Friday, January 30

III - Part 2: Roman Portraits and Modern Copies

The Getty Commodus. Photo credit: Hal O'Brien

I have really enjoyed having this little exhibit at the Villa. We have such a small collection in comparison with the Getty Center, so it's nice when a new special exhibition shows up and provides new material to talk about with visitors. The title of this exhibition suggests the main point of consideration is Roman portraits and later copies of them, with the bust of Commodus as the centerpiece of the discussion. Curatorially speaking, that's exactly what the exhibit is about. Educationally speaking, I think this exhibit offers educators an excellent opportunity to discuss an example of how objects are continually being interpreted by museums. "Continually being interpreted" is a really nice way of saying that over time museums can change their mind about when and where an object is from, why it was created, and so on.

As I mentioned, this exhibition centers around a marble portrait known as the Getty Commodus. Like the statue of a god discussed in my first entry on the "III" exhibitions, the Getty Commodus has quite a modern history. This marble bust of the Roman emperor Commodus (180-185 CE) was acquired by the museum in 1992. (Note: Off the top of your head, if you want to recall how popular history remembers Commodus, he is the emperor played by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator.) At the time, the bust was believed to be the work of a 16th century (or later) Italian sculptor. The reason for the confusion is that later European sculpture very often copied ancient portraits. In particular, elite Europeans of the Renaissance collected both ancient and contemporary portraits of Roman emperors. These aristocrats were very fond of portraits of emperors with acclaimed historical reputations like Marcus Aurelius (father of Commodus). By the 1700's, Neoclassical artists looking to capture the spirit of the antique continued to copy Roman portraits and considered it the height of achievement if an artist was able to sculpt marble exactly like ancient artists. You can imagine how this might complicate a curator's job--it's as if Renaissance sculptors were doing their best to flood the halls of aristocratic homes with nearly undetectable forgeries of ancient Roman portraits. The ancient portraits got mixed in with the "modern" copies within the collections of elite art connoisseurs, and centuries later museums have the task of sorting out what's what.

In light of such circumstances, it's easy to understand how the Getty Commodus was initially thought to belong to the 16th century rather than the Roman era. However, once an object enters the collection, it is studied in detail by conservators, curators, and various other scholars. As I have explained to many a visitor audience, there is no method or test that can reveal the date at which a stone surface was sculpted. Even so, we have other scientific ways of examining an object to help determine its date. For the Getty Commodus, there are essentially two categories of evidence that have convinced most scholars of its Roman date:

First, there is evidence of resurfacing, a process which polishes or smooths away the surface of the marble so it can be recarved. The Getty Commodus was resurfaced mostly on the front of the bust, in order to remove burial deposits or other blemishes. (It also made the bust look as if it was in excellent condition, suggesting a modern date rather than an ancient one.) According to our conservators, the resurfacing removed up to two millimeters of the original marble surface. While Lord Carlisle's caretakers paid special attention to the front of the bust, they did not pay such attention to areas of the bust that would not be readily seen--which leads us to the second category of evidence.

Mineral incrustation is visible on the surface of the base and especially on the back of the bust. This incrustation was analysed and found to be calcium carbonate mixed with traces of volcanic ash. This volcanic ash has a chemical fingerprint that traced back to an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a volcano in Italy famous for burying the resort towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in a catastrophic eruption around 79 CE. The analysis of the incrustation led scholars to conclude that the bust likely spent an extended period of time buried in the soil around the region of Naples, Italy, where Mt. Vesuvius is located.

Many scholars have been convinced by this evidence, and agree that the bust should be dated to the Roman period. Even so, just this week I was speaking with a curator at the Getty Center, and he told me some of his colleagues in the sculpture department are still convinced the Getty Commodus dates to the 16th century or later. You can't please everybody, I guess. I, for one, am pretty well convinced by the scientific analysis--I find it a much more compelling argument than one based solely on art historical evidence, which is decidedly unscientific. Whatever the conclusion, I think the case study of the Getty Commodus does an excellent job of illustrating how museums change their mind about objects. Sure, museums are institutions and authorities, but they are also places of study--and study inevitably leads you to change your ideas over time, based on what you learn in your research.

