"The Chimaera...a raging monster, divine, inhuman--a lion in front, a serpent behind, a goat between--and breathing fire. Bellerophon killed her, trusting signs from the gods."
Homer, The Iliad
Homer, The Iliad
The Chimaera of Arezzo exhibition is, for me, one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year. Unlike many other special exhibitions at the Villa, I had opportunities to attend scholarly talks on this show long before it opened, so I had a great preview of what it would be about. Also, it is a pretty big deal that Italy has allowed such a nationally treasured artifact to travel to L.A. This exhibition marks the first time this Etruscan bronze sculpture has ever traveled to the United States. On top of all of this, the great myth attached to the Chimaera of Arezzo is a wonderful tale that appealed so much to people over the centuries, the story eventually made its way into our modern Western culture and iconography (albeit in a somewhat modified form). All of these elements make this installation one of the most interesting and memorable I have yet seen at the Villa.
Homer's account (dated to the 7th c. BCE) of the myth of the hero Bellerophon and the chimaera is the first evidence of writing we have from ancient Greece. The fact that this myth shows up so early in Greek literature suggests this was both an antique and popular tale, even then. The myth tells how Bellerophon, mounted on the winged horse Pegasus, is able to fly above the Chimaera beyond the reach of its flaming breath and cast down a spear from above to kill the monster. The image of Bellerophon flying above the monster, spear at the ready, was depicted on everything from large vases to miniature oil jars to engraved gemstones. These containers and luxury items were traded throughout the Mediterranean world, carrying the story of Bellerophon and the chimaera with them.
Thus, an antique tale from Greece made its way west to Italy, where Bellerophon's defeat of the chimaera became the most commonly depicted heroic triumph. The Ertruscans in particular were quite taken with the imagery. The most stunning representation of the chimaera we have from Etruria is the Chimaera of Arezzo. The statue is imposing by itself, but scholars think it likely was only part of a monumental offering made to a religious sanctuary. Most representations of the chimaera include Bellerophon flying above, mounted on Pegasus, ready to launch his spear and kill the monster. Scholars believe the Chimaera of Arezzo must have once been paired with an equally impressive bronze sculpture of Bellerophon on Pegasus, which would have been displayed above it. Although the Chimaera was found in a votive burial with numerous bronze statuettes, no evidence of this sculpture was found, so its existence remains only an educated guess.
If an artifact has a documented history, I find visitors are just as curious about the "modern" history of an artifact as they are about its ancient context and history. As it happens, the modern history of the Chimaera of Arezzo is one of the most well documented of surviving ancient works of art. It was discovered near the Italian town of Arezzo in 1553 and quickly became the crown jewel in the antiquities collection of Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Etruria. He saw the sculpture as a magnificent testament to the legacy of Etruria, which he claimed for himself. (Naturally!) Cosimo saw himself as Bellerophon and referred to his enemies as "chimaeras." That is, he intended to defeat his enemies as thoroughly as Bellerophon had dispatched the chimaera. Cosimo's adoption of the Chimaera into his collection made the sculpture famous, and ever since it has been one of the most celebrated works of art from Italy's ancient past.
A less tangible issue addressed by the exhibition is why the popularity of Bellerophon eventually declines in Greece but becomes exceedingly popular abroad, especially in Italy. One scholar has suggested that Bellerophon becomes an anti-hero in Greek ideology because of his tragic end. In the accounts of Homer and Hesiod, Bellerophon was brought to ruin by Zeus for having the hubris to mount Pegasus and attempt to fly up to Mt. Olympus in order to join the gods there. In Italy, on the other hand, it seems there was no strong central ideology influencing the perception of Bellerophon. Instead, religion in Italy was more of a private, individual practice, and so Bellerophon became venerated as one who could travel between worlds (that is, the earthly realm and the divine realm) and could therefore mediate with the gods on behalf of the dead. This idea is illustrated by a gold ring in the exhibition, which scholars suggest was created specifically to be worn by a deceased individual in the hope that Bellerophon would intercede on his behalf before the gods and aid him in his journey to a life after death.
As much as I like this exhibition, I am disappointed in one respect. The mosaic floor shown above, found in Palmyra, Syria, is not a part of this exhibition. This in itself is not a major disappointment, since curators are often unable to get loan approval for every object they want to include from other museums. Also, it occurs to me that in this case, the floor is possibly still in situ, right where the archaeologists found it. Even so, instead of leaving the object out completely, curators chose to display a scale facsimile of the mosaic. What bothers me about this decision is that the number one question I get from visitors is, "Is that real?" By that they mean, "Is it really ancient or is it a copy?" One of the most shocking things I learned when I stepped into a museum gallery as an educator is that many, many people think that museums only display copies of works of art. I am happy to change their perspective and assure them that when they are in a museum they are looking at the real thing, unless it is specifically stated otherwise on the label. Now, of course the facsimile in the exhibition is marked as such, and it is a great illustration to view in the context of the exhibit. Still, I can't help but be a little disappointed that this time, when a visitor asks me, "Is it real?" I have to say no.
Be that as it may, this is an exhibition not to be missed by Southern California museum goers. The Chimaera alone would be well worth the drive to Malibu, but when you add the Golden Graves of Vani to it, you have an irresistible pairing. There will be more from me on Vani in a later post--I am still slogging through the archaeology of the site, so I need a bit more time before I can have a decently informed opinion.