1. Damien Hirst: Hydra and Kali Discovered by Four Divers.
Photograph by Christoph Gerigk. Damien Hirst: Hydra and Kali, bronze. 526.5cm x 611.1cm x 341cm.
© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.

Unbelievable treasures

Is Damien Hirst's trove of 'antiquities' brought up from the sea-bed just a shipload of crock, or is it an historically accurate, if anarchistic, tribute to marine archaeology? Sean A Kingsley tries to fathom the answer

Roll up, roll up for the greatest show on earth. As Venice slowly sinks beneath the waves, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, 189 of them in all, have surfaced in artist Damien Hirst's latest, boldest extravaganza, which has been a decade in the making, at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana.

2. Damien Hirst: A Collection of Vessels from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved,

The bad boy of Brit Art invites us on a voyage of discovery to gawp at a 2000-year-old lost cargo once shipped on the Apistos (the Unbelievable) by the powerful Roman art collector Aulus Calidius Amotan, whose costly write-off would become enshrined in the Dinner Conversations of Apollonius of Samos. Hirst's supposed sponsorship of the wreck's salvage off East Africa is given a patina of real time and place through moody underwater video and stills tracking the artworks as found from the sea floor to the surface.

Big, brash and splendidly over the top, with a creative price tag exceeding $50million, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable confuses art critics like no other mega-show of recent years. Some can't see beyond what they judge to be its offensive scale and cost. Others accuse Hirst of conceit, glowing in acclaim for art that was actually made by a team of artisans. It's as wrong, they say, as the boxing promoter Don King taking credit for Muhammad Ali's genius in the ring.

3. Damien Hirst: The Severed Head of Medusa, malachite. 37cm x 43cm x 58cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved,

Mostly the theme has baffled art critics expecting to see ancient masterworks, but finding themselves instead immersed among obvious fakes mixing mythological monsters with statues of modern celebrities, such as American singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams transformed into an Egyptian pharaoh. So what does Damien Hirst think he's doing other than flashing deep pockets?

Beyond the hype of this exhibition is an homage to the past rooted in sound historic plausibility. Plenty in the backdrop is more Jacques Cousteau than Walt Disney. The concept penetrates the depths of time, returning to a Roman past lusting for luxury to show off in 'des res' waterfront villas, such as those once lining billionaires' row in the Bay of Naples. Several wrecks stuffed to the gunwales with Greek and Roman statues are the real-world inspiration for Hirst's glitz. Even a setting off East Africa isn't as madcap as it first sounds. Let me explain why.

4. Damien Hirst: Jade Buddha, jade. 102cm x 81.5cm x 51.4cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved,

Shortly before Easter 1900 bored Turkish divers sitting out a storm in the sheltered bay of Antikythera bolted on their brass hard helmets to seek a little cash searching out sponges nine fathoms down. No sooner had Elias Stadiatis hit the seabed than he surfaced fast and terrified, babbling about 'a heap of dead naked women, rotting and syphilitic, horses, green corpses'. What would become later celebrated as the 'Antikythera shipwreck', a Roman argosy of artistic masterpieces lost circa 80–50 BC, was quickly salvaged by the Greek navy.

A few years later in June 1907 another sponge-diver came across what he said 'looked like a lot of big guns' three miles off the Tunisian coastal city of Mahdia. Soon after, Alfred Merlin, the Director of Tunisian Antiquities, swooped on the wreck and went on to salvage its wonders for another six years. In his 1954 book 4,000 Years Under the Sea, the French explorer Philippe Diolé recalled how 'Gods emerged from the water covered with shellfish, unrecognizable, and many of them mutilated… Twenty fathoms down, in a sea so muddy that no eye could penetrate it, a man was busy searching for the past, hard on the track of yet further masterpieces…'

5. Damien Hirst: Proteus, bronze. 241.3cm x 98.1cm x 65.5cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved,

The divers' cannons proved to be 60 Roman marble columns stacked below a hoard of statues, including an Eros, grotesque dwarves and clowns, an antique herm (a sculpted head on squared plinth) signed by the artist Boethos, alongside architectural decorations, such as beds, urns and candelabra, all made of bronze. Included in the marble cache was a bust of Aphrodite, statues of Pan and of two satyrs, torsos of youths and fragments of other full-sized statues. The Mahdia cargo, sunk between 90–60 BC, has been valued at 857,000 sesterces – a cool $10.7 million. That price tag would be worth at least 10 times as much in today's antiquities market.

The historic arc that links these wealth-laden wrecks with Damien Hirst's modern fantasies finds a mutual home in Rome's obsessive, Mediterranean-wide hunt for luxury goods. This is the world of one of history's most notorious plunderers of art, Gaius Verres, legate to the governor of Cilicia in 80 BC and proprietor of Sicily in 73–70 BC. Verres ransacked Sicily so heavily that Cicero put him on trial for misconduct and extortion. The great orator made sure everyone would know in perpetuity that 'there is no silver vase, neither Corinthian nor Delian, no gem or pearl, no object of gold or of ivory, no bronze, marble or ivory statue, no picture either painted on a tablet or woven in a tapestry, which he has not sought out, inspected, and, if it pleased him, stolen'.

