‘Devotion and Decadence: The Berthouville Treasure and Roman Luxury’
Mercury was a tradesman’s god, often represented in ancient art with a moneybag held in one hand, and the distinctive herald’s wand known as the caduceus in the other. Roman businessmen considered him their patron and thanked him for their success with lavish offerings. Quintus Domitius Tutus must have had a very successful career, for he owned exquisitely crafted silver drinking vessels, their surfaces covered with mythological scenes in high relief. These were probably fashioned in Italy, but Tutus brought them to a remote spot near modern Rouen on the Normandy coast, in what was then called Gaul, and left them in Mercury’s fanum, an enclosed shrine, as dedications to the god.
Others whom Mercury had blessed left their own offerings at this shrine, Gauls as well as Romans, to judge by the names inscribed on them. At some point in the second or early third century AD, the shrine’s keepers buried a vast trove of these objects, over fifty pounds of silver in all, and then, even more inexplicably, neglected to dig them up. In 1830 a farmer’s plow scraped the lid of the box containing the cache, and the Berthouville Treasure, as it is now called, came to light.
Newly restored by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the silver splendors of this Gallic shrine can be seen for the next month in a sumptuous exhibition, “Devotion and Decadence,” at New York’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World on East 84th Street. Mercury himself greets visitors as they enter the show’s main room: A silver statuette, nearly two feet high and gloriously naked, its pose a relaxed contrapposto reminiscent of the Greek sculptor Polycleitus. Mercury lost his moneybag at some point over the centuries but his left hand still holds an exquisite caduceus, its two silver snakes somehow tied around the wand in an elaborate knot. The craftsmanship of late Roman metalsmiths, here and throughout the show, is simply astonishing.
Tutus’s cups and vessels are the star attractions in this room, displayed in the round so that all their details can be seen. The malleability of silver, and the ease with which it could be incised, allowed for greater detail and dimensionality than the marble friezes that clearly inspired these creations. On a pitcher decorated with scenes from the Trojan War, Achilles drags the body of Hector behind his chariot while an old woman, presumably Hector’s mother Hecuba, looks on from the battlements of Troy, her face a mask of horror. Around the shoulder, an inscription done in typical style, with letters formed by pinpricks, identifies the vase as a gift from Tutus (unknown outside these finds) to the god Mercury.
The second term in the title “Devotion and Decadence” seems to describe the show’s second room, which displays an assemblage of late Roman luxury items collected by France’s kings (now housed in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris). Silver is in the spotlight here too, especially in four massive missoria, serving plates so large they were once thought to be shields. But the workmanship of cameos, glassware, and one superb section of mosaic will also dazzle the visitor.
For more information, visit isaw.nyu.edu.
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