An athletic-themed statue outside of the State Department is marked with few words — but it has an interesting history.
Discobolus is a bronze copy of a fifth century B.C. Greek sculpture by Myron. You’ll see similar copies around the world. Adolf Hitler even acquired one. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
Washington’s version of the ancient discus-throwing jock arrived in 1956 via an Italian delegation. It was thank-you gift. The statue commemorates American efforts to recover Italian art taken by Nazis in World War II.
After several attempts and much debate, Hitler acquired his statue through Italian officials in 1938 and had it transported to Munich. His Discobolus was among the oldest and best-known Roman marble copies. The dictator was eager to collect athletic art that showcased his concept of strength through racial purity. It was displayed alongside similar classics.
By 1948, Hitler’s Discobolus was returned to Italy. It went on display in the Museo Nazionale in Rome in 1953. Discobolus gained new symbolism at the war’s end.
When the Olympics returned from a twelve-year hiatus in 1948, Discobolus appeared on posters beside the British Houses of Parliament as a subtle icon of allied victory. (London’s Discobolus is in the British Museum. Unlike other copies, its head faces downward — the result of a botched restoration that attached the wrong head to a Roman statue unearthed in 1790. Oops.)
You can find America’s copy of Discobolus perched on a vintage column pulled from a Roman archaeological site. It sits in a small triangle of grass at the southeast corner of 21st St. and Virginia Ave. NW. It’s in the shadow of the State Department and Federal Reserve buildings.
A 1963 Washington Post article interviewed the Italian minister responsible for repatriating art removed from his country in WWII. The piece described the State Department’s Discobolus:
The gift copy to America was molded in bronze from the recovered [Nazi] statue and chiseled by Florentine craftsmen according to Renaissance techniques. The Egyptian granite column it stands on was taken from the most ancient theater in Rome, that of Marcellus… Originally the little park he graces was in front of the main doorway of the State Department. But the addition of a new entrance has obscured its site.
After casting in Florence, the bronze was chiseled as it was done during the Renaissance and then buried in the ground for five months and kept in the open air for six months to give the statue a permanent finish resembling antique bronze. The sculpture is installed on top of an ancient Egyptian column made of African gray granite. The column was recovered from a Roman archaeological site. Beneath the column is a base made of travertine marble excavated from a medieval architectural site.