Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult and Daily Life
Runs through Nov. 30 at the Tampa Museum of Art, 120 W Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa , 813-274-8130,
When Seth Pevnick, the Tampa Museum of Art’s Richard E. Perry Curator of Greek and Roman Art — and, as of July, its interim director — was interviewing for his job in 2009, he made a memorable pitch. Citing the museum's ownership of a nearly 2,000-year-old marble statue that he knew only from a TMA catalogue, he proposed to organize a show about Poseidon, the powerful Greek sea god routinely invoked by dwellers of the ancient Mediterranean in matters from safe seafaring to the consumption of bounteous seafood. The fact that the statue — the best-conserved large-scale likeness of Poseidon held in a U.S. collection — had found its way to the coastal city of Tampa seemed like serendipity.
Five years later, the exhibition Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult and Daily Life has emerged, with a certain irony, just as Pevnick’s professional rhythms have been somewhat ruffled by the necessity of taking over the reins at TMA (temporarily) following the departure of former executive director Todd Smith for the Orange County Museum of Art. For luck, he might do well to pour out a libation to Poseidon, who was known as a tamer of horses as well as a calmer of seas and a savior of ships, according to the poet Homer.
Through a selection of 130 objects culled from 30 lenders, a mere 25 of which belong to TMA, Pevnick constructs a portrait of Poseidon (or Neptune, as he was known to ancient Romans) as a personality who infused ancient culture, symbolism and customs. Along with Zeus and Apollo, Poseidon was one of the Olympian gods in whose honor Panhellenic athletic contests were held each year. And with Zeus and Hades, his immortal brothers, he was understood to hold sway over one-third — the watery third — of the world, making him a force of nature in the lives of many ancient Greeks and Romans. (For their parts, Zeus and Hades controlled the heavens and the underworld.)
“It’s difficult to overstate his importance,” Pevnick explained during a walk-through of the exhibition in September. “If you were a sailor or a fisherman, obviously he was your guy.”
Works in the portion of the exhibition devoted to the myth of Poseidon lay the narrative groundwork for his fascination. Appearing as a red-figure illustration on the sides of an ancient Greek vase, there’s Poseidon the amorous pursuer — depicted, as usual, with his harpoon-like trident, extended with Freudian vigor in this instance — of a woman likely to be Aithra, whom he impregnated to generate his son Theseus, the hero who would kill the Minotaur. Other offspring appear in similar vignettes: the winged horse Pegasus, born from the coupling of Poseidon and snake-haired Medusa; the merman Triton; and Bellerophon, who killed the Chimera in Homeric myth.
Great deeds, too, are called out, such as Poseidon’s overthrow of the giant Polybotes, whom he allegedly pinned under a fragment of an island to subdue. A handful of vases show slight variations of the story, in which Poseidon is seen clutching his trident in one hand with a cloud-shaped mass of earth perched on his shoulder, dispatching Polybotes with a superhero’s gesture.
The centerpiece of the exhibition’s “cult” section, devoted to objects associated with the actual worship of Poseidon, is a slender, nearly 14-foot-long solid bronze trident that weighs 200 pounds, on loan from the Getty. As impressive as the object itself, which is topped with a flattened, abstracted fork vaguely reminiscent of a modern-day spork, is the implied existence of its original possessor — most likely a twice life-sized statue of Poseidon. An essay in the exhibition catalogue guides readers through the restrained detective work of antiquities scholarship: The trident, experts surmised, was too heavy for use as an actual weapon and most stable when held vertically, therefore was likely to have been an accessory to a standing sculpture at least as old as 400 B.C. The theory invites you to imagine the otherworldly sensation of gazing up in awe at a giant Poseidon.
The show’s most delicious pleasures stem from an area devoted to the relevance of sea culture to daily life in ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria (central Italy). Poseidon the character is somewhat abandoned in favor of plates and vessels adorned with lively maritime iconography, e.g. a galley of vigorously rowing sailors juxtaposed with a striped perch and a floating cuttlefish; ceramic model ships; miniature bottles (mostly Greek) shaped like cockleshells, a fish and, most charmingly, a lobster claw; and transparent blown glass flasks (Roman) in the shape of spiny fish.
The wit of such objects, which sometimes go to virtuosic lengths to create visual puns or evoke the living world on their still surfaces, is exemplified by a 6th Century B.C. Greek dinos, or wine bowl, borrowed from the Cleveland Museum of Art. Its round, onyx-black body is topped with a terracotta-colored rim painted with tiny black figures in battle — among them Theseus against the Minotaur. On the inside of the rim, a quartet of sailing ships would appear to float on wine when the vessel was filled, evoking Homer’s then well-known poetic description, the “wine-dark sea.” As an accessory to an evening of convivial drink, conversation and storytelling, it would have provided an entertaining reminder of the deep significance of the ocean to human experience, an idea that rings true today.