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.

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