New exhibit affirms Greek influence
CLEVELAND – The statue of Zeus is a smiling ambassador of the ancients, his face still holding a painted, rosy glow despite his 2,500 years of age. He was made by the Greeks who colonized southern Italy and Sicily in the seventh and eighth centuries BC, and represents a great blending of cultures which formed the roots of modern Western culture. The terracotta Zeus is part of «Magna Graecia,» a new exhibition of ancient Greek treasures which went on view this week for the first time in the USA at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The colonies that produced this Zeus came to dominate the culture of Italy, and «Magna Graecia» displays the finest examples of the remains of those early settlements. «The Greek culture was infectious,» said Michael Bennett of the Cleveland Museum of Art, co-curator of the exhibition, which he said illustrates the transfer of Greek culture from the Aegean Sea area to Italy. The exhibition consists of 81 objects from eight archaeological museums in the region where the Greek colonies were built. Each museum houses the great finds of its locale, and the exhibition is a sampler of the finest works from each museum. «Most of these have never been out of Italy, and none of them have ever been to America,» said co-curator Aaron J. Paul of the Tampa Museum of Art, the only other stop for the exhibition in the USA. The Greeks landed on the Italian shore and thrived, producing art in the styles and motifs of their homeland, using local clay and stones instead of the marble that was the preferred medium back home. The exhibit includes a wide and eclectic range of items, because Bennett and Paul said they wanted to offer as broad a picture as possible of the culture of the Greek colonies. There are pieces of jewelry – earrings, signet rings, necklaces – ancient bronze mirrors of stunning detail, pottery and plates, icons and statues. But along with these traditional museum items are some extraordinary finds. From Paestum, which is along Italy’s Mediterranean coast, comes a bronze jug, circa 530 BC, in pristine condition. The handle is a slender standing lion, head and paws resting on the rim of the jug, hind legs planted on the wide shoulder of the vessel; his eyes stare intently across the wide mouth and into the contents. This particular jug held honey, and when it was unearthed in 1954, the honey was still inside. A chunk of that petrified honey sits as a sweet surprise beside the jug in the exhibit hall. Perhaps the rarest items are three terracotta altars from Gela, on the southern coast of Sicily. One altar features a Gorgon Medusa, a nearly comic rendition of the snake-headed monster. A second depicts the goddess of dawn abducting the young hunter Kephalos, in an angelic pose that seems more mother and child than captor and captive. The third altar is a pristine, 4-foot (1.2-meter) sculpture of three standing goddesses with flowing robes and hair. Above their heads is the scene of a lioness with bulging eyes attacking a bull. The three altars were found together near the sea two years ago in exceptional condition, and have left Gela only twice before, for brief exhibitions in Rome and Paris. The curators acknowledge that little is known about why the altars were made. «The mainland Greeks, as far as we know, never created these terracotta altars,» Paul said. Ann Nicgorski, a professor of art history at Willamette University in Oregon, said the art in the «Magna Graecia» exhibit is of great significance to the formative history of Western art because so much descended from it. David Mitten, a professor of classical art and archaeology at Harvard University, said one of the most important contributions of the «Magna Graecia» show is the cooperative process that created it. «This is the first time that an exhibition in the United States has been able to pull together loans of absolute masterpieces of Greek art from several major Italian museums,» said Mitten, who served as an adviser to Bennett and Paul. «It is a pioneering effort that I hope will pave the way for more of these things,» Mitten said. Bennett and Paul acknowledge the exhibit is mostly a product of the extraordinary generosity of the lending museums, and Mario Iozzo of the Center for Conservation in Florence, who accompanied the Americans to each museum to request the loan of their masterpieces. «Magna Graecia» will be at the Cleveland Museum until January 5. It is to move to the Tampa Museum of Art on February 2 where it will run until April 20.