The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

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NOV 2012 Issue

City of Gold: Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus

On View
Princeton Art Museum
October 20, 2012 – January 20, 2013
Princeton, NJ

Just how evocative can a material object be, really? Can it recover forgotten places, call back lost time and make us understand the unfamiliar? The answer to these questions, respectively, is an uncategorical “Very” and a hesitant “Perhaps, but not as much as you might think.” At least those are the answers that murmur through City of Gold: Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus, a new exhibition organized by the Princeton University Art Museum in collaboration with the British Museum, the Musée du Louvre and Cyprus’s Department of Antiquities. City of Gold features 110 objects discovered in what is now Polis Chrysochous, a city on the northwestern coast of the island of Cyprus. Many of the pieces in the Princeton exhibition are being made public for the first time. The exhibition is a first as well, the first dedicated exclusively to Cypriot antiquities from Marion and Arsinoe, the ancient cities that once occupied the Polis region. City of Gold includes objects that range from stone and terracotta statuettes to architectural remains, coins, seals, ceramics and jewelry. Though many of these were produced between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C., some date back to the Late Bronze Age, around 1700 B.C.; others are as recent as 1400 A.D.

Necklace pendant and beads, Cypriot, 4th Century B.C.E. Gold with paste, h. 7.31 cm(pendant), diam. 1.22cm (rosette beads), diam. 1.3 cm (pointed beads), weight 3.2 grams. London, British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum, Department of Greece and Rome.

Relaying facts and figures says little about the exhibition itself. City of Gold is both aesthetically stunning and historically significant. More than this, though, it serves as an exercise in the limits of knowing. If you let it, this exhibition will invite you to test how reliable the paradigms that we use to guide our understanding of the world really are—and how they can lead us astray. And it is worthwhile to let yourself be led astray in this exhibition, for it turns an interesting, informative experience into something far greater.

 Despite its name, there is a sense of something unsettlingly remote or and even spare at the core of City of Gold. This is not to say that the curators have skimped on design or accompanying information—there are even three-dimensional reconstructions of significant buildings from Marion and Arsinoe accompanied by a short video. The exhibition is curated with care, from lighting and overall design to the handsome accompanying images mounted on the walls at appropriate places calculated to impress as they inform.

No, the sense that something is being withheld emanates from the objects themselves, but that reserve is due in part to our own expectations about “ancient art”—a term that often calls to mind Doric columns and melancholy grandeur, a dignity expressed by rows of large vases with elaborate mythological scenes crowding the surface in red-figure or in impressive rows of exquisitely carved marbles. This very idea of ancient art is conspicuously absent from City of Gold (though the exhibition includes a torso from a Greek marble kouros statue). In fact, many items are quite small; some are fragments, some are ill-proportioned. The exhibition includes gold jewelry and coins—the former handsome and intricate, the latter often stamped with a juxtaposition of forgotten names and enigmatic symbols that echo faded power as only coins can. Yet, the sense of remoteness does not correspond to a dearth of material splendor, nor is it an undesirable attribute. In fact, it is this quality (or challenge even), that make this exhibition remarkable.

City of Gold shatters expectations of archetypal antiquity, but it replaces them with something even better, like a 5-year-old abandoning morning dreams upon awakening to Christmas Day. The pieces in this exhibition make a compelling statement, but in a muted way. Yet, if you hearken to their whispers and cast aside your expectations for how “good” ancient art should look, more unfolds than the story of uncovering lost cities or an introduction to the art of ancient Cyprus, though the exhibition provides both. City of Gold offers something that few exhibitions have the courage to offer: it uses art to dethrone our empirical assurances, asking viewers to explore the space that begins to open as certitude falters.

