Apart from cancelling our trips this year to Italy, I was just thinking about how I miss the British Museum which was my second home before all this virusy stuff. So, I thought I would just share the three objects I feel I have to visit each time I go there. First it is the funerary monument “Regina of Arbeia”.
I am sure a lot of people here are fully aquainted but I came across this so many times during my studies and it is one of my favourites as it encapsulates so much of the Roman empire in one monument. Briefly it shows Regina sitting with a robe over her tunic, distaff for spinning in her left hand with balls of wool at her left foot, celtic style jewellery and a cash/jewellery box at her right foot with her hand resting on it. The inscription states in Latin and Palmyrene:
Latin: To the spirits of the departed (and to) Regina, his freedwoman and wife, a Catuvellaunian by tribe, aged 30, Barates of Palmyra (set this up).
Palmyrene: Regina, the freedwoman of Barate, alas.
Where to start with what is tells us? The monument in the Roman style is inscribed in Latin for the audience by Barates from Syria who nods to his identity and heritage by including Palmyrene. Regina, came from a tribe around St Albans as a slave, was freed by Barates and he married her. She is dressed similarly but different to a Roman woman and retains her identity with jewellery. The distaff and wool show what a good wife she was but the distaff in the left hand is more of an eastern tradition. Intruiging, why was the cash/jewellery box there – did she look after the household income?
So it shows migration, trade, language, identity, tradition, social mobility, law, relationships to name a few.
Number 2 of my must visits at the British Museum. Enter through the main entrance, turn left and walk past the cloakroom on the left and the small gift shop on the right and the next right will take you into Gallery 13 and there it is, in a showcase of its own, the Sophilos Dinos. Dinos, because of its shape and Sophilos who was the painter and very thoughtfully left his name (I would be proud it I created this as well!).
Why do I find this both amazing and breath-taking?
Firstly, the sheer detail. So many Gods and Goddesses are featured but further, they are named on the Dinos giving us Sophilos’ and probably a wider view as to how the deities were pictured.
But it is the subject which really gets to me. It is the start of the Trojan War – without the wedding of Peleus and Thetis depicted the Trojan War would not have happened. Does that mean Homer would not have had anything to write about? The story is that Zeus fancied Thetis (surely not I hear you say) but fears that his son, born from Thetis, would be more powerful than him. So, he organises the marriage to Peleus, who’s been having a hard time, so that, being the son of a mortal, would not pose a threat. The son is, of course, Achilles. All the deities are invited, as shown on the pot but, in an effort to make things run smoothly, Eris the personification of strife is not invited (why would you?). Eris turns up anyway and, true to her name, rolls an apple into the wedding party inscribed “to the fairest” which is seen by Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. Each want the apple but Zeus throws it from Olympus and Paris, who is wandering on the Pains of Troy, picks it up. He sees the inscription and the three Goddesses appear and make him chose which one should receive the apple. We all know who he chooses and the rest, as they say, is history (well mythological history anyway).
Last of my three pieces, but by no means least, is outstanding from so many perspectives. The sheer beauty and skill of its maker, the wide variety of interpretations and the amazing journey it has taken so that I can marvel at it. It is the Portland Vase, named after the Dukes of Portland whose hands it passed through.
The photographs unfortunately do not do justice to the depth of violet-blue glass but it is the images which demonstrate the sheer skill of the maker. A single, white glass cameo surrounds the vase depicting two distinct scenes with seven human figures, a large snake, two bearded and horned heads below the handles which mark the break between the scenes. Probably dating to the first twenty five years BCE, based on the difficulties in making 19th century copies it is believed that it must have taken the original artisan no less than two years to produce.
One of the great mysteries is the meanings behind the images, many theories have been put forward without any clear winner. These include:
The marriage of Peleus and Thetis
Dionysus greeting Ariadne with her sacred serpent
The story of Augustus’ supposed siring by the god Apollo in the form of a snake
Mark Anthony being lured away from Romanitas by Cleopatra accompanied by an Asp
The dream of Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great who is greeting her with his father Apollo as a serpent.
Hecuba’s dream of the Judgement of Paris leading to the destruction of Troy
Ariadne languishing on Naxos
Octavia Minor, abandoned by Mark Anthony, between her brother Augustus (as a god) and Venus Genetrix.
There is a completely different theory that the vase dates earlier and was commissioned by Octavian to promote his case against two other consuls showing his lineage from Apollo, Aeneas and so cementing his destiny to become emperor.
Personally, although probably not the case, I like to think that along with the artisan’s obvious skills, he made it deliberately vague so that, to the viewer and the contemporary audience, it could have multiple meanings. Part of his genius.
However, it is its journey that allows me to stand in front of it that is the most astounding. Whilst the find location is uncertain, possibly in the sarcophagus of Alexander Severus, the first historical reference is in a 1601 letter. It then passes through the hands of ambassadors, dealers and nobility who deposited it with the British Museum for ‘safe keeping’ in 1810 after which it was purchased by the British Museum in 1945. All very usual so far, but in 1845 William Lloyd, who had been drinking the entire previous week, threw a sculpture on top of the case smashing the case and the vase. Whilst the vase was restored to a reasonable level there were thirty seven fragments missing which were then found in a forgotten box with thirty seven compartments, each holding a separate fragment in 1948. When these fragments were discovered and, because the original restoration appeared aged, the vase was dismantled and reconstructed in 1949. The glue used deteriorated and it was, yet again reconstructed between 1988-1989 a job made more difficult as some of the shards had been filed to fit.
So, this is a favourite because of the exquisite beauty, skill of the artisan, enigma of the images and incredibly perilous journey to what we can see today. Astonishing.