BMCR 2007.08.10

Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Greece, Cyprus, Etruria, Rome. With contributions from Richard De Puma

, , , , Art of the classical world in the Metropolitan Museum of Art : Greece, Cyprus, Etruria, Rome. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. xi, 508 pages : illustrations (some color), color maps ; 29 cm. ISBN 9781588392176. $75.00 (hb); $45.00 (pb).

Printed in Japan, this sumptuous volume “celebrates the completion of the Greek and Roman Master Plan” and appeared with perfect timing to form a fitting complement to the grand opening (April 17-20, 2007) of the renovated Classical Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though obviously meant for the general public, it is much more than the stereotypical coffee-table book. It lacks a scholarly bibliography and is too heavy to be carried around during a visit to the exhibits, although a floor plan (pp. 24-25) is included.1 The truly outstanding color illustrations almost obviate autopsy, furnishing details that could easily escape even the meticulous observer. Yet the book is in fact a learned catalogue, each color plate numbered after each object (nos. 1-476) even when several views of it are illustrated, in uninterrupted sequence from cultural area to area. The numbers correspond to the entries in the second section of the volume, which add relevant information (with dimensions in both metrical and U.S. standard system) and concise but illuminating historical/art historical comments,2 occasionally supplemented by additional photographs, plans, or drawings. Not all objects at present displayed in the galleries are included, but the selection is generous and representative. I shall first review the book in its entirety and will then discuss it in the context of the current exhibition.

A short “Foreword” (pp. vii-viii) by Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, is followed by almost three pages (ix-xi) of “Acknowledgments” that include all those who labored at producing both the book and the displays—from foreign scholars to conservators, from architects to installers, education personnel, archivists, and publishers. The number of contributors is impressive, several specialists having provided their expertise in different fields. Their names make useful reading, since each catalogue entry is anonymous, and only Richard De Puma is cited in the masthead among the authors. Vassos Karageorghis, for instance, contributed to the Cypriot section,3 Faya Causey was consulted for the amber objects, Fikret Yegül for the architectural material from Sardis. Adriana Emiliozzi helped dramatically reshape the spectacular Monteleone Chariot, which now forms the focus of the Etruscan gallery.

Of considerable significance for our understanding of the classical collection is “A History of the Department of Greek and Roman Art,” (pp. 2-23) by Carlos A. Picón, the present Curator in Charge. Remarkably, the first object accessioned by the newly founded Museum, in the very year of its opening (1870), was a Roman sarcophagus excavated in 1863 near Tarsus, (Turkey), and donated by the local American Vice-Consul, Abdullah (Abdo) Debbas.4 A period of architectural expansion and impressive acquisitions followed. It was initially spurred by the purchase (by subscription, 1874-1876) of Cypriot antiquities from the collection of Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who had been Secretary to the Board of Trustees in 1877 and was the museum’s first director from 1879 to his death in 1904. The golden phase of the department took place under Edward Robinson, who became director in 1910, but was already responsible, in 1906, for the hiring of Gisela M. A. Richter, the first woman on the curatorial staff. This distinguished scholar moved through the ranks until she held full-curator status from 1925 to 1948, and remained involved with the museum until 1952, greatly contributing to its reputation through her numerous and impressive publications.5 At approximately the same time, John Marshall negotiated most of the Metropolitan’s classical purchases, as he had for other American museums.6 The volume under review is in fact “dedicated to the three visionary individuals who originally brought the Department of Greek and Roman Art to a position of preeminence: Edward Robinson, John Marshall, and G. M. A. Richter” (p. 21).

Major changes followed the appointment of Francis Henry Taylor as director in 1940. A medievalist by personal interest, he sought to modernize the Metropolitan by gradually removing from view many of the classical objects and severely restricting their display area (pp. 15-16). In particular, the grand “Roman Court,” meant to recall the peristyle of a luxury villa, was turned into a restaurant and other alterations were made to the fabric of the galleries. It is against this background that we are to understand the appointment of Carlos Picón, in 1990, to succeed the previous curator in charge (Dietrich von Bothmer, 1959-1990) with the specific “mandate” (p. 16) to reinstate the entire Greek and Roman collection to its former prominence. It has been a truly enormous enterprise, requiring the raising of vast sums of money7 and four phases of execution. The many goals, set and now met (p. 21), comprise the creation of The Onassis Library for Hellenic and Roman Art, departmental archives, and a program of publication that includes use of the latest technology.8 Numerous photographs and plans within the article show the various transformations of the galleries through time.