Asking questions rather than answering them is particularly unusual for an exhibition that is in many ways a celebration of archeological discoveries made in the course of several decades. Sixty of the exhibition’s 110 objects were unearthed by Princeton University’s Princeton Cyprus Expedition. When the expedition team, led by Dr. Anthony A. P. Childs (now a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University) arrived at present-day Polis Chrysochous, its streets were lined with fallen columns; ceramics from antiquity sprouted in the fields. These were the remains of Arsinoe, a city founded in the Hellenistic Period, around 270 B.C.; relics of a still older city remained hidden. Since the nineteenth century, archeologists had known that a city more ancient than Arsinoe had existed, but they deemed the task of excavating it too onerous. The Princeton team answered the challenge and discovered the ruins of Marion, a city that had existed from the 7th century B.C. until its destruction by Egyptian forces in 312 B.C. The Princeton Cyprus Expedition commenced in 1983. Excavations would continue for the next quarter century, ending only in 2007.

Thus, a narrative of discovery is part of City of Gold. After all, the Princeton excavations revealed more than objects; they also uncovered structures including public buildings, workshops, and sanctuaries. The exhibition avoids a pedantic tone, however. There is no unerring, diorama-like certainty to be found. This is both an unavoidable weakness of the exhibition and—to this reviewer’s mind—one of its great strengths. It is the pleasure of uncertainty that distinguishes this exhibition from so many others, those which have forgotten that part of what makes the distant past so compelling is that there are still—and always will be—passages of it that elude our understanding.

City of Gold reveals how we can reconstruct the physical realities of ancient Cyprus, but cannot always explain them. Synecdoche. The play of part and whole. Rarely does the concept reach beyond poetry primers to take literal form as it does in the galleries of this exhibition. Votive offerings summon back the sanctuaries that held them; statuettes recall the tombs in which they were buried—and those once buried in them. Emblematic of the tension between part and whole—and between knowing and not-knowing—is the oversized ceramic hand clenched in a fist—a gesture it has maintained since the 6th century B.C. Traces of red paint cling stubbornly to the fragment. It is easy to imagine an artisan’s hands at work, pressing the clay into hollows between fingers. The fragment once belonged to an impressive 9-foot statue that stood in a Marion sanctuary. A photographic reconstruction of that colossus is mounted on the wall beside the fragment.

The juxtaposition suggests how part can lead to the whole—quite literally. When I asked Joanna Smith, Assistant Director of the Princeton Expedition, about the colossus, Smith emphasized the importance that statue had in ancient Cyprus. Yet, Smith also admitted—with visible excitement—that even experts do not know why the colossus was significant, do not know its function or even its identity. Synecdoche in language does not work so well when transposed to the kingdom of Things. Part there may be, but the whole does not always come willingly, even when it is physically reconstructed before our eyes. And this stubborn unknowability can create palpable excitement.

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Recovering Ancient Cities: Exhibition Design

The attempt to conjure up lost time with found objects resonates in the layout of the exhibition, which sprawls across four galleries. These are calibrated to theme and ordered by a chronology that moves from the Late Bronze Age and Archaic period to the late Middle Ages. The first gallery reconstructs a Cypriot dromos (the long entry passageway to a tomb). The passage is flanked by a series of funerary statuettes discovered in the tombs of Marion. At the apex of the dromos stands the torso of a Greek sculpture of Parian marble—discovered in 1886, it is the only one of its kind to ever be discovered on Cyprus. A lordly krater from the 7th century B.C. marks the transition from the first gallery to the second, where a limestone funerary sculpture from the end of the 6th century, Kilikas’ lion, plays guardian, gripping its base in a gesture of perpetual anticipation. Don’t let that sculptured lion overshadow a small group of Late Bronze Age ceramics that have been curiously tucked away along the wall behind it; they are not only the oldest pieces in the exhibition, but if given attention, they will reward it handsomely.

Greek, Cycladic, ca. 510–500 b.c.e.: Torso of a Kouros (Naked Male Youth). Parian marble; h. 72 cm., max. w. 28 cm., max. th. 24 cm. London, British Museum (1887.8-1.1). © The British Museum / British Museum Images.

