Luxury: Treasures of the Roman Empire

Francis and Claire Underwood, time to move over. You’ve met your match. In his struggle to become emperor of the Roman Empire, Septimius Severus took no prisoners. In 193 C.E. he faced his last challenger to the throne, Clodius Albinus, an extraordinary general and administrator who, with the backing of 150,000 soldiers, occupied Lyons, France, and was preparing for a march on Rome. After two days of bloody battle, Severus defeated him and in front of his own soldiers rode his horse over the dead general. He also sent his head (and those of his wife and children) back to Rome. No one was to challenge him, ever. His wife Julia would yield great power years after Severus’s demise.

While, thankfully, neither will be coming to Kansas City, an extraordinary cameo depicting Septimius and Julia will be at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art this summer and fall in an exhibition that showcases how the rich and powerful Romans lived during this time period. “Luxury: Treasures of the Roman Empire,” open July 9 through Oct. 2, features gold necklaces, jeweled bracelets, gilded silver banquet dishes and goblets, gifts to the gods and splendid furnishings.

Each object in the exhibition carries a story: Herakles struggling against the great lion of Nemea; Achilles (looking better than Brad Pitt) at Troy; Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, dying in his arms; Hercules out-drunk by Bacchus; and Narcissus in love with himself.

The exhibition’s core began with a unique discovery. In 1830, a farmer plowing his new fields at Berthouville, France, discovered a buried trove of beautiful silver from an ancient sanctuary dedicated to Mercury. These objects underwent four years of historical research and meticulous cleaning and conservation at the J. Paul Getty Villa.

The exhibition includes not only the Berthouville Treasure, as it came to be known, but also stellar works from the Nelson-Atkins collection and objects from The Ferrell Collection.

Each work in the exhibition represents the best works by the best artists from the Roman Empire, fashioned for the richest of Romans. The objects were made of rare materials from across the Empire and beyond: emeralds from Egypt, sapphires from India, pearls from the Persian Gulf, gold from Romania, and silver from Spain.

Golden jewelry, often encrusted with gems or elaborated with gold coins, forms the beginning of the exhibition. In another section, the aristocratic home is explored — a place for the elite to seal financial deals or to strike up a new political alliance. It had to impress, and its interior furnishings did. Visitors will find a lavish mosaic, sumptuous sculptures, and furniture of ivory and imported marble. The banquet offered the one time to fully impress guests, with richly decorated plates of silver and large silver goblets made by the best of the best. The Romans also visited sanctuaries to give thanks to the gods for their bounty. And, as the final section will highlight, the elite donated large silver dishes and chandelier-like lighting to the Early Church.

The core of the exhibition was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris, and was curated by Kenneth Lapatin, Associate Curator of Antiquities,  J. Paul Getty Museum, and Mathilde Avisseau-Broustet and Cécile Colonna of the Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques.

–Robert Cohon, Curator, Art of the Ancient World

CategoriesArts Consortium

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