The lives of museum objects almost always span cultures, places, and times. On occasion, they stride across entire civilizations, continents, epochs: gigantic movements distilled in some little bit of matter worked by human hands. Like human lives, the histories of artifacts may end too soon, like the Caravaggio paintings incinerated in the Allied bombing of Berlin in World War II, or the Assyrian sculptures shattered recently by the Islamist vandals of ISIS.
Other objects have lived lives of tranquil obscurity, like the little bronze Etruscan piglet that the archaeologist Kyle Phillips noticed in the National Archaeological Museum in Florence in the early 1980s, one tiny figurine amid a crowd, set on a low shelf in a dusty old showcase. Phillips had a sharp eye for interesting anomalies in objects and people, and he loved animals; perhaps this is enough to explain why he decided to track down the history of a curly-tailed ancient sow modeled in wax and then cast in the fine bronze for which the Etruscans were famous throughout the Mediterranean world.
The piglet, he discovered, came to light in February 1787, when a Tuscan peasant named Valentino Tordini plunged his spade into one of the fields that belonged to his local parish near San Gimignano. Valentino was turning up the soil, as farmers do in that season, to prepare it for spring planting, but finding an Etruscan artifact meant that he might earn some extra money. He rushed to show his find to the parish priest, and the well-oiled bureaucratic wheels of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany began to turn in all their precision.
The priest took the piglet to the mayor, the mayor sent it to the director of the new Natural History Museum in Florence, the director of the Natural History Museum passed it on to the director of the grand duke’s art gallery, the director of the art gallery told the grand duke’s intimate councillor of finance, and this exalted personage at last put the piglet’s case before Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo II himself; only the monarch could decide whether Valentino’s figurine, with its slightly damaged legs, would still make a worthy addition to a collection of art and antiquities that had begun with Lorenzo de’ Medici. Pietro Leopoldo, a true Enlightenment prince, said yes, and prepared to receive Valentino’s piglet officially into the Uffizi Gallery. Since that time, the piglet has moved only twice: first to the National Archaeological Museum that spun off from the Uffizi in 1870, and then to its present location in 1880, where it sits today in its nineteenth-century cabinet. And of course Valentino, at the bottom of this impeccable bureaucratic ladder, eventually did receive a nice reward for having been so alert.
As Kyle Phillips discovered, the story of Valentino’s piglet is mostly a story of paperwork, all of it meticulously preserved in those boundless civic archives that are one of the wonders of Italy. This, however, is paperwork in beautifully elaborate cursive writing with language to match, drafted by people with rococo names like Giuseppe Bencivenni già Pelli (the director of the gallery) and Luigi di Schmidweiller (the intimate councillor), cosmopolitan scholar-statesmen with fascinating stories of their own. In their hands, red tape was an art form (the very phrase “red tape” refers to the twentieth- century ties that bind the boxes in which these documents are often stacked). By the early 2000s, the wood-and-glass vitrine that has held Valentino’s piglet since 1880 had become a valued objet d’art in itself. Today both the antique case and its ancient contents, slightly derelict in 1983, shine as proudly dust-free as when they were new.1
Valentino’s piglet, for all its charm, is one among a great multitude of small Etruscan bronzes. But an object only slightly larger, the ancient Egyptian portrait known as the Boston Green Head, is almost one of a kind, and its story, recounted with gusto by Lawrence Berman in The Priest, the Prince, and the Pasha, is as typical of the Romantic era as Valentino’s piglet is typical of the Enlightenment, a tale not only engagingly told, but also beautifully and imaginatively illustrated with vintage paintings, engravings, and photographs. As it turns out, the biography of this sculpture, no bigger than a softball, involves several pashas, as well as a sprinkling of emperors, ancient and modern, and at the heart of it all, the enigmatic Egyptian priest who has been immortalized in a hard greenish stone called graywacke.