The smallest of these is a bird-headed jug from 1800–1500 B.C.E. Though scarcely 5 inches high, its surface swims with detail. Aside from the fanciful proportions—the head of the bird, marked by bulging eyes and a wide beak-spout resolve into a slender neck, which balloons to a rotund body that demurely terminates in a tiny base—the jug’s decorative program has a charm that exceeds its simplicity. Two zigzags are separated by a central band. Though the designs are identical, it is the irregularities that give this piece its charm. Patterns align imperfectly, like wrapping paper on a birthday present. From above, the design appears like the petals of a lotus flower. That jug inspires the feeling that the whimsy of Mirò-like confections had already been invented 3,000 years ago. 

In the second gallery, the theme shifts from the acherontic to the civic. This space is filled with coins, jewelry, and imported ceramics. A slender amphora from the Greek island of Chios commands attention, a quality due only in part to its prominent position in the gallery. Its balance of height and spare design endow it with an air of graceful utilitarianism.

Gallery Three turns from the city to the sanctuary, displaying incense burners and a variety of votive offerings. One of these is a statuette of a sow feeding piglets from the 5th century B.C. The scene is noteworthy for its detail. The sow’s porcine features are oddly delicate and well-defined from her snout to her curling tail. Her brood is even more remarkable. Seven piglets, all made by hand, seem to clamor around their mother striving for a teat from various angles. No piglet is identical in size, though they were made with the same detail as the sow. Meant to signal fertility, one wonders about the elasticity of symbols in this world of ancient Cyprus, where piglets and statuettes of goddesses emphatically clutching their breasts make parallel supplications.

The fourth gallery chronicles the rapid progression from the Hellenistic period to Late Antiquity; from Roman gladiators to Christian saints. The final portion of the exhibition space is transformed into an imitation of a typical three aisled basilica, which culminates with two marble Corinthian column capitals from roughly the same period (400–500 A.D.). They are similar in size, bearing the standard acanthus leaf design. Though utterly unremarkable in style and unoriginal in their decorative program, they are worth contemplating. Found in different basilicas, both were ‘repurposed’ once those buildings dispensed with the columns these capitals once crowned. One was discovered in a wall, likely placed there in the 12th century A.D. as raw repair materials. The other was damaged but never buried, preserved as the foundation for an altar table. It was in this position that the Princeton team discovered it in 1995.

By placing the capitals together the curators pose an intractable question: Why was one of these capitals abandoned and the other preserved? In the space of hesitation, those capitals remind us that preservation of the past is not just a matter of art or of history—it is the stuff of inscrutable volition—part of that wonderful oxymoron of humanity, most reliable in unpredictability. The unprepossessing object those capitals flank is also a palimpsest. It is the fragment of a mural painting of a saint from around 1400 A.D.; the limestone used as this Christian painting’s canvas? It was likely reused from an earlier context. The exhibition thus transitions briskly from the earliest days of Marion to a Christian Arsinoe, from tomb to town and from polytheistic sanctuary to a Late Antique Christian basilica.

Ultimately, the layout of the exhibition is logical and goes a long way towards providing viewers with a sense of continuity and change in the Polis region while simultaneously bringing to the fore key elements of life in ancient Cyprus, from the bustle of trade to the solemnity of the tomb. However, visitors may experience the exhibition differently according to their interests. This is true in any exhibition, but especially here. Those with a stake in history—or archaeology—will witness something akin to those rapid-sequence films where orchids bud bloom and wither in a second. That is, Marion and Arsinoe were both prosperous and possessed a strong social cohesiveness. As a result, changes in power and religion are registered as on a blank canvas. Imports from Athens or Chios in the sixth century B.C. fall away to be replaced with products from Rome; Christian crosses overtake the offerings to unnamed goddesses.

Those privileging aesthetics may find City of Gold prodigal. This is a function of history, not a fault of the exhibition. Nonetheless, the chronological design of the exhibition, translates into a loss of momentum. With some exceptions, later pieces simply do not generate the same energy as the earlier ones do. A plain, red-slip jug, a lamp with Roman gladiators as a motif, Byzantine-style pectoral crosses—none of these captures the uncanny quality of earlier works. However, the turn to conformity in later times and the relatively small number of objects that bear witness to that shift do not undo the power or importance of the exhibition. Not by a long shot.

