Friday, August 17, 2007

Putting the Class in Classical

After 15 years of reinstallation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopened this past Spring their galleries of Greek and Roman art, reintroducing in grand style the finest collection of classical art found anywhere in the United States. The mammoth companion book, Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Greece—Cyprus—Etruria—Rome, contains 500 examples of the breadth and depth of this amazing amassing of the finest these ancient civilizations had to offer.

In his introduction, Carlos A. Picon, curator in charge, recounts the history of the Department of Greek and Roman Art, beginning with the first ever work of art acquired by the just-founded Met in 1870—a Roman sarcophagus from 200-225 AD. From there, the collection grew by leaps and bounds, forming the basis for the rest of the vision of the Met as a survey museum through which patrons could stroll through time and encounter cultures from every era and every culture. Vintage photographs of exhibitions and patrons encountering previous presentations from the 1880s to today bring to life the history of the classical section of the Met, proving that these long-ago works of art have lived on in the imaginations of museum-goers for decades and continue to do so. It always seemed ironic to me that so many of these works that seem so alive to us today originally commemorated the death of someone, such as the Greek funerary relief above from the Hellenistic period of 325 to 300 BC. They simply define immortality for me.

Etruscan art serves as a bridge between the Greeks and the Romans in many ways. The Met’s famous golden Etruscan chariot with scenes of the life of Achilles from Homer’s Illiad harkens back to the glory that was Greece as it prepares us for the grandeur that will be Rome. Seeing the chariot in the catalogue, photographed from multiple perspectives to get the full “story” it tells as if you were there to see it in the round yourself, was a bittersweet moment for me, considering that the tiny Umbrian village in which the chariot was found claims that it was taken from Italy illegally and now wants it back. Without going into the controversy behind the issue of patrimony and reclamation, the idea that this work of art that has been in the Met’s collection so long could be gone one day impresses on me the ephemeral nature of these works, despite their seeming immortal status.

Aside from the Etruscan Chariot, the most amazing pieces for me in the collection are the frescos from the Roman villas of Boscoreale and Boscotrecase buried in the same volcanic disaster that doomed Pompeii in 79 AD. The vibrant frescos, such as that of Polyphemus and Galatea from Boscotrecase (above), recover the wonderful color often forgotten amidst the bleached statuary and glittering gold of antiquity galleries. These frescos, still fresh millennia later, reinfuse the colors of life into the imagination of any museum-goer. If you can’t make it to Pompeii itself (and I’ve been lucky enough to have gone there), nothing can duplicate that experience, but at least these frescos offer a tantalizing taste of what that city and Roman civilization truly looked like.

As wonderful as these day-to-day vignettes of Roman life are, the true power of any Roman collection lies in its presentation of Rome’s imperial might. From tiny cameos such as that of the Emperor Augustus (above) to imposing statuary of Rome’s other emperors, the Met’s collection provides a wonderful sense of the scale and pervasiveness of imperial reach by the means of art. The roots of the modern cult of personality and the invidious power of propaganda begin here. Almost all roads of modern media lead to Rome, as this collection shows. As the introduction to the Roman section points out, “much of early Christian architecture and iconography draws heavily on Roman antecedents,” emphasizing just how much Rome’s culture shaped early Christianity and, consequently, all Western cultures thereafter.

Anyone looking to purchase one comprehensive, informative, and beautifully photographed book of classical art should look no further than this collection. Notes on each work appear at the back of the book, with only short introductions to each period prefacing the art. This distribution of text allows the works to speak for themselves across the centuries first, without the historical detail that, although informative, can often mask the humanity of these works. Here are the commemorations of people who have died, the jewelry of those living, the decorations on their walls, and the images of their leaders. Look through these pages and remind yourself that our cultural past was once their present.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

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