Graywacke is not an easy material to carve; the person who went to the trouble of commissioning this image, most probably the very same bald, jowly, thin-lipped man whose features it portrays with such uncompromising clarity, must have held a substantial position in Egyptian society. His bald head identifies him as a priest. In ancient Egypt, temple employees shaved their scalps and bodies to keep away parasites, for those ancient wigs we see on so many mummies, including those of many a royal family, were crawling with lice. The statue has been badly damaged and most of it is missing, but at the back of this little head we can see the remains of a supporting pillar inscribed at the top with the beginning of a prayer. A pillar implies that the head must once have belonged to a standing figure a little over a foot tall, clad in a linen skirt, holding a miniature temple in his hands as a sacred offering. The subject’s nose has been smashed away except for its impressive bridge, but despite this physical damage the authority of his strong, creased face, with its wary eyes, shines forth undiminished.
Modern Egyptologists have dated the work to very late in the millennial course of Egyptian history: either to the Saite period (twenty-sixth dynasty, 664–525 BC, with a capital at Sais on the Nile delta), or to the Egyptian thirtieth dynasty, 380–343, which ruled from another delta city, Sebennytos, until the Persian army invaded in 343. These were the two periods when Egyptian sculptors were most apt to work the rare, precious graywacke, which came from a remote desert quarry in the Eastern Desert (Wadi Hammamat) and could only be obtained by mounting a costly expedition. Berman himself, senior curator of Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, sets the Green Head in the fourth century, during the thirtieth dynasty, but notes a certain amount of Greco-Roman influence in the careful efforts to record the unknown priest’s weather-beaten skin, furrowed brow, and the slightly projecting mole beneath his left eye.
Although Egyptian sculpture often presents its subjects in a state of smooth-faced, eternal youth, there were times in the country’s history when individual pharaohs or individual people asked artists to preserve all the signs of age and vulnerability on their faces. These times were usually troubled, times when invaders disturbed the endless flow of life along the Nile. The Bronze Age pharaoh Senwosret III (1878–1840 BC), a fierce and successful warlord who came between two periods of turmoil, wore his worries plainly on his face, as we can see in a marvelous fragment in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Sadly, the owner of the Green Head may well have lived to see his own orderly existence rudely interrupted: Berman suggests that his portrait statue shattered when a Persian invader in 343 BC tried to carry it off and dropped it instead. Whether he himself was around to see the disaster we cannot know.
The Green Head first saw the light of the modern world in 1857 at Saqqara, the burial ground for the ancient capital of Memphis, now a southern suburb of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. Ancient Egyptians associated the west with death, for every evening, in that direction, they watched the dying sun leave its day boat, the heavenly vessel that carried it across the sky, and slip beneath the edge of the earth. (Fortunately, a night boat lay ready to ferry it back eastward through the Underworld for rebirth the next morning.) For five thousand years, Saqqara’s most prominent monument has been the Step Pyramid completed in 2648 BC for the pharaoh Djoser, still surrounded by a monumental precinct that has barely weathered in the crisp desert air. The architect who designed this complex, Imhotep, was eventually revered as a god in his own right.
But the wonders of Saqqara also include a newer monument, four centuries younger than Imhotep’s masterpiece: a vast underground gallery just to the northwest of the Step Pyramid where, in 1851, the French archaeologist François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette uncovered the subterranean tombs of over sixty cows and bulls. These were the sacred Apis bulls, interred together with their divinely fortunate mothers, which were described by the ancient Greek writer Herodotus:
The Apis is the calf of a cow which is never afterwards able to have another. The Egyptian belief is that a flash of light descends upon the cow from heaven, and this causes her to conceive Apis. The Apis-calf has distinctive marks: it is black, with a white square on its forehead, the image of an eagle on its back, the hair on its tail double, and a scarab under its tongue.
These special markings identified an Apis calf as an incarnate god. Alive, he was venerated as the herald of Ptah, the tutelary god of Memphis, and hence a symbol of pharaoh. In death he took on an association with Osiris, the lord of the underworld. Once an Apis calf had been revealed as such, he was brought to the temple of Ptah and housed amid his own harem of cows, while his mother received her own special honors. With a lifespan of about twenty-five to twenty-eight years, a sacred bull could expect to reign as long as many a pharaoh. Surviving paintings of Apis bulls often show sleek black beauties like the specimen Herodotus describes, but at least one image, inlaid in glass (and illustrated in Berman’s book), portrays a piebald bull with big spots of black on white.
