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ECCE! IV New Greek and Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum PDF Email


New Greek and Roman Galleries
at the
Metropolitan Museum

As a first year Latin student, I was eager to visit the new Greek and Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum in New York when they opened last April. The museum is easily accessible by subway and a short walk or by bus; it is located on Fifth Avenue, also called the Museum Mile, because of the other museums located nearby, such as the Guggenheim and the Jewish Museum, as well as the townhouse Mayor Bloomberg calls home.

The entrance to the galleries, located directly off the main lobby, opens onto the rooms devoted to Greek art. The main gallery is called the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court and it is beautifully laid out with stunning marble floors and towering columns. A large skylight, and smaller skylights over sections of the gallery, allow objects to be seen in natural light. In the center of the first floor gallery, fragments of an originally 58-foot Ionic column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis have been partially reconstructed into an ornate column that stands at least 25 feet high and marks the beginning of the Roman section of the galleries. A simple, bubbling fountain in the center of the Roman gallery lends an air of serenity. There is ample seating in every room of the gallery where visitors can rest, take notes, and sketch. Many people take pictures with cell phone cameras: I bought postcards and a small guide to the museum. The descriptions I have attempted here are adapted from signs posted in the museum and published in Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, published this year by Yale University Press, copies of which are available to the public to read in an alcove on the second floor.

I was most interested in the objects related to what we studied in Latin 101, some of which are illustrated in the Cambridge Latin book. We read about chariots, and a chariot from the second quarter of the sixth century B.C., called the Monteleone chariot, after the place in Italy where it was found, and one of the best preserved pieces from antiquity, has been returned for public viewing after a 5-year reconstruction project and is the centerpiece of the mezzanine gallery. The account of how the chariot, first assembled in 1903, was observed by a scholar to be incorrectly put together and then reconstructed under her direction is found in the New York Times, March 29, 2007. With only part of one wheel of the original base remaining, most of the substructure has been replaced, while the bronze relief and ivory panels on the front and back are original and depict episodes from the life of Achilles and his apotheosis in a chariot drawn by winged horses. The chariot is quite small with room for two persons to stand and was used to transport dignitaries in parades and is considered evidence of conspicuous consumption in this period. Ivories, bronze buckets, spear heads and a bronze frog, shown in a case nearby, and cauldrons and basins in the case with the chariot, were found with the original chariot.

The most remarkable features of the exhibit for me were the cubiculi and frescoes salvaged from Pompei and housed in adjacent rooms on the first floor of the gallery. Artifacts from two different villas are displayed. These elegant, private summer homes allowed the staid Romans to get away from their austere lives of business and politics and to relax and enjoy the cultured lifestyle of the Hellensic courts. Teams of painters covered the walls of these homes with frescoes, which were painted on damp, freshly laid lime plaster using lime water with natural earth pigments. The colors are still vibrant in shades of copper, orange, and brick red and delicate blues and greens. The scenes depicted are often architectural, creating the illusion of regal buildings, courtyards, and gardens extending beyond the walls where they are painted, often in the manner of tromp l'oeil, so that the viewer cannot distinguish between the real and the artificial. "They evoke royal precincts, sanctuaries, and stage sets," the museum notes state, conveying volume and perspective with light and shade from a real doorway or window. Other subjects are natural, flowers, leaves, and birds in exquisite detail, and scenes inspired by mythology that was familiar to the people sponsoring them.

The cubiculum shown on page 17 of the Cambridge Latin text has been reconstructed from from the villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, about a mile north of Pompei, and includes the frame from the original window that was bent from the heat of the volcano. One can step into this room and see some of the best frescoes of the period, lavish, richly colored scenes of architecture, part of which are seen on page 9 of the Cambridge Latin text. The couch is not included in the room; one that resembles it is in a separate display nearby. Other frescoes from this villa are set into the walls of the gallery and depict objects relevant to Dionysian rites, popular at the time, such as the heads of bulls, a snake in a basket, and intricate garlands. Three panels from this villa show on the left a lady playing a cithara, page 12 of the Cambridge text; in the center panel figures representing a bride and groom, the latter heroically nude; and in the third panel an oracle predicting the birth of a male child.

The other villa from which art was salvaged was that of Agrippa Postumus at Boscotrecase, from which another cubiculum has been reconstructed, called the Black Room. The ten wall paintings in this room are mostly black with tiny, intricate landscapes and buildings; the rust colored panels below the frescoes I at first mistook for walls of the museum, while they are actually part of the frescoes, a most striking example of fooling the eye with painted architectural detail. Other frescoes from this villa comprised what is called the Mythological Room and show scenes with Polyphemus, Galatea, Perseus, and Andromeda. One realizes from seeing a floor plan of this villa that it was large and lavish consisting of many cubiculi, sitting rooms, dining room, kitchen, and baths, a truly grand estate, that was frozen in time, the distinguished lives of the occupants ended by the volcano.

The mezzanine floor is designated as a study area, for want of a better name the museum states. There are many small objects in cases on either side of the gallery miniature carvings, coins, fragments of pottery, tools, small sculptures, and portraits--displayed according to civilization and period. Because most people are going to want to study only a few of the many objects, specific details about each are stored easily accessible computers across the room.

One comes away from these galleries overwhelmed by the extent of the collection and aware of how much time it takes to view even parts of it. Seeing bedrooms that the Romans actually slept in and looking at the sophisticated art they produced brought alive much of what I had studied in my Latin classes and made me want to learn more.

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