NEW YORK—The ancient city of Pergamon was discovered in the 1860s by German engineer Carl Humann. He was doing land surveys for railroad construction, when he noticed that residents were burning fragments of an ancient marble sculpture to make lime. It was the birth of an archaeological project that, over the past 138 years, has unearthed the remains of the city’s most important architectural components.
Now known as Bergama in Turkey, Pergamon was the capital of the Attalid Dynasty (281–133 B.C.) that ruled over large parts of Asia Minor.
Perched on a hill, the city’s ruins stand as a testament to a great kingdom and culture—just one among the many Hellenistic kingdoms left behind by Alexander the Great’s conquests. But its treasures, or at least some of them, are now displayed in all their glory at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a new exhibition titled Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World.
It is the first major international loan exhibition in the United States that spans the entire Hellenistic period, from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., to the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C.
Gold and silver jewelry and artifacts, luxury glassware, as well as marble and bronze sculptures are among the works showcasing the kind of innovations and technical mastery that came about through the robust patronage of the royal courts throughout Hellenistic kingdoms.
In his opening remarks, exhibition organizer Carlos A. Picón admitted that it would be nearly impossible to represent, in their entirety, all the major Hellenistic kingdoms from Ptolemaic Egypt, Macedonia, the Seleucid territory to Bactria and India, as well as Bithynia and Pontus.
Impossible as well as redundant, given that Hellenistc art often transcends regional classifications anyway.
With more than 260 artworks from more than 50 lenders in 12 countries, the exhibition represents “a monumental undertaking”, according to Picón.
A vivid computer generated panoramic image shows how Pergamon, arguably the most well known of Hellenistic capitals, would have looked in 129 A.D.
The image depicts the city on a sunny day with the hustle and bustle of its streets, the grandeur of its many palaces, and the huge amphitheater steadily filling up with spectators in anticipation of an upcoming performance. It adds another lively element to the exhibition, driving home the realization that, while we think of the ancients as far removed from us in time and style, it would have been an enviable and sophisticated society to live in.
A cultural and commercial hub, the city’s eponymous library was renowned as second only to the Library of Alexandria. The Attalids fostered the arts and sciences, allowing Greek cities to maintain nominal independence and looked to Athens for architectural inspiration. Case in point is the Acropolis of Pergamon, which was remodeled after the Acropolis in Athens.
Athena—Goddess of Knowledge and the Arts
The largest sculpture in the show—the monumental statue of Athena Parthenos (goddess of knowledge and the arts), once stood in the great library at Pergamon and is a 1/3 replica of the gold and ivory statue of Athena on the Athenian Acropolis by renowned Greek classical sculptor Phidias.
None of Phidias’s works survive, so this is as close as we can get to his style.
The sculpture of Athena on the Athenian Acropolis was one of the two sculptures by Phidias (the other being of Zeus at Olympia), which impacted all subsequent sculptural depictions of Athena and Zeus and gained Phidias unprecedented fame throughout the Hellenistic kingdoms as well as the Roman Empire afterward.
“We are so accustomed to speaking of Greek versus Roman art that it is difficult to fully comprehend the concept of a fusion of Greek and Roman art into a Hellenistic common language—a common language centered in Rome during the first century B.C.,” said Picón. “And pivotal to this theme is the vast amount of Greek art collected by the Romans.”
Displayed together for the first time in the exhibition is also an array of Greek sculptures and other luxury artwork from two ancient shipwrecks—the Antikythera (shipwrecked in Greek waters), and the Mahdia (off the Tunisian coast). Among the works found are both originals and ancient copies that were being supplied to the West as early as the first century B.C.
A group of glass bowls from the Antikythera is stunning in many ways, not least being the fact that the bowls are timeless in their elegance, representing impressive glassworking techniques even by today’s standards.
Rome’s Appetite for All Things Greek
The exhibition comprises many works from the Late Hellenistic and Roman Imperial period that demonstrate Rome’s appetite for all things Greek.
Greek teachers tutored the children of the Roman upper classes, Greek philosophers were invited as house guests and when Roman generals paraded requisitioned sculptures from conquered cities before their fellow countrymen, Romans began collecting Greek art so as to display it in their homes too. The demand for Greek art grew to the point where Greek craftsmen started migrating to Rome to work.
Some of the most evocative works on show are copies of Greek works made in the early Roman Imperial period.
Noteworthy examples are the marble sculpture of a kneeling Persian Roman, as well as the dying Gaul—both Roman, copies of Greek bronze statues dated from the Imperial period, early second century.
One will also come face to face with imposing Roman marble copies of Aristotle, and a surly and elderly Homer. The works manage to retain some of the un-idealized features of the great men themselves.
But what stands among the grand marble sculptures and exquisite jewelry is perhaps the most spellbinding work of the whole show—the Greek bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer (the “Baker Dancer”) dated from the Hellenistic period, third–second century B.C. and said to be from Alexandria.
Wrapped up in her garments and veils, through her twisting motion, is the whole history of great art, past, present, and future. She is elegance, mystery, and rhythm personified—simplicity and endless complexity all in one. One glance at her, and it is obvious why Greek sculptors were in such great demand.
The collection of seminal works on display has an unsurpassed beauty and refinement. It is easy to see why classical art has been emulated during all the subsequent centuries to this day.
Yes, there is a subjective element to viewing art. However, time continues to sift the great from the rest.
Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World is showing through to July 17, 2016.