In CA 237 I reported on the re-opening of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Now it is the turn of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, best known for its pictures and magnificent porcelain collection. But there is also an important antiquities department on the ground floor, which has just received a complete overhaul. The big problem with the old gallery was that as the room is long and narrow, running the length of the museum, visitors in the past tended to rush rapidly through the boring old Greek and Roman stuff to get to the Egyptian department and the mummies at the far end. Now, two large sarcophagi placed in the centre of the room stops them in their tracks, forcing them to go round the sides of the room and thus see the Greek and Roman material. These sarcophagi are rather fine. The main one was found in the early 19th century in Crete on the southern shore, broken and scattered. What it was doing in southern Crete is a mystery, for it is a superb sarcophagus of Carrara marble (presumably carved in Italy), showing the procession of Dionysus coming back from India with a finely carved elephant. The inside of the sarcophagus is full of concrete to hold it together, but the sarcophagus below is still hollowed out so that you can see the stone pillow on which the head was laid.

The main innovation of the new design, underpinned by a grant from the AHRC, is that it is intended to bring together university academics with museum staff and has been designed in conjunction with the Faculty of Classics to reflect some of the latest academic fashions. There is an emphasis on the history of the objects from the time of their discovery through to their exhibition in a museum case, thus creating a biography of each artefact, running from the craftsman who made it, through to the customer, the collector, the restorer, and, finally, the curators who have displayed it. A good example of this is their finest single piece: a superb bust of the Emperor Hadrian’s boyfriend, Antinous, from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. Carvings of his head are found all over the Empire which is fortunate, because clearly he was a handsome lad, and it comes at the peak of Roman sculpture, when the Greek and Roman traditions were melding together — it is both the best Greek sculpture and the best Roman sculpture. Yet look closely, and only the head is original: the bust was added in the 18th century as indeed are some of his curls. Another piece, known as the Flaxman Apollo, is even more interesting: only the torso is original, with the arms, legs and head added in 1793 by John Flaxman, the great 18th-century sculptor. So, is it Flaxman or is it Roman? It’s a fine piece, whichever it is. Next to the Apollo is a disc showing the head of Nero. This was donated to the museum by John Disney in 1851,who founded the Disney chair of Archaeology at Cambridge and whose collection is one of the key elements of the Fitzwilliam.

Highlights of the collections

Another aspect of academic enquiry is a number of pairs of objects. The two most interesting are a pair of torsos found in Egypt, which appear to be copies of the Aphrodite Anadyomene (Venus rising from the sea) based on the painting by Apelles — the model for which was the mistress of the sculptor Praxiteles, and prior to that, the mistress of Alexander the Great. The painting was famous and frequently copied by statue makers, resulting in hundreds of imitation pieces in museums around the world. These two pieces are almost identical, clearly mass-produced in Egyptian workshops for tourists. It seems to me evidence of the emergence of a sort of factory system in Roman Egypt, where objects are produced not for a client or patron but for sale in a shop.

I met up with Mary Beard, Classics professor and blogger, doing duty as a guide for visitors. I asked for her three favourite pieces. She picked out a vase with the eponymous painting by the Pig Painter, now recognised as one of the painters of the 5th century Attic workshops, that possibly depicts Odysseus arriving home in Ithaca and meeting up with the swineherd Eumaeus. Another favourite was a drinking cup by the Nikosthenes painter, where the genitalia had been altered in the 18th century. Most such alterations were done to conceal the genitalia, but this one was the reverse. For some reason, the Attic vase painter had failed to paint in the usual details, so an 18th-century ‘improver’ had done it for him. However, the ink has since decayed, and now the alterations are all too blatant! For her third choice, Mary pointed out a dilapidated caryatid from Eleusis. It had stood in the middle of a dung heap until it was found by the explorer E D Clarke in 1801, who thought he had discovered the cult statue of the temple at Eleusis. The locals believed it brought them good luck and fertility but that it needed to be kept covered with dung if their fields were to prosper. Clarke finally succeeded in bringing it to Cambridge, where it was identified as, not a cult statue at all, but rather one of the sculptured architectural supports from the temple — and a rather battered one, at that.

I also asked Lucilla Burn, the Keeper of Antiquities, for her favourite object and she pointed out a Roman ‘Swiss Army’ knife. I have never seen such an elaborate example. Admittedly, the blade was merely a rusted mass of iron but the rest was of silver and well preserved: it also had a spoon, a fork, a spike, a spatula and a tooth pick — though, alas, no instrument for taking the stones out of horses’ hooves. Then, to my delight, I also found a case devoted to finds from the temple of Artemis Orthia at Sparta. This was one of the most important excavations of the early 20th century, and uncovered a huge number of coarse lead figurines that had been offered to the goddess. They date to the 8th or 7th century BC, and provide evidence that at this time Sparta was a ‘normal’ Greek city with artistic talent equal to the best. It was only later in the 6th and 5th centuries BC that Sparta suddenly gave up its artistic bent and became a grim totalitarian state. I have very heretical idea about Sparta which you can find hidden away on, so I was very pleased to see some of the original pieces that support my heresy.

It is a nice collection, well displayed with good lighting, and set in a wonderful classical building. I decided that despite my prejudices, I quite liked the Fitzwilliam after all!

April 2010

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