above The new Gods and Goddesses gallery, overlooked by a colossal, 4m-tall 1st-century BC marble statue of a goddess. She is known as Juno, but is most likely a Muse.

Athens of America: an interview with curators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At the end of last year, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – the city known as ‘the Athens of America’ – opened a renovated suite of five galleries devoted to the art of Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. Lucia Marchini speaks to curators Christine Kondoleon, Laure Marest, and Phoebe Segal to find out about how they are using technology and even modern art to help visitors see ancient artefacts in a new light.

Christine Kondoleon is the George D and Margo Behrakis Chair, Art of Ancient Greece and Rome at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). As Chair, she has led the renovations and reinterpretations for 12 new galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine art for the Behrakis Wing for Art of the Ancient World; five of them opened in December 2021. Kondoleon is curator of the forthcoming Cy Twombly: making past present, and author of the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
Laure Marest is the Cornelius and Emily Vermeule Associate Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the MFA. She holds degrees from the Sorbonne, Paris, and the University of California, Berkeley. Marest previously worked at the Getty Villa Museum, Malibu, and has excavated at Pompeii, Italy, and Butrint, Albania. A recipient of awards and grants from the Archaeological Institute of America and the Mellon Foundation, she has published in the fields of glyptics and numismatics.
Phoebe Segal is the Mary Bryce Comstock Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the MFA. She earned her BA from Brown University and her PhD in Art History and Archaeology from Columbia. She has excavated in Greece, Italy, and Cyprus, and is co-Chair of the Museums and Exhibitions Committee of the Archaeological Institute of America. Since 2008, she has curated several exhibitions and gallery renovations at the MFA, most recently Early Greek Art.

The museum was founded in 1870. Has ancient art and the material on display in the new galleries always been an important part of its collections?

Phoebe Segal: Some of the earliest objects that were collected by the museum back in 1872 came from Cyprus from the Luigi Palma di Cesnola [1832-1904] collection. You have the much larger, grander Cesnola finds and collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but the MFA did receive about 300-400 objects.

Of course, like many other museums, the earliest ‘ancient’ works of art collected by the museum were plaster casts, and it was only about a decade into the museum’s history that it began to collect original works of ancient art in earnest. The gift from the Archaeological Institute of America’s excavations at the Greek city of Assos in Behramkale in Turkey were the first excavated objects that came into the museum, and represented a rather sizeable corpus that is featured in one of our new galleries: the Early Greek Art gallery. Around the same time, also in the 1880s, the museum subscribed to the Egypt Exploration Society, and so received finds from Naukratis as well. These are held mostly in our Egyptian collection, but there are some in the Early Greek gallery too.

Laure Marest: Then there’s Edward Perry Warren [1860-1928], the Bostonian collector who moved to the UK and spent most of his life there. He was fairly aggressively collecting in Europe and sending a lot of those works to the East Coast of the United States, donating works to the MFA, but to some of the colleges too.

Warren was collecting at the time when the big historical collections in Europe were suddenly going broke and needed to sell, and so he got a lot of the works through that. He also knew the art market really well. For a 19th-century collector, he was actually quite interested in recording where things came from. He would send, about once a year or once every few years, a shipment of things to the MFA with a packing list. We have the lists from most years, and he records on them where he got those things and where they were said to come from – whenever, I guess, he remembered or knew.

above The new Gods and Goddesses gallery, overlooked by a colossal, 4m-tall 1st-century BC marble statue of a goddess. She is known as Juno, but is most likely a Muse.
The new Gods and Goddesses gallery, overlooked by a colossal, 4m-tall 1st-century BC marble statue of a goddess. She is known as Juno, but is most likely a Muse.

What sort of objects did the AIA find at Assos, and how do they fit into your presentation of early Greek art?

PS: We have objects from Assos spread out in a number of galleries, not just the Early Greek Art gallery, but also the Daily Life in Ancient Greece gallery next door, which debuted in 2017. The renovations have rolled out somewhat piecemeal over the last decade, but now – with these five new galleries – we have a more ambitious step forward.

There are a number of Assos objects in the Daily Life gallery that range from the totally quotidian – like loom-weights – to inscriptions honouring judges and other civic officials, as well as a large granary used in the agora. Those finds are the most representative of the everyday polis life, the life of the Greek city, in our collection. But in the Early Greek gallery are the showstopping frieze blocks from the architrave of the temple of Athena at Assos. Those are the highest profile; they’re the largest, but also they’re religious architecture, and so the emblem of the city.

