Here's what we like...Ya dig?
By Kathryn Purcell
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics on papyrus, a Roman sculpture of Aphrodite and a portrait of Napoleon – I saw it all this weekend.
And it didn’t take a plane ticket to France; it took a car ride to Atlanta.
Having a great love for art, and seeing as I can count the number of art museums I’ve been to in my 23-year existence on one hand, I decided it was high time for me to visit the Atlanta museum, especially because of the Louvre exhibit currently on display – “The Louvre & the Ancient World.”
In trying to think of my favorite works in the exhibit, I was able to come up with, say, about 10 different items. (Way to narrow it down, I know.) And so, the following is a list of, in my humble opinion, ‘must-sees’ of the exhibit, and the reasons behind why I think so much of them.
“Ol’ Man River”
Not sure of what to expect, the first thing I saw, because it’s the only thing on the first floor of the ground level of the building used to house the visiting works from the French museum, was a 10-foot sculpture called “The Tiber.” Appropriately named, it was a personification of the Tiber River, which ran through ancient Rome.
I’ve never in my life seen anything like that. It was breathtaking and just plain gargantuan. My favorite part of the sculpture, though, was the many intricacies involved in the sculpture once I got over the size of the main character – the Tiber. To the Tiber’s left, an attentive she-wolf looks over Romulus and Remus, who, legend has it, founded Rome.
More than that, there are carvings around the base of the sculpture depicting different scenes of Rome. Water is carved on the top of the base, so that it looks like the entire group of figures is floating along the river. And, when I looked especially close, I was able to see the restorations that had been made to the sculpture over time. Once in Napoleon’s possession, according to the audio that went along with the exhibit, “The Tiber” was given several repairs to what seemed to be especially vulnerable places – the extremities of Romulus and Remus and the snout of the she-wolf, for example.
Extreme Makeover: Chateau Edition
Entering “The Eye of Josephine” wing of the exhibit, I was exposed to many ancient treasures collected by the Emperor Napoleon and his wife, Josephine. The collection of antiquities was once housed at the Chateau de Malmaison, where they lived, as well as where she took refuge after their divorce and, later, died.
I was greeted by two of the most beautiful portraits – one of Napoleon (“Napoleon at the Bridge of the Arcole”) and one of Josephine (“Portrait of the Empress Josephine”). He, as usual, is in the midst of some military campaign, and has turned to look, very determinedly, behind him. She, on the other hand, is seated and looking most dignified on a couch in what I am sure is a fabulous chateau or palace. It was an awesome sight to see those portraits and realize that these are Napoleon and Josephine’s actual portraits from the period of their reign, portraits that they themselves once laid eyes on. More than that, they were beautiful. This was one of my very favorite parts of the exhibit.
I also saw a pair of basins, once belonging to Marie Antoinette, that Josephine displayed at Chateau de Saint-Cloud as well as Napoleon’s washstand from his bedroom at the Tuileries. Yes, I saw the place where Napoleon – the great conqueror, Emperor of the French – once washed his face. And, yes, I was in awe.
One of the most interesting items in the exhibit, and no surprise given Napoleon’s military career, was the helmet of a Thracian gladiator, found at Pompeii. Apparently, the Thracian man was taken by the Pompeians as a prisoner of war and made to become a gladiator, dying, like so many other of the city’s residents, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The detail on the helmet was amazing – from the bars that covered the eyes to the crest on the top of the helmet meant to provide protection – not to mention the fact that it was once lost in the eruption of the volcano.
Also on display was Josephine’s collection of nine mural fragments. Taken from a Pompeian villa, the murals pictured images of Apollo, Greco-Roman god of music, poetry and the arts (among numerous other things), as well as eight of the nine Muses, who, in Greek mythology, were thought to inspire the arts. According to the audio, Josephine took to the Greco-Roman style in the murals – draped dresses, curly hair – more than she ever did the hoop skirt, heavily coifed style that Marie Antoinette made popular.
Learning to “Walk like an Egyptian”
The final floor of the exhibit, called “The Louvre & the Ancient World,” played host to a sampling of the Louvre’s collection of Greek, Etruscan, Roman; Egyptian; and Near Eastern antiquities.
In the Greek, Etruscan and Roman division, I was most impressed by the marble sculpture “Crouching Aphrodite.” A Roman replica of a Greek work (turns out, the Romans weren’t very original), the sculpture once belonged to Louis XIV and was housed at Versailles, making its way to the Louvre after the French Revolution. The thing that struck me most about Aphrodite was, no matter what angle you looked at her, she appeared as though she was going to get up and walk away at any second.
A marble bust of Lucius Verus, co-emperor of Rome with Marcus Aurelius, was nearby, and seemed to overlook Aphrodite, almost as though he’d been set there to keep her from leaving. While busts can be fairly boring, at least in my opinion, this one was ridiculously detailed. Evidently, this Verus fellow had a massive amount of curly hair and the sculptor, who must have wished to give an accurate representation, must have spent an awful lot of time, well, doing his hair. More than representation, the detail on this man’s hair provided the bust with an incredible texture as well as the element of light and dark.
Within the Egyptian division, I saw the wooden sarcophagus of a cat, a sculpture of the goddess Sekhmet (representative of the destructive forces of the sun god, Ra) taken from the mortuary temple of Pharoah Amenhotep III and a fragment of a royal decree from King Ptolemy II.
More impressive, in my opinion, than any of that was the “Abbreviated Book of the Dead of Djedkhonsouefankh” (try saying that three times fast), written with ink and paint on actual papyrus, on display. The copy of Chapter 17 of the Book, considered the most important chapter because it provided tools and spells to help the dead through the afterlife, according to the audio, featured lines upon lines of hieroglyphics as well as a picture – Djedkhonsouefankh, whose book it was, offering food to Osiris, lord of the dead. This piece of papyrus dated to between 1075 and 715 B.C.!
Entering the Near Eastern section of the exhibit, I enjoyed the glazed brick mural of an archer that once adorned the palace of Darius the Great in Susa, part of present-day Iran. The archer is standing, holding his spear with a bow and quiver of arrows. The colors used in the mural are breathtaking – crystal clear shades of blue, aqua and variations of white.
Also part of the exhibit was a beaded necklace from Ugarit, now Syria. Crafted in the late Bronze Age, between the 14th and 13th centuries B.C., the beads on the necklace were red and orange and, in the middle of the necklace, interspersed between the beads, were silver figures of the goddess Ishtar and astral symbols. Now I might not know a whole lot about art, but I do know jewelry. That necklace was stunning. More than that, I noted that the necklace wasn’t that different than some of the jewelry popular today.
I spent more than two hours in the exhibit Saturday. In that time, I saw centuries-old Syrian jewelry, hieroglyphics dictated by Egyptian pharaohs and the toiletries of one of the world’s greatest military minds. These two hours have become some of the most meaningful time I’ve ever spent, and I spent it viewing, studying and connecting with the history that defines us, in my belief, as the human race.