and appears to have been sculpted by hand.
For the moment, MAO has him down as "a Persian riding a camel or a horse," says Marco Guglielminotti Trivel, MAO's curator of East Asian art. And this is plausible enough. One among 500 ancient Chinese works that the Agnelli Foundation donated to the museum, the figure's eyes are rounded, his nose aquiline, and though most figurines show a male rider straddling his mount, sidesaddle is not unheard of. The raised fists, Mr. Guglielminotti notes, might have held reins, while the face cover—as well as a flap of cloth over the back of his neck—would have protected against wind, sun and sand.
"Keep in mind that at the height of the Tang period, the population of the imperial capital was about one million and, of these, at least a fourth were probably foreigners," Mr. Guglielminotti says. And many of them were Sogdians, a Persian people who dominated trade along the Silk Road. So it stands to reason that, when creating a microcosm of everyday reality to accompany the deceased in the afterlife, wealthy Chinese often included foreigners. It also showed just how cosmopolitan they were.
But the camel-rider interpretation is not entirely satisfying. Just ask Marcello Pacini, who headed the Agnelli Foundation for 25 years and acquired the statue at auction some 20 years ago for its collection. "I have never seen a rider with such intensity in his eyes," he says. "His is the expression of a priest honoring a god, not that of a camel rider facing some banal complication." He speculates that our riveting mystery man is a Zoroastrian priest feeding the sacred fire. He points to the fact that Zoroastrian Sogdians had a visible presence in Tang China and that Zoroastrian priests wore a face cover during rituals to avoid polluting the fire with breath or saliva.
Still, the case is not airtight. Zoroastrian priests, for example, wore belts with tassels, yet the belt here is plain; priests usually appear standing, while our man sits; and their face cover—or padam—is square, while this one falls in a triangle like a folded kerchief. Not a deal breaker, according to Mr. Pacini. He speculates that communities of Sogdian traders might have adapted rituals and costumes to caravan life.
Could outside experts resolve the issue? Although intrigued by the Zoroastrian theory, Prof. Suzanne Cahill of the University of California, San Diego, nevertheless warns against reading too much into the disconnect between the eyes and hands. She specializes in Tang material culture and notes that in foreign figures the gaze is often intense "whether or not their bodies are tense. The artists fixate on the big round eyes and often caricature them." But the face veil mystifies her; "it might be part of a dancer's costume," she muses.
In a similar vein, Tonia Eckfeld, who wrote "Imperial Tombs in Tang China, 618-907" (2005), thinks the figure in Turin might be a musician. "His loose sleeves would be consistent with a drummer, and the positions of his arms and hands suggest he could have been holding drumsticks," she emails after examining images of the statuette. But Mr. Guglielminotti, who has the advantage of examining the actual object, says the pose is not quite right for that—one sleeve falls too far over the lap to allow enough room for an instrument.
Mr. Guglielminotti then reluctantly admits to harboring a secret theory of his own. The only other tomb figures he knows that also appear to be sculpted portray four actors—they, too, are in the MAO collection. "Similar dynamism and originality, but," he adds, "there is more: The actors sport 'exotic' clothes that are practically identical to that of the veiled man." Not only do tests indicate that the works probably come from the same atelier, but Mr. Guglielminotti thinks they might depict the same subject: an actor, maybe playing a robber surprised midtheft.
Just a theory, he is quick to add, hoping that future research will investigate this possibility too. In the meantime, only two things are certain: As unusual as our man is among burial figures, he is authentic according to thermoluminescence tests; and whatever he represented to eighth-century Chinese, to 21st-century scholars he is a riveting work of art.
—Ms. Lawrence is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.