Greece Is The Word

Tampa Museum of Art scores big with Magna Graecia exhibition

For the Tampa Bay area, it was the very best of weeks.

Between Jan. 26 and Feb. 2, two historic coming-of-age cultural events scored real and symbolic touchdowns.

We've experienced culture at its extremes, like odd-couple bookends: the long-awaited Bucs Super Bowl win at one end and the opening of Tampa Museum of Art's Magna Graecia exhibition at the other.

A single football game brought national and international acclaim to our doorstep. Not to diminish local pigskin pride, but in its own way Magna Graecia is the equivalent. Or more. It's a dazzling and significant cultural art experience that Tampa has never before seen.

Only two American cities will host this event: Tampa and Cleveland, whose Museum of Art, TMA's co-sponsor, recently closed the exhibition. A measure of its status comes from a Metropolitan Museum of Art curator who remarked, "This is the kind of exhibition that ought to be in the Met."

Although mounting the exhibition had been discussed for several years, the process escalated in November 1999 after TMA received a grant from the Association of Sister Cities of Florida. The significance here is that Tampa's sister city is Agrigento, Italy, where Mayor Dick Greco's family hails from.

Magna Graecia (pronounced gre key ah), or Great Greece, is an exhibition of ancient Greek art from South Italy and Sicilian archaeological sites. It's also the ancient Roman name for the widespread coastal regions first colonized by eighth century seafaring Greeks from the Aegean Sea area. Adventurers consisting of Spartans, Ionians and Peloponnesians (and other groups) — all of whom came in great numbers — caused an infusion of Greeks into established Italian and Sicilian settlements.

Described perfectly as a "cultural big bang," this development contained the seeds of Western civilization. Here was the genesis of profound ideas, great architecture and art, and epic poetry and legends, all flowing from ancient Greek culture to the eventual flowering of the Italian Renaissance. In myriad ways, our epoch inherits this dynamic legacy.

It's absolutely chilling to stand in these beautifully prepared galleries and realize that concepts like justice and virtue were being discussed roughly within the same time period that some of these ancient works were created. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle come to mind, while images of mythic gods like Zeus, Apollo and Athena remind us of how ancients coped with everyday life through extraordinary ritual.

Eighty-one objects from the first millennium B.C. — never before seen in America — fill two galleries. They were selected from hundreds of possibilities by an international scholarly trio. Co-curators Aaron J. Paul, curator of Greek and Roman art at TMA, and Michael Bennett, holding the same position at Cleveland Museum of Art (and the former TMA classical curator), worked in tandem with their Italian counterpart, Dr. Mario Iozzo. He is director of the Center for Conservation in Florence and Chiusi's Archaeological Museum.

The degree of phenomenal collaboration between these men and their museums, plus eight Italian regional museums, also involved intricate planning between embassies and state departments. They had to use special packing crates for precious objects insured by a rare U.S. indemnity, which, in the event of disaster, would compensate Italian lenders for the entire amount of each work.

But the real story here is the art.

I previewed the galleries with Aaron Paul, whose passion is contagious, not only for the accomplishment of acquiring masterworks that may never again leave Italy, but also because of the beauty and historic context of the objects. It's important to note that the exhibition is arranged regionally rather than chronologically, an intelligent decision permitting each regional museum to shine.

Because of these categories, the works — including statuary, limestone altars, terra cotta painted figurines, tomb painting, jewelry and everyday articles such as bronze mirrors — are not connected by a straight linear narrative.

Not surprisingly, considering the Tampa connection, the exhibition first features Agrigento, at the center of the Southern Sicilian coastline, a town that grew rich from importing grain. At the entrance to the large special exhibitions gallery we meet the pedestaled, just-under-life-size statue, "Youth of Agrigento," from 480 B.C., just two decades before the birth of Socrates. The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology calls the work "the finest example of its type found outside mainland Greece and one of the most important classical sculptures known."

Paul, who spent 15 years as a Harvard curatorial research associate of ancient art, calls "Youth" "a masterpiece, the jewel in the crown," the "epitome of Greek achievement to infuse physical, mental and psychological perfection" within a visual object. This is the classical ideal. Excavated in 1897 from a preserved cistern, the statue is in excellent condition. A rare touch of red paint on the hair reminds us that ancient statues were boldly colorful rather than the white we're used to seeing.

The figure is also modeled more naturally — a sign of a gradual shift from rigidly posed statuary of the earlier Archaic period also known for the "Archaic smile." Throughout the gallery, even the novice can spot the slight smiling expression. One can also trace the steady evolution toward naturalism characterized by the physical body and facial expressions becoming more relaxed and life-like. With many images later copied by Romans, it isn't unusual to see figures anticipating familiar Christian statues.

Because marble was rare in the colonized Italian and Sicilian regions, artisans used terra cotta, or clay. Painted vases or figures show the superb mastery of this medium; objects with holes in the side confirm that they were cast and baked in a kiln.

Aside from objects with art historical significance, works with touching human imagery are especially compelling, even those with mythological figures. Look for a ring depicting Odysseus as a bent-over old man with his faithful dog at his feet; a group of small graceful figurines from around 250 B.C.; and a terra cotta mold-made scene of a woman packing a chest.

Paul says the curators chose objects for their high aesthetic appeal. But he adds advice from a Harvard professor who said, "the secret to a successful exhibition depends on three things: blood, sex and gold." This exhibition is no exception. Paul points to Heracles inflicting death on a kneeling giant, Aphrodite and fertility goddesses, and exquisite gold jewelry.

Need more incentive to get your family interested? There are snakes representing the underworld; a cosmic battle between a god and a giant; and a human-headed bull. On a humorous note, check out "Altar with Gorgons, Pegasus, and Chrysaor," where the gorgon bears an uncanny resemblance to Tampa's own Jon "Chuckie" Gruden.

Kudos to TMA curators and director Emily Kass for circumventing the kind of physical limitations that have long prevented the museum from mounting or borrowing exhibitions of this astonishing caliber.


Adrienne M. Golub can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

Scroll to read more Local Arts articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.