Cambridge returns Greeks and Romans to limelight

CAMBRIDGE Fri Feb 26, 2010 6:05am EST

CAMBRIDGE (Reuters Life!) - Dionysian excess, righteous indignation turned to ridicule and the luxurious artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome are back on show after a makeover at Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Fitzwilliam's Greek and Roman gallery has had a 950,000-pound ($1.52 million) renovation to highlight the stories of and behind the lavish pots, statuary, ornate coffins, helmets and jewelry of the great civilizations which formed the foundations of the modern Western world.

Curator Lucilla Burn told Reuters that the intention of the two-year refurbishment -- carried out in conjunction with academics from the university's Classics department -- was to update the collection and make it more accessible.

"It was last done in the 1960s and it was looking very tired," said the former British Museum curator.

The work was done with half an eye on the massive overhaul at Oxford University's Ashmolean museum and tempered by Burn's years of experience as curator in the British Museum's Greek and Roman Department.

Laid out in a timeline that takes the visitor around the collection from the height of ancient Greece to the declining years of the Roman empire, the exhibition brings to life the artifacts, the every day lives of the ancients and the stories of the people who brought these exhibits back to Britain.

Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard, who was part of the team advising on the Fitzwilliam renovation, said the updated exhibition now informs and involves visitors.

GRANNY'S SARCOPHAGUS

At the center of the display stands an ornate Roman coffin known as the Pashley sarcophagus, which was for years overlooked by visitors rushing past on their way to the impressive coffin lid of Rameses III in the Egypt galleries.

But the Pashley sarcophagus is a beautiful example of a Roman coffin, crowded with intricately carved figures showing Dionysos, Greek god of wine and revelry (also known as Bacchus), in procession with his followers the satyrs and maenads.

Its commanding presence in the middle of the room prompts Beard to remark on a curious facet of Roman life, demonstrating the renovation's ready ability to bring the past to life.

Heavy marble sarcophagi took a long time to make, so they had to be ordered from craftsmen well in advance. Those who died in older age may well have been prepared, but those who died young or suddenly might have to make do with whatever was available at the time.

"The elderly might have had foresight and planned, but if you were run over by a chariot suddenly while crossing the road you had to take what you could get," Beard said. "So even if it was granny, you might still have to have the battle scene."

Other stand-out items include a sort of Roman precursor to the Swiss Army knife -- a combination fork, spoon, spatula, pick, spike and blade that would have been used by a well-to-do traveler -- and an innocuous-looking marble once thought to have been from the Parthenon.

A rival to Lord Elgin -- the British diplomat who in the early 19th century removed the marbles from the Parthenon that are now on show at the British Museum -- publicly deplored Elgin's methods for removing marbles from the Greek temple but wanted to "ethically" acquire his own piece of the Parthenon.

The Parthenon at the time was a garrison for soldiers of the Ottoman Turks, whose empire included Athens.

British collector E.D. Clarke paid a garrison officer for the small marble sculpture, which he was told came from the Parthenon. As he hadn't removed it from the building himself he made a great to-do about its "ethical" retrieval at the time.

Beard said it now turns out the marble is not considered to have come from the Parthenon at all and is not even Greek -- it is probably Roman from a nearby theater.

"So who had the last laugh then?"

Fitzwilliam Museum: www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

(Editing by Steve Addison)