6. Damien Hirst: Remnants of Apollo, patinated Etruscan limestone, 138cm x 155cm x 311.5cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved,

But if Roman treasure-ships were a reality, what was the Apistos, or Unbelievable, doing when it sunk off East Africa, a world away from the calm of the Mediterranean Sea? Again, Hirst's sources stack up as the artist sets his discovery along the ancient world's most exotic sea-lane. By the last quarter of the 1st century BC, 120 Roman ships sailed for the markets of India and Africa every year on huge teakwood merchantmen up to 500 tons in capacity. India was the last word in Roman luxury for everything from cinnamon and pepper to pearls, bloodstones, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires, drugs, eunuchs and panthers. Lakshmi Indian ivory statuettes were even imported to well-appointed Pompeii.

But even if the 1700km voyage to northwest India was well charted in maps, skippers sailing south to Africa (which Rome called 'the Far Side') had to avoid fierce tribes of barbarians and troglodytes. In the Ethiopian and Somali ports of Adulis and Rhapta near Zanzibar, traders sailed five to 20 days to barter trinkets (axes, cloaks and cheap glass) for slaves, ivory, tortoise shell, rhinoceros horn and scented wood used in perfumes.

7. Damien Hirst: The Sadness, gold. 4cm x 17.7cm x 15cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved,

The dangerous eastern trade to India and Africa brought riches beyond the imagination. Single voyages generated profits of nine million sesterces, the equivalent of perhaps $112 million today. Financial returns of 10–1 were commonplace, while some goods were hawked in Western markets at 100 times their purchase cost. As the Roman historian Pliny the Elder reminds us: 'By the smallest computation, India, the Seres and the Arabian peninsula take 100 million sesterces from our empire every year – so much do our luxuries and our women cost us.' Archaeologists are currently digging up underwater the first, 2000-year-old Roman era shipwreck found as far east as Godavaya off Sri Lanka.

But that is where the comparison ends. Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable borrows for inspiration with a broad brush from the rich text and sunken wreck goody-bag of the Roman world. This mega-show's theme is neither puzzling, nor a shipload of crock, but a smartly conceived artistic extravaganza. And the artist gets the big message inherited from Rome: size counts.

8. Damien Hirst: Sphinx, bronze. 123.1cm x 177.5cm x 68.4cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.

Rome was no ordinary empire, it was extraordinary in all things, modern America's big and brash society on steroids. From ports to ships and profits, as the first globalised society Rome thought huge. This is why Hirst's 'treasures' are intentionally mind-boggling in scale, number and setting and why his bronze Demon With Bowl centrepiece, more than 18 metres high, has more than a whiff of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the (ancient)World, about it.

Damien Hirst is also right to recognise that collectors always appreciate antiquities – the older the better. Greek craftsmen exploited Rome's enthusiasm by producing copies of famous sculptured masterpieces shipped West. Workshops in Italy, dug up at Baiae in the Bay of Naples, recreated Greek sculpture for Roman connoisseurs. As the poet Horace wrote around 14 BC, 'Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought civilisation to the rustic Latins'.

9. Damien Hirst: Skull of a Cyclops, bronze. 135cm x 145cm x 120cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.

Foreshadowing the Apistos's themes of fakery and imitation, the Antikythera shipwreck was carrying antique Greek masterworks, such as the over six-feet-high copy of a Weary Hercules, originally crafted by Lysippos in the 4th century BC, alongside contemporary Roman repros of Classical pieces.

What Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable illuminates is the power of the sunken past in the present day. When the Riace Warriors, two magnificent, life-sized, 5th-century BC Greek masterpieces found jettisoned in the ocean off Calabria, went on show in the National Museum of Reggio Calabria in August 1981, the size and enthusiasm of the crowds forced the museum to lock its iron gates. The local police were called as the masses stormed the entrance chanting 'I bronzi! I bronzi!', threatening to tear the museum apart if they couldn't see these beloved bronze marvels.

10. Damien Hirst: Unknown Pharaoh,1 (detail), Carrara marble. 76cm x 54cm x 30.2cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.

Hirst's exhibition, too, has had queues of visitors wanting to gain entry to its twin venues in Venice – but no riots so far. The show certainly reflects the extraordinary power of ancient shipwrecks and their artistic cargo to inspire and capture the imagination, a fine use of archaeology. Hirst concedes that the work 'taps into a desire for belief, for a connection with the past'. Like all good myths, with a wink and a nudge, layers of physical truth rooted in archaeology have been twisted into what is a believable argosy of modern art. Hirst is laughing with us, not at us.

There is a final silver lining in the deliberate fakeness of this voyage of discovery. If Hirst had discovered and salvaged an authentic cargo of ancient treasure, he would have found himself in deep water. Today it is frowned upon to make money from the discovery of ancient shipwrecks. The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, signed by Italy, forbids speculation or trade in sunken heritage.

11. Damien Hirst: The Severed Head of Medusa, crystal glass. 41.7cm x 44.9cm x 39.7cm.
Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.

Having concocted a mythic universe for the wreck of the believable Apistos that shows plenty of Cousteau alongside the Disneyesque – the French fisherman even returned to both Antikythera and Mahdia in search of overlooked wrecked treasures – Damien Hirst has smartly sidestepped heritage controversy and set the scene to one day sell off his collection for a vast profit. All very Roman and reminiscent of the modern 'think big' society. As Andy Warhol reminds us: 'Making money is the highest form of making art.'

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable may be something of a freak show, but it is a deliciously enthralling, humorous, brilliantly researched visual feast of a freak art show. Clever chap that Damien Hirst. Roll up, roll up.

• Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is on show at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana (www.palazzograssi.it) in Venice until 3 December 2017.