Without a doubt the biggest event in the art world this past year was the reopening of the Greek and Roman galleries at the Met. Are they worthy of all the hype? Should you make time to see them? Are they really new?
The answer is qualified. Yes, you should certainly see the galleries. But you might be surprised that much of the work is not new to the museum at all. You will recognize many of the objects, as they have been in the Met’s collection for years. What is new is both the organization and contextual views of the objects, as well as the architectural space itself. The art can now be viewed chronologically and thematically, in a way that was impossible before.
The new galleries mark the conclusion of the last of a four-phase master plan. The refurbished galleries allow for numerous additional objects, as well as viewing everything in a new light. For example, about 5,300 works previously in storage are now on exhibit. By now just about every major publication has reviewed the new galleries, and the crowds that first appeared have died down. So September should be an ideal time to view them in peace.
I remember many years ago when the present main atrium (now the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court) was occupied by the Met’s restaurant and a wonderful fountain with sculpture by Carl Milles. I was sorry to see the sculpture leave and the restaurant expand into its space. But now, the restaurant has moved downstairs, and the entire area is devoted to Greek and Roman art. The architects have redesigned the original one-story Roman court, adding an upper peristyle, doubling the height of the original.
At the entrance to the court stands the colossal column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis, long in the museum’s collection. But now, instead of standing in isolation, it incorporates several massive fragments from the entablature of the Sardis temple. The Greek and Roman curator, Carlos Picon, has pointed out that it is easy to take the column for granted (which I certainly did), as it seems to fit in perfectly with the original McKim, Mead, and White building—but in fact, as he points out, it is “the grandest example of ancient classical architecture in America.”
The feeling upon entering the spectacular, skylighted Leon Levy and Shelby White Court is magical. One is transported into a world of the ancients, but the environment seems, at the same time, surprisingly contemporary. The intent of the original atrium—to evoke the garden of a Roman villa—is retained, but enlarged, opened up, and made grander. In this context, it is easy to imagine the presence of Roman emperors and commoners, as well as gods and goddesses. History envelops and awes the viewer without overwhelming. The exhibition space truly fulfills the idea expressed by the donor, Shelby White, on behalf of her late husband, that “by studying past civilizations we would better understand ourselves.”
Upstairs on the mezzanine are the phenomenal Etruscan treasures, as well as a vast study area with easy-to-use computer screens, documenting and providing information about each of the objects (most of which had been consigned to storage areas until the opening of this vast space). The 57,000-square-foot space is like a museum within a museum, and larger than many entire museums.
Everybody has a favorite among the antiquities. My own are the Roman murals and the Etruscan chariot, newly restored and documented. I must admit I have always loved these, but the new installations and restorations have made them all the more astonishing. The murals from Boscoreale, near Pompeii, and those from Bostrotrecase—both buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E.—are considered to be the finest outside Italy. Previously incorporated into hallways and corridors of the museum, they now have their own space, with extensive wall texts explaining them. Newly restored, they glow, and the fanciful, avant-garde perspectives and images they depict seem more modern than ever. One of them recreates the cubiculum (bedroom) of a rich Roman noblewoman. The incredible details of the mural show exactly how Renaissance perspective derived from the Romans—but it is far more fanciful than any Renaissance painting. Other Boscoreale frescoes depict a woman playing a kithara (lyre) and a highly imaginative Polyphemusand Galatea that looks ahead to 19th- and 20th-century Symbolist and Post-Impressionist paintings.
The 2,600-year-old Etruscan chariot, which I remember from my childhood, was found in Monteleone, Italy, in 1902 and acquired and reassembled by the Met in 1903. But as Adriana Emiliozzi, an Italian archaeologist, observed in 1989, it had been put together incorrectly, resembling “an easy chair on wheels.” After five years’ work, it now takes center stage, with new accuracy. Additionally, lacquer covering the original bronze had discolored over time. This has been removed, revealing the elaborate bronze figures underneath. We now believe that the chariot was a ceremonial carriage for an important dignitary, used only for special occasions, and its intricate decoration with Achilles and myriad mythological animals underlines this.
It would not be right to omit from this article mention of the controversies over the rights of ownership of some of the objects. Indeed, The New York Times reported in April of this year that the village of Monteleone wants the Etruscan chariot back. The Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, under pressure, recently agreed to return the famed Euphronios vase (cost: $1 million in 1972—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a work of art) to Italy. Several trials are ongoing in Italy concerning illegal dealing and selling. The jury is, quite literally, still out on many of these matters.
With so much attention focused on looting and illegal acquisitions, it is particularly important to be sensitive to these issues—to redress wrongful pillaging, but to value and show legally purchased items in the best light possible. That is the Met’s goal, and it is served admirably by the beautiful new galleries.
The Met, located on Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, is open Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday from 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. It is closed Mondays, except for major holidays.