Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Art | When more is absolutely more

Classical art, mainly Greek and Roman, has been a problematic subject for American museums that collect it. Both the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have been embroiled in recent controversies over whether certain objects they acquired by gift or purchase were removed improperly from their countries of origin.

Classical art, mainly Greek and Roman, has been a problematic subject for American museums that collect it. Both the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have been embroiled in recent controversies over whether certain objects they acquired by gift or purchase were removed improperly from their countries of origin.

For instance, the Metropolitan proudly exhibits a magnificent Etruscan bronze chariot from the sixth century B.C., unearthed in 1902 in the central Italian town of Monteleone di Spoleto. It passed through the hands of several Italian owners and dealers before it was bought in 1903 by the museum's first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola.

Italian officials claim that the chariot left Monteleone illegally, and they want it back. This probably isn't going to happen, because the chariot, recently reconstructed to restore its original appearance, is the spectacular centerpiece of the Metropolitan's new Etruscan gallery.

That gallery, in turn, is part of the museum's newly expanded and reconfigured suite of rooms devoted to art of the classical world, which also includes Greek, Hellenistic and Roman art as well as objects from Cyprus and the incomparable masterpieces of sculpture.

The museum has always had Greek and Roman art on view, but never so much of it displayed with such panache. The south wing of the main building along Fifth Avenue has been transformed into the equivalent of a self-contained museum chock-full of more art - about 5,300 pieces in all, most previously in storage - than anyone could absorb in a single visit, or even several.

The new classical section is more than twice as large as it was before the project began five years ago. Size alone, though, isn't the point. The new installation is more logical, both chronologically and thematically, and more understandable. Visitors now are able to absorb the ethos of these cultures through their art, less perhaps through monumental sculptures than through smaller utilitarian objects such as ceramics, glassware, jewelry and coins.

For instance, walking into two reconstructed rooms from Roman villas near Pompeii that were buried in the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius is like being transported back to the Roman imperium. In each case, the magic is generated by painted frescoes that cover the walls. In one room, from a villa owned by the son-in-law of the Emperor Augustus, the walls are a crepuscular black, accented with gold. That might sound morbid or depressing - until you see them.

These frescoes, like Proust's madeleine, evoke the elegance and luxury of Roman aristocracy. They achieve this more effectively, I think, than any of the marble figures, the delicate multicolored glass vessels, the bronze statues, or the elaborately carved marble sarcophagi. Unlike such objects, they embody a sense of place. When you enter these rooms, you're in Pompeii.

These reconstructed rooms are, like almost everything else in the Greek and Roman collection, artifacts of wealth and power. There is little sense in these galleries of how ordinary Greeks and Romans lived and died, but then durable artifacts owned by rich people are those that usually survive to illustrate history.

Magnificent as the frescoes are, they aren't the wing's visual centerpiece. This would be the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, a two-story atrium installed with about 20 examples of Hellenistic and Roman sculpture. It is named for two prominent collectors of ancient art, husband and wife, who, like the museum, had to contend with challenges to the legitimacy of some of their acquisitions.

Longtime Met visitors will remember that this space was, until a few years ago, the museum cafeteria. Created as a Roman courtyard by the celebrated architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White between 1912 and 1926, the space displayed Roman art until it was converted into the restaurant in the early 1950s.

Today it's hard to imagine that any museum would surrender such an imposing gallery space to food service; the trend is in the other direction. Over the first half of the last century, the Metropolitan's ancient art also lost space to administrative offices. So in effect, the expansion is really a restoration.

The atrium has been restored to its full height and now is illuminated naturally by a skylight. The sunken reflecting pool has been replaced by a saucer-shaped central fountain, and the space installed with about 20 Roman sculptures dating from the first century B.C. to the third century A.D.

Though it's a capacious room, the Levy-White Court felt uncomfortably crowded when I visited, perhaps because of several school groups bunched around the fountain. The serenity one hopes to find in such a space proved elusive.

Otherwise, there is so much to see and admire here that the congestion fades into a minor irritant. The wing is installed so that visitors entering from the central hall first encounter prehistoric and early Greek art; this is where one finds the Cycladic figures, which would make even the most resolute modernist weep with envy.

The Greek section, including three large galleries of black- and red-figure ceramic vessels that used to be housed upstairs, leads into the Hellenistic period (323 to 31 B.C.) and finally into the Roman. Etruscan art, including the reconstructed chariot, is at the south end of the wing on the mezzanine level.

Also on that level, overlooking Fifth Avenue, is a Greek and Roman study collection of some 3,500 items. Study collection means that the objects are more densely organized in cases and minimally identified by number. To identify and learn about them, one goes to computer touch screens along one wall.

Small items might be either overlooked or scanned cursorily in such an extensive display, but I urge you to pay them close attention because they can reveal a great deal about the ancients' personal habits and tastes. For example, the gallery for Roman imperial art includes two especially beautiful cases, one for pottery and glass and another for objects the Romans used for diversion and ornament.

I hope also that a progress through these galleries will make you aware of two things: First, that in Greek and Roman art the human body is a primary vehicle for expressing the perfection of nature. Often idealized, it could also be poignant, like a memorial stele for a young Greek girl. Here are the roots of the Renaissance, and of much of what college students before multiculturalism once called Western Civ.

Second, the collection of ancient art reminds us that the civilizations created by patriarchal, often violent, white European males can't be dismissed as being devoid of virtue. Western Civ's aesthetic agenda has endured for millennia, and we should - and do - honor it.

Art | Classical Treasures

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82d Street, New York, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays, and from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Suggested admission: $20 general, $15 for visitors 65 and older, and $10 for students. Information: 212-535-7710 or