Despite the analysis I just told you about, there are scholars who will continue to argue over the date of this bust. So, I don't think you can say this exhibition ties the story of the Getty Commodus up in a nice, neat bow--for some, the debate will continue. Debates aside, I like this exhibition because, while it's here, it gives me a great means to talk to visitors about how museum work can be messy. We do our best to sort it out for the public based on the best of our knowledge at the time, but that does not mean our interpretation is the final say. It seems kind of a "duh" thing to say, but people trust that museums are authorities in their field. I know they do, because I see it in their faces when I talk to them in the galleries. Everyone just has to remember that authorities change their minds and even--gasp!--make outright mistakes. Just think of all of the stories that have turned up in recent years having to do with museums that have discovered fakes in their collections--objects that in some cases were on display in galleries as genuine. For example, there's the case of the Brooklyn Museum of Art's Coptic fakes.

The gist of it, then, is that museums are places of conversation, discussion, and debate about history and its artifacts--not shrines to final judgements and unequivocal categorization.

Saturday, January 24

Rainy Days & Earthquakes

That long line of lights disappearing off into the distance is a southbound view of the 405 I captured while at the Getty Center this week. Fortunately the 405 isn't a part of my commute, so I didn't have to join that string of lights on my way home. From time to time I end up at the Center for meetings, and as you can see the view from the top of that travertine tower is pretty spectacular. It's been a rainy week. I enjoy rainy days at the Villa. We have so few of them, they feel more like a novelty than an inconvenience. Because ancient Roman villas were designed as summer homes, rain really effects our operations at the museum. When it rains school groups can't have lunch at the picnic tables, so they have to crowd back onto the buses to eat, and walking across the marble becomes treacherous. The Getty kindly provides umbrellas (mostly used for shielding visitors from the California sunshine), so that helps people keep dry in the gardens. As you can see from the images below, I spent some time walking around in the rain.

The school group lunch area was abandoned because of the rain.
I've heard from some of the local natives that changes in weather often happen before earthquakes. I have no idea if there's any truth to that idea, but we did have an earthquake Friday night--the second in a matter of weeks. In my time out here I've felt different kinds of earthquakes, but Friday night's event was different. When it first happened, I honestly thought the building had taken some kind of direct hit. Neither Eric nor I were completely sure of what we had felt until I consulted the website on recent earthquakes in Los Angeles (a website I'm visiting way too often these days). According to the USGS, it was a 3.4 earthquake centered in Marina del Rey, which is the closest we've been to an epicenter in the last couple of earthquakes. Disturbingly, several of my friends out here who remember the 1994 Northridge earthquake have commented that they don't remember having so many quakes this close together since that time.

I guess my time is up. Going on seven years now I've lived in southern California and not had any real experiences or concern with earthquakes. This week's quake makes the third significant one I've felt since last June. Maybe it will help if I stop sitting on my couch. Each time it's happened, I've been reclining on the couch, watching t.v. At this point I'm beginning to think of my couch as a kind of Richter scale. It's an older couch and the legs are a bit loosened on it, so any kind of movement sets it shuffling and swaying--sometimes I feel the shaking before Eric does, because my couch is more sensitive than his. Three times now I've felt nice and relaxed, resting on the couch after a busy day at work, when the earth has started to shake. You'd think one event would have knocked the sense of complacency in my safety right out of me, but no. We're not nearly as prepared as we should be for such an emergency. But I'll tell you what: The third time around you start to pay attention. As a former girl scout, I think it's time to implement the old motto, "Be prepared."

Sunday, January 18

Week in Review

This has been a good week. I had a chance to visit with friends and see a movie, and work wasn't as crazy as I anticipated. One of our teachers was out sick this week, and we had an unusually high number of requests to accommodate community and VIP groups on top of our normal obligations, so I expected a heavy teaching load. The schedule definitely lived up to that expectation, but there were a few fortuitous cancellations or late arrivals that helped ease the schedule. Unlike our usual routine of general public tours and school group lessons, community and VIP groups can be unpredictable. This morning was a good example of that unpredictability.

I was scheduled to spend thirty minutes in the galleries with a group of female lawyers and judges from Afghanistan. It sounds straightforward, but add in the logistics of a translator and the difficulties of moving a large group around on any sort of schedule and it gets complicated very quickly. Also, being somewhat experienced in taking Muslim audiences through American museums, I knew I would have to carefully choose objects from the Villa's galleries when deciding what to show them. I mean, let's face it--it's practically impossible to avoid sex, alcohol, and nudity at a museum devoted to ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria. Islam, of course, deals very strictly with these subjects, and the safest course of action was to assume these women would be conservative and not well-traveled (given the need for a translator). All of these factors could turn the experience of taking a group of Afghani women through the galleries rather dicey.

