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by Thomas Hoving
|Heralding it as Phase II of the massive and expensive redo of the Greek and Roman galleries (at a projected $75 million and rising), the Metropolitan Museum has unveiled some 600 works from its world-famous Cesnola collection of ancient Cypriot art ranging from the Bronze Age in 2500 BC to the end of the Roman period. The collection has just gone on view in four galleries on the second floor. [General view of gallery two]
Six hundred pieces of bronze, pottery, marble, limestone, gold, silver and glass sounds like a huge mound of goodies. But it isn't, if you consider that the Cypriot holdings of the Met number over 6,000 items and that they comprise one of the largest slices of any ancient civilization ever assembled in the United States. And if you consider that in the stunning 40 galleries of the Egyptian department every single work is on view -- all 36,000 of them.
Why such a relatively small selection in so few galleries? Why such cryptic and uninformative labels? Why such a dry catalogue with no indication of the rest of the collection? Why no banner proclaiming the new halls? Could it be that the Met curators still look down at the Cypriot holdings as a "provincial" hodgepodge of ancient styles? Could it be that the curators of Greek and Roman art want to ignore the odd-ball archaeological activities of the singular man who dug up Cyprus -- a smart, thoroughly modern man of his times who was a war hero, a Herculean archaeologist, the founding director of the museum, an anti-Semite and a kook?
If so, nothing new.
Back in 1959 when I was a raw recruit at the Met with a freshly-minted Ph.D. in my pocket, I followed the party line that Cypriot art was worse than second-rate; it was backwater stuff, light years behind Egyptian, Greek or even Assyrian art. My disdain was no doubt sharpened by my first job at the museum, which was to help install a platoon of gigantesque Cypriot goggle-eyed, hawk-nosed, hatchet-faced statues from the collection of the risible Luigi di Palma di Cesnola, the eccentric first director of the museum. [Bearded man with votive offerings 5th century BC]
In those days the statues were placed on ugly steel I-beams and concrete pedestals on each side of the long, obscurely lit corridor leading south from the great hall to the dark brown restaurant designed by the once-famed interior decorator, Dorothy Shaver, called "The Dorotheum" by the museum staff. They were looked upon as handy space fillers.
But once I had the chance really to look at them I changed my mind. By God, they were not provincial, not primitive, not stylistically overly dependent on every other existing ancient civilization. Cypriot style throughout its long span from the 6th century BC down to Roman times is honest, independent, indelible, forthright, primitive, satisfyingly abstract, good and raw, complex and memorable. Cypriot art is as legitimate as Egyptian art, or even Greek art. It's not better or worse, it just expresses itself in a different language. [Sixth century BC painted terracotta heads]
As my admiration for the crisp, powerful works grew, I became fascinated with Cesnola as a cultural and archaeological phenomenon. (The best short account of Cesnola's dealings with the Met appears in Calvin Tompkins' 1970s book on the Met, Merchants and Masterpieces, and there's a highly entertaining popular history of the rogue archaeologist by E. McFadden, The Glitter and the Gold, 1971.)
Luigi was born near Turin in 1832 into a family that possessed feudal rights from the 11th century. His father served with Napoleon in Russia and an uncle helped write the Greek constitution. At 13, Luigi entered a military school and at 16 volunteered for the Army of Sardinia in the conflict against Austria. In weeks he was promoted to Lieutenant and fought and survived in the brutal Crimean war. Back home in 1856, he resigned from the army and in 1860 migrated to America -- New York, naturally. He married an upper-crust young woman of sparkling intelligence, Mary Isabel Reid.
Shortly after Fort Sumter, Luigi opened a military school on Broadway where New York aristocrats learned how to fight and -- better -- how to survive. He became a Major in New York's renowned 11th Regiment Cavalry, rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and recruited and trained the troopers. He was a handsome, dashing, battle-wise dandy with flowing mustaches and a charming accent. He was assigned to Washington to Lincoln's honor guard.
Cesnola found that excruciatingly boring and soon wangled the command of his own regiment, the Fourth New York Cavalry, and became a full Colonel. After one devastating battle, he was severely wounded, captured and sent to an infamous prison. Watercolor sketch of the battle at Aldie, Virginia]. Resigned to die, he nonetheless badgered his captors for bologna and macaroni -- which they gave him. He regained his health.
Released in exchange for prisoners in 1865, Cesnola was personally promoted to Brigadier General by Lincoln. Only a week before being assassinated, Lincoln granted him the post of U.S. Consul in Cyprus. Cesnola, a masterful survivor, also secured the consulship on behalf of Russia. Conflict of interest? Today, perhaps, but back then it was not uncommon. That trick turned out to be one of the luckiest strokes in the Metropolitan's history.