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Defining Cypriot Art

Earlier, I suggested that City of Gold is less a display of what has been discovered than it is an active exploration of what resists discovery. At the heart of this uncertainty is a basic question. What exactly is ancient Cypriot art? What makes it distinctive? City of Gold cannot answer that question in full, but that failure is strangely gratifying. When I spoke with the Princeton Expedition’s director and the exhibition co-curator Dr. Childs, he noted that although there had been some attention given to the tradition in the 19th century, interest gradually waned and has been overlooked until recently. When attempts were made in the past to characterize Cypriot art, judgments were invariably negative. Representative of the prevailing late 19th-century attitude is a pronouncement found in the 1890 edition of the Manual of Ancient Sculpture. There, it is denounced as a “hybrid and a bastard style” (Childs recalls somewhat impishly that despite these dismissive or pejorative attitudes, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art founded their ancient art collection with Cypriot pieces).
Past prejudices have slowed study of Cypriot antiquities, but the difficulties in understanding it go beyond that. One hindrance is the contextual void that sometimes presents itself, even in the case of basic objects—or important ones. The colossus is just one example of this phenomenon. There are many others. A particularly arresting example is housed in the second gallery, the garlanded head of a male limestone statuette from the fifth century B.C. Ash spreads across one side of the figure’s face like an onyx blush, a reminder of Marion’s destruction.

At first, the piece is easy to overlook. The head is not large, barely six inches in height. Its relatively well-rendered features reflect a Greek influence, which is not rare. It is with the band encircling the figure’s head that questions begin (on an aside, take a moment to note the rosettes on the band; if you look carefully, you’ll see the image of the now lost rosettes preserved like a photographic negative). In Assyrian traditions, the band was an insignia of royalty. Yet, if the band signifies that the statue once represented a Cypriot king, then it is perplexing. The statute was never imposing; in fact, it was quite small, the face beardless. Why are these details significant? They tell us something about Cypriot culture and iconography. Other traditions thrive on hierarchy and develop visual cues to express it. We still do. The small, garlanded head suggests that ancient Cypriot culture might not have been hierarchical in the way we understand hierarchies to be. From an aesthetic point of view, this suggests that the usual trappings of social distinction are not reliable guides to understanding the art of this culture.

More confusing still, these works incorporated elements from other cultures with voracity. In fact, a paradox of the ancient Cypriot tradition is that its individuality is often expressed in foreign tongues, so to speak. Although ancient Cypriots borrowed heavily from other cultures, from Athens to the Levant, these influences are incorporated into in ways that war neither aesthetically nor ideologically. In fact, the very seamlessness of this inclusion makes it difficult to isolate “Cypriot-ness.”

Cypriot, end of the 6th Century b.c.e.: Funerary Lion for Kilikas, Limestone, h.38 cm, w. 40 cm, th. 16 cm. Polis Chrysochous, Local Museum of Marion and Arsinoe (MMA 227). Photo courtesy of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus.

Nonetheless, one feature that is prominent is a marked indifference to the body. While Greek counterparts earned a place in art history textbooks for their mastery of proportion, Cypriots intentionally distorted the body of figures, attaching oversized heads to puny bodies. Dwarfed by the head dimension-wise, the bodies of Cypriot construction represent the sex of the figure and little else. Bodies might convey symbolic gestures, but it is the gesture that is important, not the body that makes it. Scrutiny of the votive offerings in the third gallery in particular will bear out this distinctive trait. Even when heads of Cypriot figurines were in proportion to the body, faces were rendered with great detail. The expressivity of face in the tradition is captured throughout, particularly in the statuettes that line the dromos-entry of the exhibition.

