Balancing talent

Cistae constitute a characteristic group of Etrusco-Italic bronzes. The majority of these cylindrical, lidded containers were produced in Praeneste (today’s Palestrina) in Latium between the fifth and third centuries BC and were probably used to hold jewellery, cosmetics, and mirrors. Their sides and lids were incised with scenes that freely interpret the style and subjects of Greek, Etruscan and Italic art. The body of the cista was sometimes decorated with chains, while the handle commonly took the form of human figures (for a typical example, see this piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The handle in the featured image comes from the lid of a Praenestan cista, now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The female figure wears nothing but shoes and a diadem, and is positioned with her palms and soles pressed against the bronze base of the handle doing a backbend, in perfect balance.

This acrobatic pose is nicely paralleled by a photo of the US gymnast, Simone Biles. Biles is one of the most talented competitors in her field, who most recently demonstrated her greatness and courage by withdrawing from a number of events at the Tokyo Olympics. She explained that her decision was due to a lack of bodily and mental balance, highlighting both the physical and psychological stress that professional athletes encounter, which for most people remains largely unimaginable.

I don’t think you realise how dangerous this is on a hard/competition surface. Nor do I have to explain why I put health first. Physical health is mental health.

Simone Biles

The extreme reactions of some angry and discontented fans are a sign of how contemporary society has projected its own image onto even the most historic international sporting tradition in the world. Olympic athletes are not showmen, even if they do compete in one of the most spectacular – and most ancient – sports of all. The words of Simone Biles echo a Latin phrase much quoted over the past millennia: “You should pray for a sound mind in a healthy body.”* It is this insight that we applaud in her decision – and also her strength to come back.


* Originally in a different context: Iuv. X. 356.

Featured image and left: handle of an Etruscan bronze cista, 5th–4th century BC, Latium. Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, 54.101 © The Walters Art Museum / CC0. Right: Simone Biles in 2019 (source). Biles’ sentences are quoted from The Guardian, 31 July 2021.

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