The masterpieces on display in the New York Metropolitan Museum’s new Greek and Roman Galleries provide a humbling experience. Created about 2,000 years ago, their spirited magnificence, fundamental clarity, tender naturalism and vital sense of movement – not to mention their technical virtuosity – remind us that in many ways classical beauty has never been surpassed.
A veiled dancer, a Greek bronze of the third century BC, extends her foot and twists with seductive grace, her drapery sliding into rhythmic folds and planes. Panthers, pigs, goats, snakes, girls, gods and rearing horses of luminous white marble embellish a Roman sarcophagus. Greek gold jewellery, coins, cameos and elaborate serpentine armbands topped with sea gods vie to astonish viewers with their minute intricacy. Pompeian villa frescoes animated with lively brushstrokes and preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 look as fresh as if painted yesterday. This is the classical world in its full vigour.
Fifteen years in development, five years in construction and costing more than $200m, the Met’s new galleries – 30,000sq ft of exhibition space grouped around a soaring top-lit two-storey atrium – have been eagerly awaited. Touch screens and computerised labelling have been introduced to encourage visitors “to look at ancient art in a new way” as Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s director, puts it.
The Met’s attitude towards its antiquities has fluctuated over the years. Its first acquisition in 1870 was a Roman sarcophagus dug up – and dragged from its resting place by 16 buffalo – in south-east Turkey. Soon afterwards, the American consul to Cyprus bought thousands of antiquities, purchases that transformed the museum. It went on to build an encyclopedic collection totalling 17,000 objects representing the ancient civilisations of Greece, Cyprus, Etruria and Rome.
The original Roman Sculpture Court was opened in 1926 but the department was marginalised in the 1950s by a director who disliked ancient art, and the court became a cafeteria. Lack of space created despondency. “Everything was shown in an old-fashioned way,” says Montebello. “Walk into a gallery exclusively lined with Greek vases – and you want to run away.”
A four-phase master plan to rethink, revitalise, re-novate and reinstall began in 1992, with the first gallery opening in 1996. More sections opened in 1999 and 2001. Today sees the culmination of the project, when the remaining space – the greater part of it, in fact – opens to the public. In all, more than 20 galleries will be devoted to ancient art. These are arranged chronologically, beginning with 8-inch female figures of 4500 BC from the Cycladic islands and ending with a more-than-life-size late imperial statue in full heroic nudity, plus a powerful portrait head of the Christian Emperor Constantine.
With 8,000 works to view, I ask Carlos Picón, the head curator, to give me three must-sees. He recommends an Etruscan chariot from the 6th century BC – “the best preserved example of its kind, with fabulous bronze panels showing the life of Achilles”; a bedroom from Boscoreale, whose architectural frescos create a brilliant illusion of spatial depth; and the Badminton Sarcophagus, which, with its 40 figures lustily celebrating Dionysus, god of wine, is “the Rolls Royce of Roman sarcophagi”.
Christopher Lightfoot, associate curator, who has overseen the day-to-day installation, is keen to make classical civilisation come alive. “You must understand that the Romans had a very open society,” he says. “They were all for inclusion. They freed their slaves. They accepted people of other nationalities. That was how they won and kept their empire for so long. At its peak the Roman Empire covered a huge area. One could go from Scotland to the Sahara, London to Odessa using the same coinage and passport. You can’t do that even today.”
The Romans may have conquered the Greeks, Lightfoot says, “but they preserved and cherished the Greek heritage for the next 600 years”. So why, I ask, are so many statues headless? “Early Roman Christians saw Greek gods as evil spirits and to exorcise demons decapitated them,” Lightfoot explains. “Politics played its part too. A deposed emperor had his head knocked off.” Bronze was routinely melted down, he says, so a whole monumental bronze such as the Met’s imposing soldier-emperor Trebonianus Gallus is a rarity.
In another sense, though, it is anything but, for there is no shortage of emperors, gods and heroes here. The curators, however, want also to stress the more down-to-earth aspects of classical life. Enchanting and lifelike terracotta figurines – an old woman carrying chickens, a wizened old man, plump children, a baker at work – can be found throughout the display.
Among the most striking images are the Roman portrait heads, exemplified by funerary altars of three generations, grandmother, son and grandson. The realism is remarkable: despite their distinctive ancient hairstyles, their faces are of today. At times in these endlessly fascinating galleries you get the vertiginous feeling that the gap of millennia is not so very wide after all.
New Greek and Roman Galleries at The Metropolitan Museum, New York, tel +1 212 535 7710, www.metmuseum.com