Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 C.E. Roman. Silver and gold. H: 4 5/8 x W:10 9/16 x D:6 7/8 x Diam: 5 7/8 inches, 3.62 pounds. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris. VEX.2014.1.7
KANSAS CITY, MO.- A glittering array of silver, gold and gemstones on view in the exhibition Luxury: Treasures of the Roman Empire offers a window into the lifestyles of the ancient Roman elite, who used luxury items to display their wealth through elaborate banquets, gifts and personal adornment and to thank the gods. Open July 9 through Oct. 2 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the exhibition showcases some of the finest surviving works by artists and craftsmen working 2,000 years ago. On display are silver statues, tableware, gold medallions and coins, and precious jewels and cameos, all celebrated for their rare materials, their refined aesthetics and compelling subject matter.
The exhibition is a treasure trove of mythology and legends. Visitors will find vivid depictions of centaurs tormented by love, Herakles strangling the Nemean Lion, Dionysos and Herakles in a drinking bout, Achilles cradling the dying Penthesilea, and the beautiful Omphale, drunk and asleep on a lion’s skin. Roman aristocrats often dedicated their luxury items to the gods, and many objects in the exhibition were dedicated centuries ago to Mercury, the Roman god associated with commerce and travel.
“Through these sumptuous objects, we can literally gaze through the window of history and understand and appreciate the culture and art of the ancient Romans,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins. “We can imagine the Roman banquets, the political quests for power, and the pilgrimages to offer gifts to the gods.
“We can also come to know the people who surprisingly discovered these objects many centuries later, who pulled them from the earth, cleaned them and preserved them. It is a profound exhibition with many layers of legends and stories that continue to speak to us today.”
Mercury, 175–225. Roman Silver and gold. Object: H: 56.3 x Diam.: 16 cm, Weight: 2772 g (22 3/16 x 6 5/16 in., 6.11 lb.) Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris VEX.2014.1.1.
Objects Arrive from Various Collections
The more than 180 works of art in Luxury come from the Roman Empire, which stretched some 2,000 years ago from modern-day England to Egypt. The core of the exhibition was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Bibliothéque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris, and was curated by Kenneth Lapatin, Associate Curator of Antiquities, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Mathilde Avisseau-Broustet and Cécile Colonna of the Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques. The objects underwent four years of historical research and meticulous cleaning and conservation at the Getty Villa.
The largest portion of the exhibition showcases the Berthouville Treasure, which carries its own rich story.
The year was 1830. Farmer Prosper Taurin was plowing a field he had just purchased near the small village of Berthouville, 100 miles northwest of Paris. Taurin’s plow struck an object just below the dirt’s surface. Pausing in his work, he grabbed a pickaxe and pried up the Roman tile that had halted his labor. He stared in astonishment at silver cups, platters and statues hidden beneath that single tile. Unwilling to touch the unexpected and miraculous discovery, he used the pickaxe to carefully lift the objects from their centuries-old hiding place and piled them into sacks. He had inadvertently stumbled upon what would become known as the Berthouville Treasure, which would soon be acquired by the Bibliothéque nationale de France, Paris.
In the years after Farmer Taurin’s discovery, surveys and excavation of the site uncovered foundations of a colonnaded square with two temples. One was dedicated to Mercury of Canetonum, while the other was devoted to his mother Maia or his consort Rosmerta. The site was believed to be a place of pilgrimage, where precious silver cups, platters and utensils were brought as gifts to Mercury.
At the Nelson-Atkins, the exhibition also includes objects from The Ferrell Collection, and ancient art from the museum’s collection.
“This exhibition is about beauty, splendor and great wealth, and it showcases the abundance of exotic goods in ancient Rome,” said Robert Cohon, the Nelson-Atkins Curator, Art of the Ancient World. “There are emeralds from Egypt, sapphires from Ceylon, pearls from the Red Sea, gold from Spain and ivory from Africa.”
Bracelet, Byzantine, 6th century. Gold with gems and pearls, 10.5 x 9.5 x 4.0 cm, 239.6 grams. The Ferrell Collection. Photo by Bruce White.
Works Depict the Elite Roman Lifestyle
The incredible quality and sheer quantity of the objects in the exhibition offer a look into the ancient Roman lifestyle, one of unsurpassed refinement. The elite had time to concern themselves with how they looked, and they wore elaborate jewelry and collected carved gems. A cameo with an exquisite sculptural quality portrays Emperor Septimius Severus and his wife Julia Domna. Severus emerged from the Civil Wars of AD 193-197 as sole ruler of the Roman Empire, and he promoted his power by circulating images of his family. No other cameo of the Severan period compares with the fine carving of this stone, which was likely produced in an imperial workshop as an official gift and is now part of the Ferrell Collection.
Two exquisite works from the Berthouville Treasure are a pair of scyphi, heavy drinking vessels. The intricately decorated cups, each fashioned out of more than three pounds of silver by one of the great artists of the first century, feature male and female centaurs delighting in love. (A centaur is a mythical creature, half human and half horse.) Centaurs feast and carouse and seem to burst from the surface full of life and movement. A Latin inscription on the bottom of the cups states they were a donation to Mercury by a Roman citizen named Quintus Domitius Tutus, and another inscription gives the weight of the silver.
Several of the works portray Achilles, the handsome and fierce soldier. In one arresting ivory statuette, Achilles cradles the Amazon warrior Penthesilea as she draws her last breath. She had joined the Trojans in their fight against the besieging Greeks, and her heroic exploits on the battlefield had captured Achilles’ attention, who itched to face her in battle. He did, in fact, defeat her, but as she lay dying in his arms, Achilles was struck by her beauty. At the moment of her death, their eyes met, and he fell deeply in love with her and regretted his actions.
Cup with Centaurs, Roman, A.D. 1-100; silver and gold. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris VEX.2014.1.6.
Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 C.E. Roman. Silver and gold. H: 4 5/8 x W:10 9/16 x D:6 7/8 x Diam: 5 7/8 inches, 3.62 pounds. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris. VEX.2014.1.7.
Sections of the Exhibition
The exhibition begins with the irresistible combination of Gold and the Power of the Empire and showcases one of the world’s few surviving examples of Roman gold tableware, a pure, 23-carat bowl discovered in Rennes in northwest France and renowned for its artistic value. In a section called The Body Adorned, visitors encounter gold jewelry, bracelets, bangles and rings. Because private homes in ancient Rome also served as places where financial and political deals transpired, the need to impress was great, and the section Living in Luxury features bronze statuettes and intricate mosaics. The Roman Feast section features important rituals of consuming food and drink in the Roman world. The next section offers visitors a look at the Berthouville Treasure, objects that were gifts to the god Mercury and carried inscriptions of gratitude. Similar gifts, several hundred years later, were dedicated to the church as Christianity began to spread, as illustrated in the final section, From Pagan to Christian.
Offering Bowl with Bacchus, Hercules, and Coins (The Patera of Rennes), Roman, about A.D. 210; gold. H: 4 cm; Diam.: 25 cm; Wt: 1315 grams. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris. VEX.2014.1.125.