We made the rather audacious decision to put them up on a post-and-lintel structure, to give our visitors a real sense of the correct perspective of a Greek temple, with those images being overhead and really mediating the world of the mortal and the divine. But we’ve also contextualised them with a 3D digital reconstruction of the temple (which was done by Massimo Limoncelli, a digital archaeologist affiliated with the University of Palermo) and with a large projection of footage of views of the site as it exists today. The whole video is meant to be atmospheric. It puts our visitors at the site, in a mindset that’s more receptive to interacting with the works of art.

Christine Kondoleon: That sounds very exciting: I can’t believe we actually did it! When people describe what’s going on in the galleries, I say, ‘When did we do all of that!’. It’s been so impressive, through COVID and everything.

That idea of being immersive and trying to evoke a setting in the Early Greek gallery is carried forward in other galleries, whether through sound or vision or technology. The architecture is evoking a temple in one case, or a church in another case.

Digital reconstruction of the MFA’s Roman copy of Athena Parthenos, with colours based on the study of surviving pigments. The ‘ghosted’ missing parts can be seen in a faint grey. Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Classical Department Exchange Fund. Courtesy of Black Math.

With new galleries comes the chance to introduce new interpretations and perspectives. What particular aspects of ancient art have you addressed?

LM: One of the ideas for the new Gods and Goddesses gallery was for our visitors to encounter the gods like the ancients did. Part of this could be done through the architecture, but another part is to convey the original colours of the works. Now when you step into a Greek and Roman gallery, you see a whole lot of white marble, but originally most of those would have been very brightly painted. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw their gods in colour, in very, very bright colours by today’s standards. It’s sometimes shocking, almost.

We thought we should address this, and we picked our Athena Parthenos as a case study. She’s a Roman copy of the very famous Athena Parthenos that once stood on top of the Acropolis in Athens. She’s slightly under life-size – for a human, not for the original 37-foot statue! You can still see in some parts, especially on her hair over her shoulder, pigments. You can see red.

We worked with Caroline Mei-An Tsu, one of our conservators, to gather all the data we could find, because with a lot of the pigments you cannot see them with the naked eye: you have to use special lights and photographic techniques to reveal them. And then we also had Richard Newman, our head scientist, take some samples and confirm the nature of some of those pigments. And so we had in our heads a map of how the statue used to look originally, but how do we convey this to our visitors?

We started talking to our digital team to see if we could use a digital method and we started working with a local company called Black Math. With those artists, we created a 3D digital model of our statue, and we reconstructed the missing parts. She doesn’t have her arms, for example, or the shield. We know she probably had a shield because there are signs of piercing where it would meet the side of the base.

A ‘bilingual’ amphora with a red-figure and a black-figure painting of Heracles driving a bull to sacrifice on either side, attributed to the Andokides Painter, c.525-520 BC.
Images: Henry Lillie Pierce Fund/photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

To reconstruct the base model, we just used photogrammetry, so we photographed the original and made the model from those images. Then to reconstruct the missing parts, we used some of the known other copies that still have the missing parts, like the Athena Varvakeion in Athens. Because those parts are missing in our statue, we don’t have any information concerning the polychromy, and so we decided to keep them ‘ghosted’ in the 3D model.

Once we had the basic model, we worked with an amazing artist named Meredith Binnette, of Black Math, to reconstruct the colour. It was especially tricky because in some of the parts of the statue, it became clear that the ancient artist was trying to imitate metal in paint. So you are trying to tell a digital artist to use a digital medium to imitate an ancient painter who is imitating metal!

PS: I think Laure did an exceptional job, not only shepherding the digital parts, but also in the explanatory text that very forthrightly but delicately talks about why we collectively and culturally have been so invested in these sculptures being white, and why it is so difficult for people to see them as they were, to accept that. The whiteness of classical sculpture has become so ingrained in our collective cultural understanding.

LM: We thought that was important, because it’s central to a lot of the discussions that are happening right now. It’s not as if we’re forcing it on the topic. Some white supremacist groups have used images of white marble classical statues to prop up their ideology. It behooves us really to set the record straight.

CK: We have media in the Byzantine gallery too. We have audio components when you approach the altarpiece. The altarpiece is a story unto itself, frankly, because it’s basically been unseen since it arrived in 1937, but it’s been a much-desired object for a great Byzantine show in London and a show in Athens. It is a well-recognised masterpiece that was hidden in storage because of the warped nature of the wood panels. It’s 10-feet long, with seven panels made by Cretan icon painters working in southern Italy. Now when you approach this altarpiece, there are buttons and a text explaining the role of the hymns in the Byzantine liturgy, which is such an important component of the sacred. We’ve recorded snippets of Byzantine musicologists chanting. It’s not just visual, but it’s also an audio experience. So that’s another way in which we make the art come alive, as it were, in its original context.