Knowing how shy and embarrassed some Muslim women can be in these situations, I was a bit nervous about my decision. On the one hand, my job is not to edit ancient culture to suit anyone. Still, I try to represent myself with some modesty with Muslim visitors, because I want to help fight this stereotype of the promiscuous Western woman who is always wanting sex. ...Then again, I also want them to see the freedom I enjoy as a woman in America. But above all, I never want to offend anyone. You may think this schizophrenic line of thought makes a big deal out of nothing, but the little things count. Sometimes they count more than the big things.

As it turned out, the group arrived late. The limited time helped considerably. Also, getting them to move with me through the museum was like herding cats, so I only had time to take them to one gallery. I ended up talking to them about Orpheus and the Sirens--a mythological story with no sex, alcohol, or nudity. Having someone translate for you always makes for a stilted encounter, but I think all went well given the circumstances. One of our representatives with the group thanked me at the end for assisting in international diplomacy. It's always nice to get a thank-you, but mostly I was relieved to be able to hand the group off to the next Villa representative and scoot. I believe the rest of their visit went smoothly as well, so hopefully they will have good memories of their visit here.

As for the upcoming week, I'm looking forward to the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday. The cable news cycle can be extremely annoying, but at other times it is incredibly useful. Since Tuesday will be my day off, I'll have an all-day front row seat to history on my living room couch. Due to the early hour (noon ET is 9 a.m. PT) I will be enjoying the event in my p.j.'s with a nice hot cup of chocolate. I might even be persuaded to get up early to watch the pre-ceremony coverage, which starts at 6 a.m. PT.

...And that's how you know you're a history geek.

Sunday, January 11

III: Part I - Reconstructing Identity

From my perspective as an educator at the Villa, special exhibitions help keep things interesting. Unlike the permanent collection, they change on a regular basis, keeping you on your toes because it's never long before you have to learn your way around the next one. It may be stressful when I only have a day to prep before my first public presentation of the exhibit, but ultimately it's one of the things that keeps me intellectually engaged. Last month three small special exhibitions (known as "III") exploring collecting and conservation of antiquities went on display. These three mini-exhibits take up just one gallery each, but they are all excellent and chocked full of information. I haven't yet taken the public thorough, but I think many people who take the time to check them out will find it kind of cool to get a chance to see a "behind-the-scenes" look at museum work. I'm sure many will also be somewhat surprised to see just how patchy and/or debatable available knowledge about an object can be.

Each of these exhibitions stands on it's own, so I plan to give each its own post. The first of the III is called "Reconstructing Identity: A Statue of a God from Dresden." At first glance this exhibition looks to be boringly simple, consisting simply of a headless, armless monumental statue of a nude male in the center of the gallery. I've seen many visitors just pause for a few apprising seconds before him, then wander on. But those who take the time will learn that this statue has had quite a journey since he was recovered from the ancient ruins of Rome in the 1600's. This exhibition traces the life of the statue since its discovery centuries after the fall of the Roman empire. (I'd say it traces the "modern" history of the statue, but since evidence begins in the 16th century CE, the term is relative.) The statue actually belongs to the Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, but last year they brought it to the Villa to be restored. Conservators and art historians were so intrigued by this case, they held a colloquium to discuss it.

Compared to the history of some antiquities, this statue's life post-antiquity is pretty well-known. The statue was first discovered in the 1600's in Italy, minus a head and right arm (and a few other bits). Without a head or arms wearing or holding attributes that might indicate who the statue was supposed to depict, those who found it drew their own conclusions. It was first identified as Alexander the Great--as they thought, such a monumental sculpture was surely of a significant ruler, and who was more significant than Alex? Since the statue was missing a head, they added a head from another ancient statue to the sculpture. (In the 17th century it was rather common for them to pair random ancient sculptural fragments together to create a complete figure.) In this case, the head they added was likely from a statue of Athena or Roma. She was missing her helmet, so they sculpted one for her. They also sculpted an arm to help complete the sculpture. All of these pieces are on display in this exhibition.

In 1728 the Elector of Saxony, who was looking to build his collection of antiquities, bought the sculpture from a wealthy cardinal and brought it to Dresden. An engraving from 1804 indicates that by that time someone decided to remove the right arm that was added in the 1600's. The archaeological discoveries of the 19th century turned up other statues that looked very much like the Dresden example. These more complete examples were clearly depicting the Roman god of wine (and other interesting things), Bacchus. With such comparative examples available, they changed the identification of the statue to Bacchus, and later refined that interpretation and suggested it was Antinous, the young lover of the emperor Hadrian, dressed as Bacchus. Once this later interpretation was made, a new plaster head was cast for the statue based on portraits of Antinous. Eventually that plaster head showed the effects of time (plaster tends to become discolored over the years) so a new cast was made from a bust of Antinous in the British Museum. The first plaster head survives and is on display in the exhibition, but the second plaster head is lost. You can see three side-by-side engravings of the statue from different periods here.

