The Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art: Stone Sculpture (2014) is the first comprehensive publication of 635 stone sculptures in the Met's extensive collection of ancient art from the island of Cyprus. Published online, in a historic first for the Museum, the publication is available to read, download, and search in MetPublications at no cost. A paperbound edition, complete and printed as a 436-page print-on-demand book with 949 full-color illustrations, is also available for purchase and can be ordered on Yale University Press's website.
The publication's page in MetPublications offers additional information about the works in the collection and includes links to related resources, notably object records for every Cypriot stone sculpture mentioned in the book.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the catalogue's authors—Antoine Hermary, professor at Aix-Marseille University, Aix-en-Provence, and Joan Mertens, curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum—about the publication and the collection that inspired it.
Rachel High: The Cesnola Collection is the Museum's first online collection catalogue. What advantages do you think there are to the digital format?
Antoine Hermary: The digital format is very useful for students, but in my opinion it is necessary to print the book for extensive work on the subject.
Joan Mertens: I think there are many advantages, the first of which is versatility. You carry the publication with you on your laptop or tablet. One of the aspects that spoke in favor of doing the Cesnola publication electronically was that many scholars work in the field, and they certainly wouldn't lug around one hundred pounds of books. Another advantage is that you can update the content over time. We also felt very strongly that it should be possible to have a printed book, so the print-on-demand option really offers everything. We are very fortunate that the [Museum's] director, Tom Campbell, allowed us to work until we came up with this solution. There's such cultural complexity in the material. The digital format enables us to show the variety and richness of the collection, as well as to include a bibliography, maps, and the details of discovery for individual objects.
Rachel High: Joan, you collaborated with Vassos Karageorghis and Maurice Rose on a catalogue about the highlights from the Cesnola Collection in 2000. The 2014 catalogue takes a closer look at the stone sculpture in the collection. What will this new text provide that the earlier publication left out?
Joan Mertens: The Greek and Roman department underwent a complete reinstallation from the early 1990s to 2007, and in 2000 we opened a new set of four Cypriot galleries. Ancient Art from Cyprus: The Cesnola Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art was the publication that accompanied the reinstallation. What is different in the new Cesnola Stone Sculpture publication from Ancient Art from Cyprus is that Ancient Art was a general survey of major pieces (including terracottas, metalwork, jewelry, etc.) that were in the galleries, while the present sculpture catalogue includes every stone sculpture—635 pieces, including works that are not on view—and most are illustrated with multiple images. A highlights book or a special topic book has its merits, but you see only a limited selection of works. One alabastron or one bowl might not do much for you! But if you can compare many works together it becomes quite interesting, because they're all different.
Rachel High: What originally drew you to the works in this collection?
Antoine Hermary: I decided to study Cypriot art when I took part in the French archaeological mission at Amathus, as a member of the French School at Athens (1977–80). When I was back in France, I studied and wrote on the Cypriot sculptures of the Louvre (published in 1989). I already had an interest in Greek and Cypriot sculpture and the next thing to do was to go to the Met's comprehensive collection in New York and study the works there. It was there that I met Joan Mertens, which began the long process of publishing this book.
Joan Mertens: The Cypriot collection was for many years a little bit of a stepchild. If you compare Cypriot limestone with Greek marble it's an unfair comparison. However, taste changes and scholarship changes. Fifty years ago people were mainly interested in the major cultures: the Greeks, the Romans, the Etruscans, and the Egyptians. One of the big trends in more recent times is to look at the cultures in between, and Cyprus certainly qualifies. I always think of Cyprus as an ancient parallel to New York: everybody has been there and everyone leaves his mark. If you just walk through the galleries and you pause to look at the different faces and the different types of clothing, you see Egyptians, you see Assyrians, you see Greeks. You see young people, old people, priests, warriors, you name it! The other thing that is so interesting and so valuable about the Cypriot material is that because it is limestone, the ancient color adheres better and therefore more remains.
Rachel High: I noticed that while looking at some of the works in the collection, it's amazing that you can still see the paint.
Joan Mertens: Yes, and you don't need any fancy equipment. While we know now that in antiquity the Greek marbles were painted also—we are fortunate to have in our galleries some wonderful, especially archaic, painted marbles—what's fantastic about the limestone is that the surface decoration is remarkably well preserved.
Rachel High: Could either of you speak a little bit on how the Cesnola Collection came to the Met?
Joan Mertens: Yes, it came in a rather complex way. Luigi Palma di Cesnola was from northern Italy, and he started life as a military officer. We don't exactly know when he came to this country, but it was in the 1850s. During the Civil War he joined the Union forces and was captured by the Confederates. He spent a year or so in prison. At the end of the Civil War he became the American Consul in Cyprus in 1865. There was not an awful lot to do for a consul on Cyprus; most of consuls there spent their time digging, and he did too. Cesnola amassed a very considerable number of objects and in 1871 he decided to take his collection—reputedly thirty-five thousand pieces—out of Cyprus to London. To make a long story short, by the end of 1872 John Taylor Johnston, who was the president of the Met, approved the purchase of the collection. We don't know precisely how large the collection was then, but it was considerably smaller than in London. In 1872, the Met was only two years old, and this was without question the first big archaeological purchase.
With the Cesnola Collection came Cesnola himself—the Museum needed someone to work on the objects and organize an installation. Cesnola was appointed in 1879 to be the Museum's first director, a position he held until he died in 1904. While the Cesnola Collection is certainly not as central to the institution today as it was then, the contributions of Cesnola to this institution are considerable. He presided over the Museum's move uptown to Central Park. [See "This Weekend in Met History: February 6" to learn more about the Trustees' decision to move the Metropolitan to Central Park.]
Rachel High: The limestone temple boys in the collection are particularly playful and interesting to me. Is there a sculpture or group of sculptures that is particularly interesting to you in the Cesnola Collection? If so, why do you find it/them so interesting?
Antonie Hermary: Yes, there is an important sarcophagus from Amathus that is part of the archaic part of the collection. This sarcophagus, of an Amathusian king of the early fifth century B.C., is a unique example in the world because the decoration, especially the scenes on the long sides, provides insights into the nature of kingship in the region of Amathus and also the relation between the ruler and local religious cults.
Joan Mertens: To me, the single most important aspect of the Cesnola Collection is the diversity and depth of representation, in this case, with the sculpture. Another matter that can't be stressed enough is Antoine Hermary's expertise. He is one of the foremost specialists on Cypriot archaeology, and specifically Cypriot sculpture. He reviewed the many publications and documents that exist about where exactly certain pieces were found, which makes this a definitive publication for everyone interested not just in Cypriot art, but also art from related regions. Because of the internationalism of ancient Cyprus, the importance of these works cannot be limited to the island; it extends to the adjoining cultures.