On Friday, April 20, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will open to the public its New Greek and Roman Galleries. Five years in the making and ten more in the planning, the project involved a redesign of the southern end of the building and a reinstallation of the superb collection of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art. Returned to view after generations in storage are thousands of works from the Metropolitan’s collections dating back to its founding in 1870.
The centerpiece of the New Greek and Roman Galleries is the dazzling Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, with a soaring two-story atrium. Indeed it is natural light — more than any given object or themed gallery — that is the “star” of the new space. The new design marks a return to the McKim, Mead and White atrium that had served to display Roman art until 1949, when it was uprooted to make way for the Met’s admittedly elegant restaurant and cafeteria; all the same good riddance, if this is what we get in its stead. On the first floor, contiguous to the central court on three sides, are galleries for Hellenistic and Roman art. The installation continues on a mezzanine level, where galleries for Etruscan art and the Greek and Roman study collection overlook the court from two sides.
This column cannot begin to reference all the splendors that await you upon your visit (soon!), though it will touch upon a few spectacular features. I will say, however, that a three-hour prowl of this “museum within a museum” was not enough, and a return trip is on the near horizon.
My son Jed — the eldest, a doctoral candidate in Classics and Archaeology — accompanied me to Monday’s center-hall breakfast, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and press preview. He had flown into Newburgh to attend the function and there to guide this old baseball writer who wouldn’t know Euphronios from Suetonius. He was also on hand to help me celebrate my birthday with a “Nerds’ Night Out” 36-hour Big Apple extravaganza, complete with impromptu walking tour of the city, foraging at the Strand Bookstore, oasis stops at favorite taverns, and Mediterranean restaurants coordinated with the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. He was 30, I was now 60 and, despite his confession that he had seethed with resentment when I dragged him along to secondhand-book stores when we were both younger, the apple had not fallen far from the tree.
It had, however, fallen of late in Apulia, the southern Italian province famous in Classical times for its red-figure pottery, which is the subject of his doctoral thesis. In the red-figure technique, the background is filled in with black paint and only the figures’ details are painted, allowing the unpainted portions of the figures to take on the reddish tone of the clay after it is burned in the presence of oxygen.
From the mid-eighth century B.C., according to a wall text in the New Greek and Roman Galleries, “parts of Italy south of Rome were colonized by Greek emigrants. Connections with the mainland remained strong, intensifying the transplantation of Greek traditions, culture, and language. Indeed, this area of Italy was known since antiquity as ‘Magna Graecia’ (or Greater Greece). The interaction with native Italic and Latin peoples significantly influenced the appearance and development of local arts. One of the principal features of South Italian culture is its interest in Greek drama, often reflected in works of art.”
A red-figure calyx-krater (ca. 400-390 B.C., Greek, South Italian, Apulian) shows three comic actors performing a scene from a phlyax play, a parody of Greek tragedy developed in southern Italy. Jed pointed out to me that the actors’ lines of dialogue were painted on the vase to emanate from the speakers’ mouths, much in the manner that cartoonists today employ bubbles to enclose their characters’ speech. Thrillingly for me, as we stood before the krater he voiced the ancient Greek and translated easily.
On view nearby, at the entrance to the gallery, was an Apulian terracotta column-krater that depicts the painting of a marble statue. As depicted, an artist applies an emulsion of pigment and wax to the surface of a statue of Herakles (Hercules). Afterward, a red-hot iron rod (a number of which are shown being heated by an assistant or slave) would be passed over the statue, causing molten paint to penetrate the surface of the stone. This Apulian appetite for color has been regarded by many scholars as gaudiness, representing a decline from the monochromatic Greek purity of form.
And yet, one of the Met’s most celebrated acquisitions was the Euphronios calyx-krater (ca. 520 BC), the supreme example of Greek vase painting of the 6th-5th century. Acquired for one million dollars in 1972 (it would fetch perhaps one hundred times that sum today) from an American art-dealer living in Rome, it turned out to have been, in all probability, looted from an Etruscan tomb. In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Italian government signed an agreement under which ownership of the krater and several other pieces of art was transferred to Italy in exchange for long-term loans of other comparable objects. Although at some time it will be returned to Italy, the krater was still on display, featured less than prominently in the New Greek and Roman Galleries, the elephant in the room about which no one spoke. (Jed, however, did engage in spirited discussion of these issues of provenance with another invited admirer of the Euphronios work.)
While our most passionate interest for the day was the wealth of Apulian art on display, it was impossible to miss such grand treasures as the “Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus and the Four Seasons” (Roman, Late Imperial, A.D. 260-70), better known as the “Badminton Sarcophagus” because beginning in 1733 it had been part of the collection of the dukes of Beaufort and was formerly displayed in their country seat, Badminton Hall in Gloucestershire, England. Carved in high relief from a single block of marble, it shows the god Dionysus seated on a panther and surrounded by an entourage of lusty satyrs, maenads (his female devotees), the horned god Pan, and four youths who represent the Seasons, each bearing appropriate attributes.
Also among the highlights of the first-floor galleries are two actual rooms from Roman villas — with their stunning wall paintings — that were buried nearly two thousand years ago by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The frescoes from a cubiculum nocturnum (bedroom) are all the more haunting in the context of the bent ironwork in the window opening. Elsewhere, fragmented masterpieces abound — a sandaled foot, an upper arm and hand displayed to emphasize the absence of the forearm — all conveying an aching sense of what has been lost.
The centerpiece of the Leon Levy and Shelby White Gallery for Etruscan art located on the mezzanine floor is the newly restored, world-famous Etruscan chariot (second quarter of the sixth century B.C.). Made of bronze (mounted on a wooden substructure) and inlaid with precious elephant and hippopotamus ivory, the chariot is richly decorated with scenes from the life of the Greek hero Achilles. The chariot is funerary and symbolic, as military use of such vehicles had long since stopped.
The intersection of Hellenistic, Roman, and Etruscan influences epitomized by this chariot is a subject of enduring fascination and controversy — over dating, interpretation, supposed Greek or Roman hegemony, and provenance. How does an understanding and appreciation of classical art strengthen western civilization? This was a subject raised earnestly and engagingly in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s opening remarks, which were followed upon by those of Governor Eliot Spitzer and capped by those of Museum Director Philippe de Montebello. Do we absorb and convey tradition across the generations or do we reinvent or redefine it to be useful to present concerns?
Western civilization these days may be giving tradition a black eye, but we can’t claim that the sculptors and potters (or poets and philosophers) of old gave us a deficient mold. If we broke from it, that’s our mistake. Go to the Met, and look to the past.