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We Are All Romans Now

They also prepare us for one of the most interesting statues in the new galleries, one not listed in the catalog. It is a splendid male nude, one-and-a-half-times life size, probably of a Hellenistic ruler. With this bronze statue, we know we are in the numinous world Alexander initiated. What would be our reaction if we turned a corner in Washington and saw a more-than-life-size nude statue of George W. Bush? It would take some considering. But this experience was commonplace in the Hellenistic kingdoms, and the Roman emperors would imitate the Greeks even in this practice. In the new galleries we find a life-size bronze nude statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus (251–253 CE), holding (presumably) a missing spear in the pose of Alexander’s famous statue by Lysippos.

The Trebonianus statue, like other bronze survivals, is made up of fragments filled in with reconstructions. The same is true of a far more impressive statue, the one I referred to as not listed in the catalog. It is not there because the work is on loan from Shelby White, and her collection is under siege by the Italian government.9 The brilliant redesigned atrium is named for White and her husband, Leon Levy, and this statue has been in their living room in the past. In the scholarly literature it is known as the Levy bronze, but Levy and White called it “Harry” in their living room.10

For information on the statue, one must go to the catalog of an exhibit the Met mounted for the Levy-White collection in 1990.11 The statue’s magnificent portions, including a fine intact head, are good enough to be the boast of any Renaissance sculptor, though they are now pieced together with fiberglass. Unlike other portraits of rulers of the time, it has no diadem, but it has the clean-shaven face, tousled hair, divine stature, and haughty pose of the Alexander type. The head of the statue is small in proportion to the body, and Pliny (Natural History 34.65) says that Lysippos made Alexander’s head small on his bronzes to increase his height, as if he were tapering off as he towered up.

The height and the nudity are signs of divinity. The Hellenistic rulers of ethnic realms in the Middle East did not want to be identified by dress with just one of the several cultures from which they expected obeisance. Macedonian or Phrygian or Lydian or Egyptian or Ethiopian clothing would have limited their sway. They transcended the divisions within their regions. The 1991 Levy-White catalog is uncertain about the source of this statue, but the new gallery guesses more precisely that it came from the Pergamon kingdom of the Attalids (in present-day Turkey), of the second or first century BCE. In any case, it is a stunner. No wonder the Italians want it.

3.

Roman Imperial Art

The Romans took over the empire that Alexander and his successors had forged. And they adopted the manners of their forebears, including the divine rulers. Classical Greek gods mixed with the middle class, at phratry or phalanx or symposion. But in Rome the high gods tended to create a wall of privilege around the ruling class. The humbler deities—each home’s lares and penates, or the gods of local feasts—were good enough for the common people.

That the upper class took on divine attributes can be seen in a fascinating marble sarcophagus from the third century CE. On its lid a married couple recline, each propped on an elbow in the pose common to Etruscan sarcophagi. (The Romans imitated them too.) The nearly life-size figures are given divine attributes, those of a river god (he holds a reed and shelters a lizardlike creature) and of the earth goddess Tellus (she holds a garland and two sheaves of wheat), and a land mammal, with a figure of Eros astride it, balances the lizard at the other end of the lid. His face has all the individuality of the ancestor busts that Rome perfected, but her head is only a roughly shaped marble block—she looks like some Magritte nightmare of shapely body and shapeless face. The natural supposition is that his face was finished when he died, but she was still alive, and the family was waiting till her body could join his in the sarcophagus. But for whatever reason—the family went broke, or no close relatives lived in the same place?—she was not given her own face when she died.

The high life of wealthy Romans at their summer homes is suggested by wall paintings from large villas on the outskirts of Pompeii—Boscoreale and Boscotrecase—that perished in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The paintings survived when the houses holding them were buried in volcanic ash. Two rooms have three of their walls intact. In the Boscoreale one (see illustration on page 12), rich colors pick out an architectural fantasy, a grotto with a fountain, and a still life. The superimposed architectural forms crowd forward in a way that might give claustrophobia to the person trying to sleep in this bedroom. The window in the far wall has bars of iron twisted and rent by the heat of the volcano. Though the room has been at the Met since 1903, few noticed the dramatic detail of the window, since it had a dull surface covering or a dark surface behind it. In the new arrangement, the window is backlit and the bars give grisly witness to the horrors going on outside this warm snug bedroom.

That room’s paintings are in the Second (Pompeian) Style (circa 80–20 BCE), which portrays nature and buildings in realistic perspective. The room from Boscotrecase is in the Third Style (circa 29 BCE–50 CE), which abandons realism for fantasy. The ancient architectural theorist Vitruvius was severely critical of this style, which was just coming in as he wrote:

Instead of columns they draw up fluted fronds. Instead of pediments, curlicues with pointed leaves and scrolls. They make candlesticks support little temple shapes, from which several tendrils shoot up with figurines irregularly perched in them. Or sprouts divide, some supporting statuettes with human heads, some with animal heads…. Yet how can a frond support a roof, or a candlestick support a figured pediment, or a soft and tender stalk support miniature statues? How can flowers and figurines rise alternately from roots and stalks?12

Since Vitruvius was architect to Augustus, and the Boscotrecase villa was owned by Agrippa Postumus, the son of Augustus’ son-in-law, it is surprising that Agrippa would have embraced the condemned new style.

