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Greek and Roman Art

Greek and Roman

The Museum's collection of Greek and Roman art comprises more than 17,000 works ranging in date from the Neolithic period (ca. 4500 B.C.) to the time of the Roman emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in A.D. 312. It includes the art of many cultures and is among the most comprehensive in North America. The geographic regions represented are Greece and Italy, but not as delimited by modern political frontiers: much of Asia Minor on the periphery of Greece was settled by Greeks; Cyprus became increasingly Hellenized in the course of its long history; and Greek colonies were established around the Mediterranean basin and on the shores of the Black Sea. For Roman art, the geographical limits coincide with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The department also exhibits the pre-Greek art of Greece and the pre-Roman art of Italy, notably of the Etruscans.

What's On View

The Greek and Roman galleries reveal classical art in all of its complexity and resonance. The objects range from small, engraved gemstones to black-figure and red-figure painted vases to over-lifesize statues and reflect virtually all of the materials in which ancient artists and craftsmen worked: marble, limestone, terracotta, bronze, gold, silver, and glass, as well as such rarer substances as ivory and bone, iron, lead, amber, and wood. The strengths of the collection include painted Greek vases, Greek grave reliefs, Cypriot sculpture, marble and bronze Roman portrait busts, and wall paintings from two villas on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, one at Boscoreale and the other at Boscotrecase. The department's holdings in glass and silver are among the most important in the world, and the collection of archaic Attic sculpture is second only to that in Athens.

More about the Department and Its Collection

The Museum's first accessioned object was a Roman sarcophagus from Tarsus, donated in 1870. Its first director (1879–1904), Luigi Palma di Cesnola, was appointed on the strength of the acquisition and display of his large collection of antiquities from Cyprus. The third director (1910–1931) was Edward Robinson, an accomplished classical archaeologist whose tenure saw an exceptional enrichment of the collections by bequest, gift, and purchase. The donations of J. P. Morgan, for example, complemented purchases made possible in particular from the Rogers Fund, established in 1901 by a bequest of Jacob S. Rogers, a manufacturer of locomotives. In addition, some material came from excavations through organizations supporting the exploration of Sardis and from excavations at Praisos on Crete through the Archaeological Institute of America. Despite these propitious conditions for the acquisition of ancient art and the large number of objects that were indeed acquired, an independent Department of Classical Art was not established formally until 1909; in 1935 it was renamed the Department of Greek and Roman Art.

Renovation and Reinstallation

In 2007, the Museum completed a 15-year master plan to renovate the exhibition spaces for Greek and Roman art and reinstall the collection. The first phase was achieved in June 1996 with the opening of The Robert and Renée Belfer Court for prehistoric and early Greek art. The second phase, seven galleries for Greek art of the archaic and classical periods (6th through 14th century B.C.), opened in April 1999. With objects arranged in a new contextual display combining works of different media, the new Greek galleries present such themes as religion, funerary customs, civic life, and athletics, in magnificent Beaux-Arts spaces created for the collection between 1912 and 1917 by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. The grand, barrel-vaulted gallery in the center of the installation—now known as the Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery—is one of New York City's great interior spaces, flooded with natural light and ideal for exhibiting large-scale marble sculpture, bronzes, and vases.

The department's extensive collection of Cypriot art returned to view in April 2000 in four newly renovated galleries on the second floor. The reinstallation culminated in April 2007 with the opening of spaces for Hellenistic, Etruscan, South Italian, and Roman Art. With more than 5,300 objects on view in an area of more than 30,000 square feet, the focal point is the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court—a monumental, skylit peristyle for the display of Hellenistic and Roman art with a soaring two-story atrium. The new galleries present the most important and familiar masterworks in the Greek and Roman collection.

The Study Collection on the mezzanine above the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court supplements the objects on view in the primary galleries and an exhibition gallery allows for temporary displays.

Ongoing Research

The staff of the Greek and Roman Department continuously adds information to the Collection Database. They produce publications, contribute to international conferences, and take an active part in archaeological fieldwork in Greece and Turkey.

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Featured Media: Greek and Roman Art


Related Exhibitions

Finial from a Roman chariot with head of Medusa