Museum  June 22, 2023  Christopher Siwicki

Exhibit at Baths of Diocletian in Rome Sparks Curatorial Questions

Christopher Siwicki

A bronze statue of a Roman magistrate in a toga, known at the Arringatore. From the 2nd century BC, Perugia

Do archaeological exhibitions always require a theme? Of course, there needs to be an overarching subject justifying and advertising why a selection of material has been brought together. Themes help to tell stories, create an argument, and give meaning to seemingly disparate collections of objects. The narratives constructed by curators allow items, especially mundane ones, to take on increased relevance by placing them in a broader context.

More than this, the best archaeological exhibitions go beyond just explaining the historical context of the pieces on display, to introduce visitors to new ideas and ways of thinking about the past. But it is easy for concepts to become muddled if not adequately explained, and attempts to provoke reflection are ineffective without coherence.

Christopher Siwicki

Kore statue from Thera on Santorini from the  7th century BC. Discovered in 2000

This train of thought is prompted by the new exhibition at the ancient Baths of Diocletian in Rome. ‘The Instant and Eternity: between Us and the Ancients’ includes an array of superb pieces from the museum’s collection, paired with objects loaned from other Italian museums, as well as a number of important pieces from Greece. 

The assemblage of objects is of the highest quality. There are exceptional marble statues and portrait busts not only from Italy but also from the islands of Delos and Santorini. From the latter, too, is an extraordinary, two and a half meter tall, archaic ‘Kore’ (female statue), which was discovered in 2000 but remained in storage until last year. There is a fourth-century BC gold ‘orphic tablet’ inscribed with an incantation to be read at the entrance to Hades, and a collection of precious silverware including the bust of the co-emperor Lucius Verus. 

Christopher Siwicki

A marble relief representing a city. From the 2nd century AD, Aquila

Added to this, the curators managed to secure the so-called ‘bridal chariot’ from Pompeii: a four-wheeled cart decorated with erotic scenes in bronze that was recently excavated in 2021. Making its public debut in the exhibition is a statue of Hercules that was discovered earlier this year by chance. The excellence and breadth of material on display are all impressive, but what does it all mean? 

An introductory panel attempts to explain the thinking behind the show: “Our relationship with the ancients is essentially twofold. On the one hand, it is a relationship built through a long historical process of intellectual and artistic transmission that has shaped our classical culture. On the other hand, it also depends on our identification with people who may have lived long ago, but who, like us, faced all the hazards of life, from the most joyous to the most tragic. Thus, they seem to us simultaneously near and far.”

Christopher Siwicki

Silver bust of the co-emperor Lucius Verus. From the 2nd century AD, Turin

There is an interesting idea here. A colleague once describe our perception of the Greco-Roman world as that of the reflection from a distorted mirror, of the kind found at a carnival. The Classical past looks so familiar because much of modern Western culture has borrowed from it, but the mirror image looks off. It is because digging down into what the ancients actually thought, we find that their societies were incredibly different from our own. 

Given the regularity with which people (not least politicians) refer to the ancient world as justification or explanation for current events (usually erroneously), then exploring how our relationship to this past was constructed is a very relevant subject. But the exhibition doesn’t follow through.

The objects are grouped into five sections: ‘the eternity of an instant’, ‘the eternal fame of heroes’, ‘the order of the kosmos’, ‘works and days’, and ‘divine humans’. Following these divisions and understanding exactly what they are attempting to demonstrate is difficult. While a text panel introduces each section, the visitor is then left to look at the numerous accompanying objects without further explanation as to how they tie in with the theme. And while in some cases this might be obvious when viewing individual pieces, it is all too easy to forget that there is an overall concept behind the assemblages of items. One is abandoned to admire the nice objects – satisfying in itself, but presumably not the intention of the curators.

Christopher Siwicki

A minuature, limestone statue of Helen of Troy being born from an egg. From the 5th century BC, Matera

It is perhaps for this reason too that the long chronological span of the material feels disconnected. In addition to the Greco-Roman pieces, dotted around the exhibition space there are also sculptures from the Middle Ages, paintings from the Renaissance, and works by contemporary artists. Examining how people living in earlier centuries interpreted the ancient world is an important part of understanding how modern views of the Greeks and Romans came about – our perception of Rome is not direct, but filtered through the lens of how others in the less distant past saw it. Here, however, many of the pieces from more modern periods seem thrown in, without adequate comment as to why they have been chosen.

Does it matter that visitors might not be able to explain what the exhibition was actually about? Probably not. For such is the quality and interest of the objects on display that they can be appreciated in their own right, without needing to follow their place in the bigger picture. The success of this exhibition is in making this material accessible to the public. 

L’istante e l’eternità. Tra noi e gli antichi is at the Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano from May 4th to July 30th 2023. It is curated by Massimo Osanna, Stéphane Verger, Maria Luisa Catoni, Demetrios Athanasoulis.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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