A first glance at the room does not betray its fantastic elements. Instead, it gives the picture of a properly Augustan severity. Its background is all black, with spare architectural traceries placed like filaments over small parts of the wall. It is more like an architectural drawing than the picture of any real structure. Only on closer approach does one see that the fairyland traceries are filled with tiny fantasies, birds and urns, tiny swans (a family symbol of Augustus), a pole holding a fountain holding an Egyptian scene. A jeweled frieze runs around a trompe-l’oeil niche. The thin supporting pillars of this fairy architecture are in a constant state of metamorphosis as they rise, changing magically from one fine material to another, with varying ornaments along the way. Small fronds or flowers sprout from it at intervals, and faces are enameled into the iridescent surfaces. The result is a paradoxical combination of restraint and the imagination gone wild.

4.

Etruscan Art (900–100 BCE)

On the rim of the new atrium, the mezzanine contains Etruscan art where the directors had offices when the atrium was a restaurant. The star of the show up there, also the subject of news reports, is a processional chariot from the small Umbrian town of Monteleone di Spoleto (population 680), where a farmer dug it up on his land and sold it in 1902. The chariot, created in the mid-sixth century BCE, has beaten bronze panels on three sides, with scenes from the life of Achilles shown in relief. The pole to which the two-horse yoke is attached has a wild boar’s head at its base (with ivory tusks), an eagle’s face at the end, and lion heads on both sides of the yoke. The front panel depicts Thetis giving Achilles the armor made for him by Hephaestus. Eagles of good omen are swooping down on each figure. Thetis hands the new helmet over, above a shield with a gorgon’s head on it. On the left panel, Achilles is shown fighting an opponent. The eagle of good omen swoops toward Achilles, not toward his foe, telling us what the outcome of this engagement will be.

The Etruscans, like the Romans after them, were addicted to Greek art and story. That is why they made Homer’s hero the subject of this wealthy person’s ornamental chariot. But the artist went beyond Homer in showing, on the right-hand panel, an apotheosis of Achilles. He is ascending to heaven in a chariot like the one to which the panel is attached. His mother, the sea goddess Thetis, is recumbent at the bottom of the panel, the flow of her long straight hair suggesting the water that is her element.

This is the most spectacular bronze chariot in existence, and the town of Monteleone, which has created a replica of it, wants the original back. But the first Italian law prohibiting the export of historic treasure dates from 1909, six years after the sale of the chariot to Parisian dealers, from whom J.P. Morgan bought it for the Met in 1903. The Italian government does not back Monteleone’s bid, since it will just make it harder to reclaim items that were sold illegally.13 The Met has made a new and beautiful restoration of the work, under the guidance of an Italian expert on ancient chariotry.

If some archaeologists had their way, there could be no museums of antiquity outside the countries where objects were originally found. This presumes an ethnic continuity where there is no political continuity, an ethnic claim that overrides all rights of purchase or intermediate ownership before export. Where there are clear laws preventing sale or export, they must of course be enforced. America accepted a United Nations Convention on Cultural Property in 1983. Retrospective laws have no force.

The restitution mystique has a certain resemblance to calls for reparations to black Americans for the crime of slavery. The best treatment I have heard of that issue was in a speech by the great historian John Hope Franklin. When he was a boy in Oklahoma, the 1921 race riot destroyed thirty-five blocks of the black district in Tulsa. Franklin’s father, a lawyer, was about to move his family to Tulsa. He was in the city when the riot occurred and he collected evidence of specific harm done to specific persons by specific malefactors, and tried to get legal redress. That is the form of reparations John Hope Franklin supports. But that is very different from a blanket use of taxes for reparations for blacks.

For one thing, many blacks now in America descend from people who were not here before 1865. Some of those who were here were free blacks. Some have intermarried with other races. Many of the whites whose tax money would be used are the children of immigrants who came after 1865 or were in territories where they did not themselves own slaves. Franklin says that any reparations would be inadequate as well as poorly targeted. The reparations offered to Japanese-Americans after World War II were so petty that some indignantly rejected them. The fight over reparations, Franklin added, would cause resentments and distract from more pressing matters of racial injustice that can be addressed far more equitably.

Trying to go back and rewrite history, righting all its wrongs, is a feckless endeavor. Even in the case of personal crimes, there is a statute of limitations to prevent such fecklessness. In the famous case of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, are today’s Greeks actually the descendants of ancient Athenians? For that matter, the Athenians themselves believed that the proper owner of works on the Parthenon was Athena—and she has been missing in action for some time now. As far as she is still alive, she is in the brains of all the people who read and love Homer and related works that deal with her—and there are more of those outside Greece than inside it. The legacy of Greece is everywhere, not just in Athens and Rome. That point is made clear in the sun-washed galleries of the Met, and in the splendid new catalog of these rooms. We are all Greeks. We are all Romans.

Letters

We Are All Romans Now’ June 28, 2007

  1. 9

    Elisabetta Povoledo, “Top Collector is Asked to Relinquish Artifacts,” The New York Times, November 29, 2006.

  2. 10

    Rebecca Mead, “Den of Antiquity,” The New Yorker, April 9, 2007.

  3. 11

    Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection, edited by Dietrich von Bothmer (Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Abrams, 1990), pp. 238–240.

  4. 12

    Vitruvius, Architecture 7.5.

  5. 13

    Elisabetta Povoledo, “Umbrian Umbrage: Send Back That Etruscan Chariot,” The New York Times, April 5, 2007.

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