This stylized treatment of figures can imbue objects with a singular intensity. Nowhere is this power exemplified more elegantly than in one of the exhibition’s most compelling pieces, informally known as the ‘Levantine Lady.’ The statuette, fashioned in the sixth century B.C. possesses a carefully wrought head that towers over an unremarkable, streamlined torso. The piece is a manifesto on the power of distorted proportions. It imbues the statuette with the quality of being larger than life, not a failed imitation of it. But the Levantine Lady is characteristically Cypriot in another way: the maker—for the face did not come from a mold as other offerings might have but was instead made by hand—took great care to mark the statuette as un-Cypriot, as ‘Other.’

The facial composition of the statuette invokes the Levant strongly. The large almond-shaped eyes that peer at the viewer from beneath startlingly heavy brows, the slender hooked nose (pierced in the Near Eastern style through the septum), the thin lips: these are all elements calculated to represent an ethnic type. The Levantine Lady is an exemplum of the Cypriot assimilation of different cultural identities. The result is a statuette whose solemn, over-sized eyes seem to project a gaze so transfixing that one wonders if the Lady has been perfecting it during her centuries beneath the earth.

The question of whether the willingness to incorporate other cultures into their own makes these pieces—and Cypriot art—easier to understand or in fact harder is an unspoken theme for City of Gold. The empirical challenge crystallizes immediately, in the dromos of the first gallery. Visitors proceed through an entry lined with four Cypriot funerary statuettes, each dating to the fourth century B.C., all but one less than two feet in height. At first approach, they are relatively unimpressive; a man reclining on a couch in a stylized pose, a youth seated on a chair, a mourning lady. Yet, they lead to something that is instantly recognizable as something notable in the Western canon: the torso from the sculpture of a kouros. It is everything one could associate with the sculpture of ancient Greece: mimetic, well-proportioned, unclothed, marmoreal (literally).

And here is the interesting moment. The impulse to stride past those small terracotta figurines in order to gaze at yet another torso of yet another ancient Greek kouros is to unintentionally embrace a nineteenth century prejudice. Interrogation of this impulse inspires a revelation. It allows the visitor to experience why the Cypriot tradition is so difficult to understand. Cypriot art incorporates elements from other cultures into their own tradition, but therein lies the peril: this incorporation promotes the false comfort that identifying the familiar is an adequate guide to understanding that which is not familiar. In other words, it encourages us to assume that if we can detect elements of, say, Attic Greece, in Cypriot art, we have found an index to understanding the latter. But the moment we judge Cypriot art by Greek standards is precisely the moment we bid farewell to understanding ancient Cyprus on its own terms. If one attends to those Cypriot statuettes without reference to other cultures, the experience will be quite different. If we attend to the oversized arms belonging to a statuette of the mourning lady positioned next to the Greek kouros, the wonder of experiencing the uncanny delicacy of her expression is lost.

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The Greek poet Simonides—who lived around the same time as many of the objects in City of Gold—compared painting and poetry in a formulation at once pithy and biased. Simonides asserted that paintings are “silent poetry and poetry spoken painting.” Don’t let the superficial equivalency of the thing fool you. Simonides cleverly balanced the scales pretty solidly against painting. Consider it: poetry is envisioned as an enhanced form of painting and painting as an impoverished sort of poetry.
Materiality answers that charge in a full-throated way throughout City of Gold. I have spoken here of the Polis region, of the ancient cities of Marion and Arsinoe, as though they were well-known cities. Yet, the few ancient writers who did mention them did so incidentally and with great brevity and infrequency. Consequently, centuries of a culture that once enjoyed remarkably reliable prosperity and made notable contact with both the West and the Near East pass unrecorded. Centuries of living, dying, dining, working, and praying have resolved into a narrative told only by these objects. The narrative can be a challenging one to follow; the language is not like any heard elsewhere. It requires—and rewards—the embrace of that uncanny phantom-like unfamiliarity. The narrative demands some close listening. It is being told here for the first time and quietly. After January 20, 2013, it will not be repeated.


    The Princeton Art Museum is located at the center of the Princeton campus near McCormick Hall. It is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m.–5 p.m. On Thursdays, the museum has extended hours, closing at 10 p.m. Admission is free. (609) 258-3788.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

All Issues