Metropolitan Museum of Art, 346 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
In January 1880 the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons and one of the most cosmopolitan Russian writers of the time, was visiting Berlin, when he paid a visit to the Altes Museum. What he saw there not only made a profound impression upon him personally but marked the beginning of a momentous transformation in European understanding of the art and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world. He had been standing before a group of monumental reliefs that German archaeologists, after complex negotiations with the Ottoman sultan, had recently imported from the upper city, or citadel, above the small village of Bergama in western Turkey, north of Smyrna (Izmir). Turgenev was ecstatic, and in March of the same year he published his reaction in a rapturous article that appeared in a liberal journal devoted to European culture, Vestnik Evropy (European Herald).
The reliefs were panels from a vast frieze on a huge altar that in the second century BC stood high above Bergama on its ancient acropolis, and they depicted with violent, interlocked, and sinuous images a mythical battle between Zeus and the Olympian gods against the rebellious Giants. These creatures were a race of monsters who were said to have emerged from Mother Earth after her son Cronos emasculated his father Ouranos (the sky), whose seed then inseminated the earth. Everyone knows that Zeus prevailed, but Turgenev could see from the Berlin reliefs that the struggle was not easy. As he described it, “An undoubted final victory, on the side of the gods, on the side of light, beauty, and reason—but the dark, wild forces of the earth still fight back, and the battle is not yet finished.” This epic tale, which had been spread out in dramatic detail across the altar frieze, moved Turgenev to observe at the end of his article, “Coming out of the museum, I thought how lucky I am not to have died without living long enough for these latest impressions and to have seen all this!”
The reliefs that had reached Berlin came from the ancient city of Pergamon, which had given the nearby village its modern name of Bergama. The breathtaking upper city, on the western slopes of which a magnificent classical theater still stands, served as the acropolis of the ancient city, where a sanctuary of the goddess Athena lay just above a great altar to Zeus. This was the monument from which the panels that so impressed Turgenev…
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