Rediscovering Greece and Rome in Cambridge

If you are interested in ancient civilisations, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge’s newly reopened gallery, Rediscovering Greece and Rome, is a joy. Months of conservation, research and redisplay brings the focus onto people.

Roman sarcophagus

For anyone interested in ancient civilisations, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge’s newly reopened gallery, Rediscovering Greece and Rome, is a joy. After 18 months of conservation, research and redisplay, the focus of the collection is now on people. The artists and craftsmen who created beautiful objects and the customers who commissioned them. There are also humble domestic pieces, like the Roman soldier’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife (AD 200-300). Complete with silver knife, spoon and fork, it has a spatula for poking his favourite fish sauce out of a bottle. There’s also a spike for easing edible snails out of their shells. And we thought the French invented that dish!
Greek urnOne of the most exciting pieces is a mosaic niche – which may have been part of a decorative fountain – given to the Fitzwilliam in 1910. The concave back is covered in seagreen tesserae – tiny tiles of glass – painted with a peacock centrepiece. Edged with seashells, it stands on a marble base and has only recently been lightly restored.I liked the tiny fired clay perfume holders shaped like a sheep, rabbit and bird. Only a few centimetres high, they are Minoan (from Crete, 600-500 BC) and have tiny holes pierced in their heads for pouring out the perfume.

Says Julie Dawson, Senior Assistant Keeper (Conservation), “We try to interfere as little as possible with the integrity of the object. If we find ceramics, for instance, which over the centuries haven’t been very well restored, we leave them like that because it’s part of their history.” When the team does work on a piece, it will be very gently, using acrylic paint or powder pigments. “There’s no point in trying to recreate the original paint because it was put on under glaze and ours is brushed on top,” she explained.

Conservator Julie Dawson examines a piece of funerary sculpture

I asked about a damaged Greek pot I’d seen in a case. “We have left it to show how it was made up. In the 18th century, there was such a fashion for these black and umber pots decorated with black figures that dealers would make them up out of fragments. You can see where they’ve been glued together!” Even the earliest householders would use animal glue or shellac – an adhesive made from insects – to piece favourite ceramics together, just like me. There are lots of these lovely vases to look at. Made by Greek settlers in Southern Italy, they became popular with the Italians as funeral urns. The Etruscans also imported them from the Greeks and copied the designs.

Lucilla Burn, Keeper of Antiquities likes the gold jewellery from Northern Greece (400-200 BC). “It’s exquisitely crafted. I particularly admire the rings and the fine filigree work, done with such incredible patience. But I suppose my favourite is the cameo. It depicts the Pimp, a character from Greek comedy. Now, who would commission that as a signet ring!”

The Roman Imperial Portraits display shows some wealthy Roman customers, beautifully carved in marble. Here are Aelius Verus (AD101-138), Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled AD 161-180) and Empress Faustina the Younger (AD150-175). Julie Dawson told me they would have been painted. “But because marble is porous and the paint not weatherproof, it has all gone. Sometimes you find a hint of red pigment on a piece, which is very exciting.”

Mask of Helios, fragment of a sarcophagus lid (Roman, AD 301-400)

Centrepiece of the collection is the Pashley Roman Sarcophagus, found on the seashore in Crete in the early 19th century. It shows the wine god Dionysus in From now on at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RB; tel: (01223) 332900. Report by Pat Moore. procession, led by an elephant. “It’s supposed to represent a progress from the East,” says Lucilla Burn.”But they didn’t know what Indian elephants looked like, so he’s got African ears! A truly fascinating exhibition for all ages.

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