The color plate section is divided by culture, each announced by a view of the related gallery and a short introductory essay: Art of the Neolithic and the Aegean Bronze Age, ca. 6000-1050 B.C.; Art of Geometric and Archaic Greece, ca. 1050-480 B.C.; Art of Classical Greece, ca. 480-323 B.C.; Art of the Hellenistic Age, ca. 323-31 B.C.; Art of Cyprus, ca. 3900 B.C. – ca. A.D. 100; Art of Etruria, ca. 900-100 B.C.; Art of the Roman Empire, ca. 31 B.C. – ca. A.D. 330.

The section with the catalogue entries follows the same divisions, each including a colored map of the pertinent area. A keyed plan of the Villa of Fannius Sinistor at Boscoreale (p. 479) accompanies entries nos. 375-380 on the frescoes from that complex, and that of the Villa of Agrippa Postumus at Boscotrecase (p. 484) goes with frescoes nos. 399-403. The new installation provided the opportunity for a thorough cleaning, remeasuring, and scientific analysis of the objects; therefore the entries give new information—for instance, that the ivory pieces from the Monteleone Chariot (no. 323) are from both elephant and hippopotamus. The well-known Amathus sarcophagus reveals previously undetected painted details, and a full color reconstruction is included on p. 464.

Despite the emphasis on art in the title for each subdivision, not every item can be considered “artistic”: e.g., the fragmentary papyrus containing lines from The Odyssey (no. 218) or the ingot (no. 259) that opens the Cypriot section. This approach, however, is in keeping with the principles of display that emphasize the multifaceted production of the times, with a mixture of stone, bronze, and terracotta sculptures, ceramics, gems, jewelry, and coins. The volume concludes with a Table of major Greek, Etruscan, and Roman divinities (p. 500), three pages of Concordance between accession and catalogue numbers, and an Index of the works of art.

The list of concordances furnishes a useful shortcut to assess the additions made to the collections since 1990: 78, by my count, plus a loan. At first glance, several of the new acquisitions, especially in the realm of the so-called minor arts (e.g., nos. 187, 313, 341, 343, 393), seem to complement previous holdings of the museum and are exhibited together with familiar pieces. Other, more eye-catching items come with an established pedigree: the jar, jug, and kernos found on Melos in 1829 and given to Eton College in 1857 (nos. 11-13); the head of a Ptolemaic Queen (Arsinoe II?) acquired in Egypt by George Baldwin, British Consul General in 1785-1796 (no. 220); the impressive Hope Dionysos, known from an 1835 engraving (fig. on p. 489, no. 429); the striking urn decorated with weapons and war trophies, “said to have been excavated from a tomb near Anagni, south of Rome, in 1899” and then published (no. 438); the porphyry support from the Ever Collection in England (no. 465). But such items are few and far between. Perusal of the volume under review, and a visit to the Metropolitan, reveal many additional objects, some of them not even included in the Catalogue, whose legitimate provenience might be challenged.

To be sure, it could be argued that in accepting gifts and legacies, the Metropolitan continues a practice well established since its inception. More recently, a major bequest by Walter Baker, in 1971, produced the famous Baker Dancer (no. 237); the Norbert Schimmel Trust, established in 1989, allowed for some important acquisitions. Now a 2002 bequest by Bill Blass has netted three spectacular additions: a headless bronze torso from an equestrian cuirassed statue (no. 211) and two marble torsos of semidraped men (nos. 416-417), one of them with traces of color and gilding on one mantle edge. But what is their origin? Climates have changed, and the acceptance of objects with unclear provenience has been repeatedly condemned and increasingly punished. The famous Euphronios Krater, exhibited but not catalogued, will be returned to Italy next year, and the so-called Morgantina Treasury will follow. What was permissible in less enlightened times—like slavery—is no longer acceptable today.9

Regrettably, the very Trustees of the museum number among them some notable, and notorious, collectors of illegally excavated antiquities, whose generous financial support, on the other hand, has significantly contributed to the renovation of the galleries.10 Even dealers are listed as donors (e.g., no 388). And some foreign museums seem to have tacitly approved of the Metropolitan’s attitude by honoring the opening through the loan of some important items from their own collections, which now appear amidst the New York possessions.11 Scholars are put in an awkward position: they can hardly stay away from a display that has brought back into view objects unseen for decades, together with many new pieces of importance, all to be examined under optimal lighting conditions; at the same time, they are reluctant to appear, by their very presence, to legitimize a policy that runs counter to the very essence of the archaeological endeavor—the reconstruction of ancient cultures through context.

This difficult situation has not been improved by some careless comments by the very author of this grand classical installation. Dr. Picón, in an interview granted to Rebecca Mead and published in The New Yorker of April 9, 2007, appears to have poked fun at archaeologists who are less skilled than tombaroli in finding valuable objects, and to have minimized the importance of the findspot in favor of the aesthetic value of the works of art.12 I do not doubt that such comments were indeed made. Yet the journalist was obviously looking for whatever quote could make her story more provocative, soft-pedaling the expressions of other points of view. I know, since I was personally interviewed by Ms. Mead for over one hour, by phone; but whatever I had to say, against all sorts of illicit digging and about Dr. Picón’s “proper” training as a responsible archaeologist, was omitted because apparently it did not fit into her article, whose very title—”Den of Antiquities”—puns on the subject.