Saqqara’s cemetery for these divine cattle dates from the time of Thutmose III (1479–1425 BC), but it was still in use during the reign of Cleopatra VII, fourteen centuries later. Somewhere in its underground galleries the Boston Green Head seems to have been picked up by a workman, minus its body, but Mariette did not supply any specifics. To judge from where it was found, however, the head’s owner must have been a priest of Ptah, the creator god of craftsmen and architects, and thus the divine father of the godly architect Imhotep. Ptah’s consort was sexy Sekhmet, the lion-headed war goddess whose hot breath had formed the desert. The Green Head’s owner, the nameless fourth-century priest of Ptah, must have resided in Memphis, tending the Apis bull for a living, and commissioned his portrait statue to stand among the tombs of his sacred charges after death had taken them all.
Excavation records for the Saqqara cemetery are scant and hasty, because Mariette uncovered this vast, impressive monument and its contents on the sly. According to his research grant from the French government, he had come to Egypt in 1850 to inventory the manuscripts held in Egyptian monasteries and to buy Egyptian papyri for the Louvre. Quickly, however, he gathered a group of workmen and started digging, both at Memphis, which was within the cultivated area of the Nile bank, and at desert-dry Saqqara. He found the cemetery, buried deep in sand, by following an ancient highway lined by hundreds of crouching sphinxes. He was clever enough to track its path when it made an abrupt turn, swift enough to overtake all his competitors. A dreamy pastel portrait from 1859 shows Mariette in profile wearing a fez. By this time, at thirty-seven, he had been appointed Egypt’s first director of antiquities. In 1853, a German colleague provided an equally vivid word-picture of this remarkable man:
He was of great height, with a strong body, his face, framed by a blond beard, was burnt red-brown like that of an Egyptian fellah [peasant]; in his features lay a certain melancholy which, on the other hand, could be displaced instantly by a striking cheerfulness…. He possessed a deep worldly wisdom in all his plans which miscarried in only one point—which in this wicked world is an essential one—in all money matters which came his way…. He was, so he explained to me, much more an artistic nature, which feels its only satisfaction in form.
Mariette gave that artistic nature free rein in a variety of media, including Giuseppe Verdi’s Egyptian-themed opera Aida, for which he has often received credit for supplying the original story.2 He undoubtedly oversaw the scenery and costumes for the first production at the Cairo Opera House in 1871, basing them firmly on the real Egyptian artifacts he knew so well. The setting, appropriately, is Memphis, and the god who dominates the action is “immenso Ptah.” Were the Green Head not so small, we might even imagine its owner in the role of Ramfis, Verdi’s high priest.
Mariette shipped forty-one crates of material from Saqqara to Paris in February 1852. (At this point the Green Head still lay buried in the sands.) His archaeological discoveries earned him swift promotion in France; in January 1852, as he packed his crates, he learned of his appointment as associate curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre. Later the same year, he was inducted as a knight of the Legion of Honor. By 1854, however, his grant had run out, and he returned to France. “I did not find any Coptic or Syriac monuments,” he wrote. “I did not make the inventory of any library, but, stone by stone, I brought back a temple.”
When Mariette returned to Egypt in 1857, it was thanks to a prince and a pasha. The prince was Napoleon- Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I and cousin of Napoleon III. As a little boy, he pronounced his own name as “Plon-Plon,” and Plon-Plon he would remain for the rest of his life. Of all the Bonaparte family, Plon-Plon was the one who looked most like his famous uncle, albeit a chubbier, jollier version of the emperor, and like the emperor, the prince decided that he really must see Egypt. This was glorious news to the Egyptian viceroy, Muhammad Said Pasha, who summoned Mariette back to Cairo in 1857 on the advice of the French consul Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had his own agenda: he hoped to enlist the prince’s support for his pet project, the Suez Canal.