PS: In the Early Greek Art gallery, we have a film that was very much a work of collaboration, and I’d say that the collaboration with the media company has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this project for us personally as curators. It is a five-minute animated film called ‘Figures in Red’, about the invention of red-figure vase-painting technique in Athens about 530 BC. It is on a screen next to the object that it takes as its star: a very rare bilingual amphora that features both techniques, one on each side. There are only about 50 in the world. As curators, one category of questions we get most frequently from visitors, attendees at talks, and donors pertains to technique: how was it made? How did they do this? And because our galleries are filled with (mostly) Athenian ceramics, people are always asking about how these red-on-black and black-on-red vases are made.We worked with a company located in Cyprus called Zedem Media, who have produced beautiful films and also had their own relationship to the material. What we wanted to do overall is to create a sense of awe on the part of the visitors at this moment of creativity, of an artist seeing something that the rest of us don’t even see. That’s what artists do: they can see something that we can’t see, and then visualise it in whatever medium. And so there’s this moment of inspiration.

Image: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of the things that gets lost somewhat in our visitors’ interactions with our collections is that sense of the artist. Even though we have lots of names of artists from antiquity, by and large they’re not the artists whose works survive and are in museum collections. It’s really important, we feel, to draw attention to the fact that these works of art were made – even if they weren’t considered works of art with a capital ‘A’ at the time – were made by someone, and that when a new technique was invented, or some other innovation, a person was responsible for that and had that moment of ingenuity.

As well as these galleries of ancient art, you’ve opened a new room devoted to 20th- and 21st-century art. What are you trying to show with this?

CK: That is an offshoot of an exhibition that I planned called Cy Twombly: making past present. It was to be held in July 2020, but it will be reprised for opening at the Getty Center first this summer, and then coming to Boston in January 2023.

It turns out Twombly was a student across the street at the museum school. He has a Boston connection. He looked at our collections, and he was particularly interested in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the exhibition, we have our own objects telling that story, which is special, and then we have his private collection from Rome, and we trace all of his engagement with Greek poetry, Greek art, Greek themes of myths.

Having planned this exhibition, the director was rather inspired. He loves Twombly, which was why I was able to do the show – I’m very grateful for that! And he thought, why don’t we initiate a series of rooms in the encyclopaedic museum that would be encounters between the collections (could be ancient, could be Renaissance) and the contemporary artist and his or her inner dialogue with the continuity of history? That’s the experiment and it’s allowed us to borrow a number of wonderful and very well-known sculptures from the Cy Twombly Foundation, which will be here for several years.

We have a marvellous early painting of Twombly’s in the gallery called Il Parnasso. It’s based on a painting of Mount Parnassus in Raphael’s Vatican rooms, where Twombly was actually in the room sketching. In the Twombly painting, you see Apollo and Sappho and the Muses’ names, and they’re scratched out. It’s a great art history lesson, where he’s going in to see Raphael referencing the Muses and Arcadia and Mount Parnassus, and he inserts himself into that process of thinking about history and ancient history and his own role in that.

Image: Lubin Family Gallery/photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This is the first display. In principle, this is meant to rotate in the future, so you can imagine a number of contemporary artists as candidates. Obviously, there’s Rodin. That’s an old story, but there are many more stories. There’s Julie Mehretu, for instance, who I interviewed about Twombly for our contemporary/Greek and Roman joint programme of events. There are underlayers that you wouldn’t necessarily think are there for a number of artists in this kind of dialogue.

Are there any specific names that you’re looking at for the next rotation?

CK: This needs to be a collaboration with our contemporary colleagues, so I wouldn’t like to jump the gun on that! But we will have something new in our older Greek and Roman sculpture gallery.

We have a galleria – in the old, British country-house tradition of the Dilettanti – of mostly nude Greek and Roman sculptures, and people come to study and do drawings there. That’s a place where we also want to make a point.

We have the Chios Head, a Hellenistic marble head that Rodin knew and that was much beloved by him. It influenced him when he saw it at Edward Perry Warren’s house in Sussex, when Warren and John Marshall, his partner, had commissioned The Kiss for Boston. The Kiss is now is at the Tate Britain, because the MFA trustees deemed it too sensual and rejected this wonderful gift!

In any case, we’re going to bring a piece we have by Rodin that shows the influence of the Chios Head, and maybe a piece that we have by [Isamu] Noguchi of a classical-type column, marble, fluted, and just talk about how between materials and quotations of types of things, of actual style, the ancient sculptor’s hands live on.

The five new galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are now open in the George D and Margo Behrakis Wing for Art of the Ancient World. For more information, visit www.mfa.org/gallery/art-of-ancient-greece-rome-and-the-byzantine-empire.

Cy Twombly: making past present is on view at the Getty Center, Los Angeles from 2 August to 30 October 2022 (www.getty.edu), then at the MFA, Boston, from 14 January to 7 May 2023.