Predictably, Picón’s comments have produced a strong reaction among scholars, not only classicists but even archaeologists of the New World. Several publications, in one way or another, have expressed condemnation of this “art pour l’art” point of view.13 Dr. Picón circulated among his acquaintances copy of a letter he wrote to his fellow curators in other disciplines, professing respect for field archaeologists and stressing that members of his own staff are even today engaged in excavations abroad. But damage has been done and will remain impressed in scholars’ minds along with the value of his truly important achievement of the new galleries’ completion.

If every cloud indeed has a silver lining, it is to be hoped that this very storm over Dr. Picón’s comments may have served to stress to the Metropolitan Trustees, its director, and all its curators, that the time of illicit acquisitions (whether by gift, loan, or purchase) is long gone. The way of the future is to expand on our classical knowledge by means of loan exhibitions mutually arranged with various foreign museums, in a spirit of collaboration and scholarly endeavor that will truly benefit all viewers alike. And the newly refurbished Metropolitan galleries, in all their luminous architectural splendor, are sure to provide a perfect setting for many years to come.


1. The first floor, including the Marble Court (now restored as a two-storied area with new limestone columns and mosaic paving) displays Greek (Bronze Age to Classical), Hellenistic, and Roman art; the mezzanine houses a study collection (prehistoric to Late Roman) and the Etruscan material, as well as a temporary-exhibition area at present occupied by a photographic history of the galleries; the second floor is devoted to Cypriot antiquities.

2. If a word of criticism can be considered fair, in view of the necessarily concise form of the commentary, I would object to what may seem an excessive belief that many Roman sculptures are copied from alleged Greek prototypes, although the related Introductory Essay mentions that our position on the subject of replicas and Roman creativity has changed in recent years.

3. He had already authored Ancient Art from Cyprus (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2000) in connection with the opening of the newly refurbished Cypriot Gallery in April of that year.

4. See figs. 1a-b and no. 468, both entry and color plate.

5. See p. 8 fig. 9 for a lovely photograph of G.M.A. Richter in 1952.

6. Marshall, an English-born classicist and archaeologist, was appointed by Robinson “the Metropolitan’s salaried purchasing agent based in Europe” (p. 8). He died in 1928, but Miss Richter continued to add to the collections, also through gifts and bequests (p. 14).

7. P. McCaughey, “Romans of New York: New Light on the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” TLS June 29, 2007, 14-15, cites P. McCaughey, “Romans of New York: New Light on the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” TLS June 29, 2007, 14-15, cites $225 million as the figure needed for all renovations to come to conclusion and 57,000 square feet as the space now devoted to Greek, Roman, Cypriot, and Etruscan objects.25 million as the figure needed for all renovations to come to conclusion and 57,000 square feet as the space now devoted to Greek, Roman, Cypriot, and Etruscan objects.

8. One CD of a planned five on Cypriot antiquities, is already completed and deals with the terracottas.

9. See, among the recent condemnations, D. Gill and C. Chippindale, “The Illicit Antiquities Scandal: What It Has Done to Classical Archaeological Collections,” A Review Article of P. Watson and C. Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy (New York 2006), in AJA 111 (2007) 571-74. The article includes pertinent bibliography, by the same authors and others. Cf. also supra, n. 7.

10. Some are even reputable scholars: note the bone lion protome, illustrated (but not catalogued) as a parallel to details on a Roman couch, no. 446, “gift of Malcolm Wiener on the occasion of the reinstallation of the Greek and Roman Galleries, 2006” (p. 493). In some cases, hard-to-refuse (?) gifts were offered in honor and memory of beloved family members and friends: e.g., nos. 169 and 230; no. 325. Particularly touching for his former teacher was head no. 239, an anonymous gift in memory of Professor Charles M. Edwards, a talented archaeologist and expert in classical sculpture prematurely lost to the field.

11. Note, in particular, the newly cleaned and seldom exhibited marble Athena that might have formed one of the roof ornaments of the Pergamon Altar, sent by the Berlin Museums.

12. R. Mead, “Onward and Upward with the Arts. Den of Antiquities. The Met defends its treasures,” pp. 52-61. The article includes an interview with Shelby White, one of the benefactors to the Metropolitan, as well as one of its trustees.

13. See, e.g., supra, n. 7 and the forthcoming letter from the president of the Archaeological Institute of America, Brian Rose, in the September/October 2007 issue of Archaeology.