Mariette’s assignment was to litter the prince’s way with antiquities to be conveniently “discovered” as he passed, but he too had a pet scheme of his own: establishing a government service in Egypt to protect its antiquities from destruction. Elated, he returned to excavating some of his old haunts, including Saqqara, and it was during this campaign that workers uncovered the Green Head. And then, with the New Year of 1858, Plon-Plon dashed everyone’s hopes by canceling his trip; he had his marriage to arrange. By February, Mariette had been summoned back to the Louvre. He bought himself another month in Egypt by suggesting that the prince might enjoy a packet of choice Egyptian artifacts, but at last, in March, he and his artifacts, including the Green Head, made their way to Paris.
Plon-Plon installed his antiquities in his remarkable retreat, the Maison Pompéienne, a Roman-style structure as self-consciously antique as the Getty Villa in Malibu, and that is where the inaugural issue of the Gazette des beaux-arts caught up with the Green Head in 1859. An engraved illustration described the head as belonging to an “eunuque.” The prince’s versatile aide-de-camp, Marcel-Victor-Paul-Camille Ferri Pisani, provided the accompanying article, exulting:
The perfection of the modeling, the truth of the details, the expression of life, are beyond belief, and are combined with a sobriety of line and an incredible simplicity of means; the sculptor’s art can go no further.
But Plon-Plon soon tired of his antiquarian amusements. In 1866, he put up his Maison Pompéienne for sale. In 1868, he liquidated his collection. The Green Head disappeared from the record until 1903, when the American aesthete and eccentric Edward Perry “Ned” Warren donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Warren’s parents number among the first supporters of the Museum of Fine Arts, and young Ned grew up entranced with his mother’s porcelains, a passion he would later transfer to ancient Greek vases. After graduating from Harvard, he enrolled for a second degree at New College, Oxford. The highlight of this experience was a trip to Greece, culminating in a visit to the oracular site of Delphi.
In 1888, the year after he graduated, Ned’s father died, leaving him a small fortune. This he invested in a house in Lewes, West Sussex, where he created a commune of young men like himself, devoted to their own version of the Platonic life, physically austere, spiritually intense, charged with eros. As a “Boston gentleman now residing in Europe,” Warren also began donating generous “sendings” of antiquities to the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1903, his sending included the Green Head, which he described only as “Small head of an old man, smooth face.” As a work of Egyptian rather than Greek art, it could not be perfectly beautiful in Warren’s eyes. Ironically for so perspicacious a collector of art, Ned had lifelong trouble with his eyes, but in the case of the Green Head his blindness was entirely cultural. Fortunately, however, he popped it into his sending, and it was Boston’s to admire.
“So what is it about the Green Head that makes it so compelling?” Berman asks a little over a century later, when the work can be openly acknowledged as a small-scale masterpiece. In part, he thinks it is the head’s damaged condition that lends it an such enigmatic quality: the absence of a body, the broken nose. For curator Bernard von Bothmer, writing in 1960, it was the quality of the carving: “It is no exaggeration to say that nowhere else have bone and skin been so sensitively handled in an Egyptian portrait.” Berman suggests that the head, damaged in 343 BC by a Persian vandal, may have been piously reburied circa 331 BC on the order of Alexander the Great. Whoever its owner may have been, he must have commissioned this portrait in hard stone to perpetuate his name through the ages. Instead, we have nothing but his weathered face, one of the greatest works of Egyptian art: silent, perhaps, yet anything but mute.
Kyle Meredith Phillips Jr., “An Etruscan Bronze Found at San Gimignano in 1787,” Mélanges de l’Ècole française de Rome: Antiquité, Vol. 104, No. 2 (1992). The article was written in 1983 and published posthumously. ↩
In 1993, the Verdi scholar Mary Jane Phillips-Matz argued that the real author was Temistocle Solera, with whom Verdi had quarreled, and who therefore passed the scenario to Mariette, who gave it to the composer. See Verdi: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 570–573. Verdi certainly thought that Mariette was the author. ↩