He arrived on the rugged, mysterious, history-soaked island of Cyprus on Christmas day, 1865, with his wife and baby girl and at once became inflamed with archaeology. This was the era of the swashbuckling, on-the-edge-of-piracy-and-tomb-robbing, entrepreneurial archaeologists like the German Johann Joachim Winckelmann of Pompeii fame, Austin Layard of ancient Assyria, Belzoni and Mariette of Egypt and Heinrich Schliemann of Troy.
Archaeology and every fragment of the ancient world became a craze reported regularly on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world. By and large these were not like today's professional archaeologists who keep impeccable records, dig notebooks and illustrative materials to pinpoint the exact spot of discovery. Belzoni had a penchant for dynamite. Schliemann and Mariette kept excellent notes. Cesnola didn't, and occasionally embellished one find by adding fragments of several others. [Limestone priest from Golgoi]
Impassioned by the antiquity of Cyprus, Cesnola learned ancient Greek from scratch, read classical historians and started digging up ancient sites with enthusiastic permission from the ruling Turks. Before Cesnola, no one had ever excavated the fecund soil of Cyprus. He plowed through the land and virtually all of his own money and in 1869 made a deal for further funding with the leading antiquities dealer, Rollin & Feuardent.
He bought -- for 20 pounds -- the site at Golgoi and dug up tons of statues including an impressive colossal head. [Image of Colossal Head] One step ahead of almost everyone else in archaeology, he took up photography and sent a packet of pictures to several European museums seeking bids on his treasures.
Napoleon III was eager to purchase the lot for France but the Franco-Prussian War dampened that urge (imagine how the new Louvre would have displayed these primitively compelling treasures!) The Hermitage dickered over prices. So, since Cesnola was an acquaintance of the Metropolitan's president, John Taylor Johnson, in 1870 he sent him a letter offering the museum the astounding collection. Cesnola suggested shipping over at his expense a representative sampling of the diverse holdings -- statues, gold, silver, glass, pottery. He said arbitrators for both sides could determine the price. Such a deal!
As Cesnola was making plans to get the stuff shipped out, he began to suspect what he called a growing "Turkish cupidity." First he arranged from the friendly U.S. War Department to send a naval vessel to carry his representative group to safety. But then, anxious that the ship wouldn't arrive before the "Turkish cupidity" became intense, he chartered a fast schooner and began to load some 360 crates on board. When he pressed the Turks for a solid export permit, they 1) Anchored a Naval corvette directly in front of his house on the beach and trained their guns at his living room windows and 2) sent him a telegram forbidding the "American consul" from exporting a single antiquity. [Marble anthropoid sarcophagus]
Cesnola's dragoman, Besbes, had delivered the bad news and did so repeating the words in the telegram over and over while winking and grimacing at the same time, "No American Consul can export". Luigi was about to slap his servant down when he saw a certain twinkle in the man's eye. Suddenly he understood why Besbes had been emphasizing "American."
Nothing was written about a Russian consul being forbidden to ship the loot. And so the precious crates left unmolested for Port Said guarded by Besbes as the "property of the Russian consul." On learning abut the legerdemain, the Turkish governor is said not to have sighed, "Pity this Cesnola hadn't been born a Turk."
The vessel sank on its way from Egypt to New York. Yet, Cesnola still had 6,000 pieces including all the stones from Golgoi and Amanthus [The Amanthus Sarcophagus] These he sent to London to Rollin & Feuardent.
A lively off-stage auction took place. The British Museum offered £10,000 for just the statues and inscriptions from Golgoi. Cesnola smiled and demurred. Then the Met's Johnson offered $60,000 of his own money, hoping his fellow trustees of the museum would reimburse him (which they did in 1873). Cesnola was elated, "What I desire above all is that my collection should remain together and be known as the Cesnola Collection…. I have the pride of my race, and that of a Discoverer who wants his name perpetuated with his work if possible."
He returned to Cyprus and dug away more ferociously than before. In all, he stayed 11 years, explored and identified 16 ancient cities, 15 temples, 65 ancient burial grounds and 61,000 tombs. He vacuumed up a total of 35,573 works, including 2,000 statues, 4,000 fragmentary busts and heads, 14,000 pots, 1,000 carved gems, cylinders and scarabs and, finally, 4,000 pieces of glass. Nothing like this had ever occurred in archaeology or will ever happen again.