The history of the statue gets sketchy around the 20th century, but we know it was severely damaged at some point during WWII and was eventually packed away in pieces. In 2007 the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden sent the 150 pieces of the statue to the Villa to be conserved. They disassembled the fragments even further so they could clean them and find the core of the ancient statue. The most recent colloquium on the statue (see link above) renewed the discussion on just who this statue was originally meant to depict--and how it should be identified today. They also discussed how much of the later (i.e. non-ancient) repairs to the statue should be restored (albeit by modern conservation standards, which hold that all restorations should be completely reversible). Ultimately their opinion on the identity on the statue remained much the same as it was in the 19th century--the statue probably depicts Bacchus. As for the restorations, certain bits of non-ancient restorations on the statue's drapery were allowed to remain, but they chose not to add any of the heads or arms used on the statue in the past.

And so he stands, headless and armless, yet still visually impressive in the Villa galleries. It seems right that he is finally relieved of those later restorations and now appears closer to his ancient self than he has been since the 1600's. This exhibition does an excellent job of describing to the public how each generation creates meaning in surviving ancient artifacts that is often completely different from that intended by their ancient creators. I also like the way curators made use of the Getty Research Institute's collection of rare books, displaying with the statue the books in which 17th, 18th, and 19th century engravings of the statue were published. Most visitors will probably not make the connection, but I think it's a great demonstration of the way in which the variety and depth of Getty holdings can compliment a display and create a more three-dimensional history of an object.

Note: For images and interactive features related to the exhibit visit this link. Also, if you've seen the exhibit, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, January 7

Better Pictures Next Time

This afternoon I was out for one of my daily walks along the perimeter of the Villa, and I looked up to see I had some company. Naturally it was the one day I didn't have my camera with me, so I had to settle for using my cell phone camera. That being the case, I didn't really have the ability to zoom, but if you look closely (or just click on the picture so you can see a larger version) you can see the three deer and a buck (in the last picture below). I saw at least four or five deer in all. Once they moved up to the top of the hill I guess they must have felt safe, because they hung out there for a good two or three minutes checking me out. Hopefully next time my friends decide to join me on my walk I'll have my camera with me so I can get better pictures!

Monday, January 5

Back to the Grind

The holidays are over, and it's time to get back to the same ol' grind. Well, almost. I still have today to laze around. Eric had to go in today, though. He decided to torch some turkey for his breakfast, which set off the smoke alarm, which in turn woke me up. The burning smokey smell permeating the closed bedroom door helped with that too... My break was most definitely refreshing (if stressful at times, but that's life), so I'm not as despondent as I might be to return to work. In fact, I'm feeling pretty re-energized, which is a good reminder that time off isn't always a luxury, but a necessity. Everyone needs a break, particularly if you frequently work with the public and are discouraged from committing violent and/or homicidal acts while on the job. I also feel good knowing that I accomplished all of the items on my to-do list before I had to go back to work. For instance, the alternator recently went bad on the Saturn, and I got that fixed. It's no fun driving an if-y car in L.A. traffic, so it's a major relief to have the car running normally again. As necessary as breaks are, though, eventually there comes a point when you have the mildly disturbing experience of looking forward to returning to the day-to-day routine.

For Eric, this quarter is going to be particularly busy and stressful (like every quarter, really), so I'm bracing myself for that roller coaster ride. With the new year I'm also getting a new schedule at work, which hopefully will help reduce burnout. On the new schedule, every other week I'll have three days off instead of just two. This may sound like a novel concept, but actually everyone else in my department and most of the Getty has been on some variation of such a schedule for a long time. Now we teachers will be on the same kind of schedule, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it works out. Just before I left for my holiday break I learned that all positions are frozen, meaning the promotion I was to receive isn't going to happen--not for a long time, at any rate. That news was a bitter pill to swallow, but ultimately I realize I'm fortunate just to have a job. So, this new schedule is the only bright note for the moment.

Below are a few pictures from the past month. I haven't been as good about posting them chronologically as I should have been, but here they are.

Eric's sister Kellie had her pinning ceremony last month and is now a nurse. Eric and I are with her here along with his niece, Genna.

On Christmas morning--and Erin is still acting up.

On New Year's Eve we went to see rescued seals near Los Angeles Harbor.