In the Shinbashi district of Tokyo, a small piece of ancient Rome stands in front of an office building in the form of a statue of a Greek youth named Antinous. A favorite and lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, Antinous died tragically—whether it was an accidental drowning, suicide or ritual sacrifice is not certain. He was deified after his death, becoming a lesser god in the Greco-Roman world.
In order to immortalize him, the emperor commissioned several Greek sculptors to make statues of Antinous. The statues depicted the youth dressed as many gods and heroes, such as Bacchus (or Dionysus), Apollo, Hermes, Silvanus, and Osiris. Today, a number of these sculptures have been discovered and are now in museums across the world.
One such statue can be found in the metropolis of Tokyo, in front of an office building. It’s thought to have been created in the 2nd century and was salvaged in 1798 from the waters off Ostia, Rome, along with an identical statue that is on display at the Vatican Museums.
Dressed as Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasons and change, this Antinous holds a bouquet of flowers with a melancholic expression on his face. The statue is in fine enough condition so that if you passed it by without knowing its history, you might well dismiss it as a modern reproduction, rather than a genuine piece of antiquity, and walk on. But if you step closer, you’ll notice the centuries’ wear visible on its surface, and that a few other ancient Roman sculptures stand inside the building, even one whose provenance can go back to Cardinal Richelieu’s household.
The reason why this building has such ancient sculptures is not complicated. There used to be a privately-owned Matsuoka Museum of Art on its top floor from 1975 to 2000, until it was relocated to Shirokanedai, about 3 miles away. The statues seem simply to be the museum’s leftovers, enjoying the quiet at the heart of Tokyo and few occasional visitors today.