The Immortal Egyptian Priest

Henry Lillie Pierce Fund/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
‘Head of a Priest’ (The Boston Green Head); Egyptian, 380–332 BC

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…

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