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Greek and Roman Art

Greek and Roman

History of the Department
Although the Department of Greek and Roman Art (originally the Department of Classical Art) was not formally established until 1909, the art of ancient Greece and Rome has figured prominently in The Metropolitan Museum of Art from the time of its founding in 1870. The very first object to enter the Museum's collection was an impressive Roman sarcophagus that occupies a prominent place today in the New Greek and Roman Galleries that opened in April 2007. Among the largest groups of works to enter the fledgling institution after this inaugural acquisition were the several thousand Cypriot antiquities purchased by subscription (in two installments, 1874 and 1876) from General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who subsequently served as the Metropolitan's first director, from 1879 to 1904. Four rooms devoted to Cypriot art are located on the second floor of the Museum, and many other pieces from the collection are displayed throughout the Greek and Roman galleries.

The arrival of Edward Robinson from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1906 brought the Museum its first trained classicist. Robinson was appointed assistant director and then served as director of the Museum from 1910 to 1931; until 1925 he also looked after the classical antiquities. In 1906, Gisela M. A. Richter began an extraordinarily productive curatorial tenure that lasted until her retirement in 1948. Although Miss Richter did not succeed Robinson as head of the department until 1925, her steady stream of publications—first of new acquisitions and then of fuller studies—established the seriousness, competence, and vitality of this aspect of the Museum's activity.

When Robinson moved from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Metropolitan Museum, he engaged the services of John Marshall, a gifted and acute British connoisseur of ancient art who lived in England and Rome. Marshall became the purchasing agent for desirable objects on the European art market. Several times a year, from 1906 until his death in 1928, Marshall sent to New York the objects that he had selected for acquisition. He worked closely with an equally gifted American collector-dealer living in England, Edward Perry Warren. After Marshall's death in 1928, Miss Richter assumed the full responsibility for purchases. From 1906 through 1948, when Miss Richter retired as curator, the Museum received an exceptional array of masterpieces that constitute the foundation of the Museum's holdings in Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art.

The department was enriched not only by purchases but also by gifts during the early, formative years: Samuel Ward donated a choice group of Attic vases in 1875; John Taylor Johnston, first president of the Museum, gave the King collection of gems in 1881; and in the same year, the Charvet collection of ancient glass was presented by Henry G. Marquand. The Edward C. Moore bequest in 1891 also brought the Museum a large collection of glass. Gifts from the collection of another president of the Museum, J. Pierpont Morgan, considerably enriched the holdings of classical art—of special importance was the entire Gréau collection of glass and Roman pottery, given as part of the Morgan bequest after Mr. Morgan's death by his son in 1917.

Simultaneously, Miss Richter's scholarly pursuits acquainted her with most of the significant archaeologists and excavators of her day, particularly at prehistoric sites in Greece. Through her, for example, the prehistoric Cretan engraved gems and other works in terracotta and metal from the collection of Richard B. Seager came to the Museum in 1926.

Gisela Richter stayed on at the Museum working on publications until 1952, when she moved to Rome. She was followed as head of the department by Christine Alexander (1949–1959) and Dietrich von Bothmer (1959–1990). Since the appointment of Carlos A. Picón in 1990, the focus of the department has been on the modernization of its facilities and especially on the conservation and reinstallation of the collections. The opening of the New Greek and Roman Galleries on April 20, 2007—the culmination of a 15-year project—put on view more than 6,000 works from the exceptional collections of the Metropolitan Museum for future generations to study and enjoy.

Other Facets of the Department
The Greek and Roman Department's library, the Onassis Library for Hellenic and Roman Art endowed by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, houses a significant collection of publications and research materials available to scholars by appointment.

In addition to curatorial activities at the Museum, members of the department participate in excavations in Crete and at Amorium in Turkey.

Architecture of the Galleries
The architectural addition to the Museum designed by Richard Morris Hunt in 1895 and completed by Richard Howland Hunt in 1902, consisted principally of the Great Hall with the new entrance on Fifth Avenue and adjacent north and south galleries, the latter now The Robert and Renée Belfer Court for prehistoric and early Greek art. In 1912, when a southward extension of the Museum was being planned with the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, Edward Robinson determined that it should bring together all the collections of Greek and Roman art. The seven Greek galleries that opened in 1999 correspond to the plan for those that opened in 1917, with the addition of four doorways to the galleries on either side of the grand vaulted gallery, which is now named the Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery.

The southernmost extension of this wing, now The Lamont Wing, which most recently housed the Museum's restaurant, opened in 1926 as an atrium for Roman art. In the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, therefore, the classical antiquities were displayed in a chronological succession beginning with the prehistoric material and progressing logically through Greek and Etruscan art to the end of the Roman period. This is, by and large, the dis-position that was once again adopted in 2007. Not only does it offer a logical itinerary for the visitor but it also situates the collection in spaces that had originally been designed for it.

In 1948 the Roman atrium was closed to make way for a public restaurant as well as administrative offices. During the subsequent 50 years, additional gallery space was reallocated; thus major holdings of the department—the terracottas, jewelry, glass, and gems as well as much sculpture and most of the Cesnola collection of Cypriot antiquities—were no longer continuously on view.

Now, these completely refurbished and reinstalled galleries—which reopened in April 2007—allow The Metropolitan Museum of Art to display an impressive array of classical art created between about 900 B.C. and the early fourth century A.D. in a meaningful arrangement that brings together works in every medium, presented chronologically and thematically.

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October 2010

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