The legacy of Greece and Rome to the modern world is far from consisting only of literature. The Renaissance began in Italy, where the physical remains of antiquity were everywhere visible. Enormous ruins, temples and aqueducts and theaters, dominated Rome and many other cities. In an outpost of Empire like Britain, where things were on a more provincial scale, that is not so, and the sheer size of the Pantheon and the Coliseum still comes as a surprise to northerners.
Another aspect of that legacy was the precious treasures surviving from the wreck of the high culture. The Vatican, like the great treasures of Vienna and Paris, still possesses marvels of ancient luxury, valued as much for their materials as for their artistic quality: cameos, and carved crystals, and mosaics, and statues in rare and precious stones. These works fall rather outside what is classed as serious or major art by modern taste, and the cultivated tourist no longer regards as the first priority in London or Vienna such objects as the Augustan Gem in Vienna (a large cameo depicting the apotheosis of Augustus) and the Portland Vase in the British museum (a virtuoso creation in layered and carved glass once believed to be of precious stone.)
The Renaissance knew very little of the Greek gold work, both jewelry and objets de luxe, which in the last 150 years has come to light in great quantities. People of that period would have been fascinated by the exhibition “The Gold of Greece,” recently on show in London and New York; but nowadays such a spectacle has a faintly middle-brow air. Serious scholars are embarrassed by the decorative arts, and one does not expect contemporary artists to be inspired by its splendors at any level more ambitious than that of the museum gift shop and the manufacture of replicas in less expensive metal. Ancient jewelry has come down in the world, at least academically, in recent centuries.
By contrast, Greek vases have gone up. For the popes of the sixteenth century, as for the milords of the eighteenth, the vases which were of interest were not the pottery ones which now populate our museums and are the subject of so many books on Greek vase painting, but the few huge carved ones in stone, like the Borghese Vase and the Medici Vase, both five feet high, ascribed (optimistically) to no less an artist than Phidias, and reckoned among the supreme works of art. They were copied in marble at Versailles, in bronze at Osterley Park, in alabaster at Houghton Hall, and in silver gilt—and in a set of eight—by the goldsmith Paul Storr for the Prince Regent. The originals are now respectively in the Louvre and the Uffizi.
It was in the second half of the eighteenth century that serious attention began to be given to the pottery vessels which were coming to light in great numbers from tombs in Italy and Sicily. So many of them came from Tuscany that…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.