Back in the 1870s, German archeologists began extensive excavations at Pergamon, an ancient Greek city whose ruins lie in modern Turkey, near the Aegean Sea. The museum built to house the Pergamon finds is undergoing extensive renovations, and for a few months, the Metropolitan Museum has borrowed some of its remarkable pieces. The MMA has incorporated them into a fantastic exhibition: Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World. The exhibition will be on view at the MMA until July 17, 2016; it will not travel elsewhere.
Hellenistic Greek art is the Baroque of the ancient world: dramatic, full of contrasts and flourishes. But the Greeks of the period also respected the art of earlier centuries, so there are copies of earlier works as well. In fact, one of the strengths of this exhibition (as with the Power and Pathos exhibition that was at the Getty and the National Gallery in 2015-2016) is that many of the pieces are Greek originals, or copies by Greeks. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to live without Roman copies of Greek sculptures – we’d have precious little Greek art – but if I’m looking at a Roman copy of copy (to the nth power), done after 6 centuries or so, I have to wonder how much remains of the spirit that its creator originally put there.
Here are my favorites. The exhibition includes over 260 pieces, so you may well find some that you love that aren’t listed here.
One of the world’s greatest philosophers greets you as you enter the first room. What could be better than that? I’ve seen this bust in photos, but it’s always better to see it in the round.
For the ancient Greeks, Athena was goddess of wisdom and courage, law and justice, mathematics and strategy. Her sanctuary at Pergamon held this reduced-size copy of the chryselephantine (gold-and-ivory) Athena created in the mid-5th c. BC for the Parthenon in Athens. Most of the reproductions we have of Pheidias’s masterpiece are small-scale: this one is an impressive 10-15 feet.
Homer, and …
This is another one from the art-history texts that’s stunning in person.
This ratty little papyrus fragment is the earliest known manuscript of one of Homer’s poems! And it lives at the Metropolitan Museum: who knew?
Great Altar of Pergamon
If you’ve ever taken a course in art history or Greek art, you’ll have seen the frieze of the Great Altar, as an example of Hellenistic art at its most dramatic and dynamic. The current exhibition has a model of the Great Altar plus full-size photographic reproductions of the frieze.
The sculptures in the room are fragments from the Great Altar’s decoration. This one would hold pride of place in any museum’s collection. In this exhibition, it’s just one of many wonderful pieces.
This is another piece that’s in the major textbooks, but that has in person much more oomph than I’d have imagined. It’s over 5 inches high, and the workmanship is fantastic.
The Pergamon exhibition includes a dozen or more mind-blowingly gorgeous pieces. Wonder what it feels like to wear something like this?
For decades, this has been the image I use as a visual reminder of the state of mind of the Greeks at about the time the Romans were taking over the Mediterranean: still highly civilized, but profoundly perplexed because they’ve taken a couple hard wrong turns philosophically. (Have you read “Waiting for the Barbarians“? Like that. Although Cavafy’s poem is set at the end of the Roman Empire, not in the Hellenistic kingdoms.)
The Delos Head was also in the Power and Pathos exhibition, where I wasn’t allowed to take photographs. Hah! At the MMA, I can and do. Look at the difference between the expression in profile and three-quarter view (the view always shown in the textbooks).
Friends, Romans, Enemies
I recently read Dictator, the third and final book in Robert Harris’s trilogy on Cicero. The main characters include Pompey and Julius Caesar, who in this exhibition are glaring across the room at each other. Nearby is a fabulous relief of the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, at which Caesar’s nephew Octavian Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra. (The owner requested that no photos be taken of it, but someone did at a 2014 exhibition.) To the left of the relief are a marble head of Octavian Augustus and a lovely bronze head of Juba II, who was defeated by Caesar and taken to Rome. There he was educated by Caesar and then Octavian before being restored to his throne in Numidia. Juba married the daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
‘Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius – we’ll deserve it.
‘Tis Rome requires our tears,
The mistress of the world, the seat of empire,
The nurse of heroes, the delight of gods,
That humbled the proud tyrants of the earth,
And set the nations free; Rome is no more.
Oh, liberty! Oh, virtue! Oh, my country!
- You can read parts of the exhibition catalogue here.
- On Sunday June 5, at 1 p.m., I’ll be giving my “Innovators in Sculpture” tour (5,000 years in 2 exhilarating hours) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you’re interested, email email@example.com .