At a place he dubbed "Curium" (a.k.a. "Kourion") he said he found under the foundations of a great temple a hidden chamber with an intact "royal treasury" of gold, silver and bronze objects. At the time it was hailed as a unique marvel. Today archaeologists have legitimate doubts about the integrity of the hoard. After Cesnola no one found any signs of a chamber and the material dates from centuries other than the 6th century BC. It appears that he found a number of tombs rich in golden works and lumped them together to make a hoard that might be bigger and better than the Treasure of Troy, which had been discovered by Heinrich Schliemann -- for Cesnola wasn't shy about saying how much he wanted to best the German and his finds. The hoard was recently put on view by the Russians in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and, apparently, as war trophies never to be returned to Berlin.
The Met bought another 10,000 pieces for another $60,000. Cesnola joined the board of trustees in 1873 at 45 years of age. He became Secretary in 1877 and in 1879 the first director of the institution.
A firestorm of scandals
He immediately ran into a series of legal bombardments that eclipsed any cannon or rifle fusillades in any Crimean or Civil War battle in which Cesnola had ever fought. Triggered by a falling-out with the Paris dealer Feuardent over prices, in 1880 Feuardent's son fired back. He wrote an article for an influential art magazine, Art Amateur, charging that Cesnola had stuck many pieces together to make whole statues that never had been intact. The hungry New York tabloids picked up the "scandal." Feuardent made additional attacks in the tabs saying he had proof that Cesnola had doctored the seven huge statues from Golgoi.
Cesnola explained to his worried fellow boardmembers in language that sadly was not uncommon back then that this was merely a typically "dastardly attack . . . from the French Jew dealer Feuardent in an obscure monthly paper edited by a Jew." Luigi denied all charges. The board committee that investigated him soon cleared him. Feuardent immediately sued Cesnola for libel, not because of his vicious racist words, which had not come out, but because of his denials that he had doctored any statues.
The trial started two and a half years later and in the interim the New York press kept the pot simmering. A prestigious art critic, Clarence Cook, backed Feuardent and wrote that so many pieces had been doctored that "few examples can be found that have not been repaired, restored, altered, added to, scraped and painted. As for "artistic value," Cook stated "they never had any." This was no doubt when ancient Cypriot art began to get its bad rep.
Cesnola, a man of impulse and theatricality, displayed two large statues and a head in the great hall and called upon any amateur archaeologist or, hey, member of the public to hack away at them to see for himself or herself that they weren't made up from a host of fragments. The pieces were all but destroyed. But the popular verdict was that nothing had been added or fiddled with because the works were all made from one piece of limestone.
The trial, which began in October 1883, resulted in a complete vindication of Cesnola's position. The jury decided that only a few minor pieces had been overly restored. [Temple boy]
Over the years the collection was exhibited en masse and then successively with fewer and fewer pieces, especially as the Egyptian department became very chic, expanding because of the interest and largesse of J. P. Morgan. In 1885, a slice of the Cesnola material was sold for $10,000 to Leland Stanford. In 1928, another several thousand works were sold to John Ringling for $120,000. Other works went hither and yon and slim records were kept by the museum as to who got them -- some were even sold over the counter to museum-goers. When Greek and Roman pieces began to come to the museum in greater numbers, the Cypriot material was further shunted aside. By the early 1960s it was mere interior decor for the corridor leading to the restaurant.
I understand that all the thousands of Cypriot works can't be shown in the rapidly dwindling exhibition space at the Met. Sure, I recognize the curatorial impulse is to buy, buy, buy something new and the heck with what you already have. Yes, I realize that Cypriot stones will never churn up the same public frenzy as Egyptian art. I also know that the educational thrust at the Met now is not to reveal exciting stories about quirky (and quite marvelous) swashbucklers of earlier times.
But, despite all this, I deplore what I think is a lamentable lack of interest in the nature and history of a splendid, unique collection and a lack of spice in telling the fiery tales about Cesnola. I can't help feeling that a measure of archaeological bigotry was largely behind selecting less than 10 percent of the total Cypriot holdings to be shown in such a muted way in only four galleries.
I asked the Met what's going to happen to the rest of the thousands of undisplayed Cesnola works? The answer was, "a further portion will be displayed as part of a study collection that is a component of Phase III of the Greek and Roman reinstallation. There are also proposals being discussed for a large-scale publication of the entire collection as well as several other possibilities for utilizing the material that are still under consideration."
What does that mean? A massive give-back to Cyprus? Deacessioning and sale? Or, more likely, the entombment of the material in deep storage. Maybe like this?
THOMAS HOVING is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.