The glory of the Roman Empire at the Seattle Art Museum

The new show, drawn from the Louvre's incomparable collection, is shaped into a strong narrative, and the works are presented with a powerful immediacy.
Crosscut archive image.

Portrait of Lucilla, second half of second century A.D. (Musée du Louvre / Anne Chauvet, courtesy of the American Federation of the Arts)

The new show, drawn from the Louvre's incomparable collection, is shaped into a strong narrative, and the works are presented with a powerful immediacy.

On Feb. 21, the Seattle Art Museum filled its new gallery for touring shows with "Roman Art from the Louvre," which continues until May 11. The exhibit consists of a selection of 184 items of Roman art from the incomparable collection of the Louvre museum in Paris.

Until April 6, the exhibit will coincide with another visiting display: three of the gilded bronze panels created by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the 15th century for the doors of the Baptistery in Florence, on loan from the Florentine Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. It is an awesome sensation for a visitor to be able to experience two such attractions during one super-trip to the museum. The combination represents a major triumph for the Seattle Art Museum.

The Louvre can plausibly claim to be the most important museum of art in the world, with ancient art among its major specialties. It is particularly welcome to have such a large display here of fine specimens of ancient Roman art, even only temporarily, as the Seattle Art Museum's own holdings in this important field, on display in a small, out-of-the-way gallery on the fourth level, are rather meager.

Before I visited SAM's Louvre exhibition, I expected to see many masterpieces but also perhaps some of the usual routine clutter, from various periods of Rome's history, not necessarily with any particularly novel organization or theme. What I found was a very pleasant surprise. The exhibit is an elegantly organized and mounted display, with a clear and interesting theme: the social structure of the Roman Empire. It is confined within specific chronological limits that represent a coherent, momentous, and manageable portion of the whole span of ancient Roman history – that is, to about 300 years out of a total of a little more 1,200 years. Limiting it to that period enabled the planners of the display to be much more comprehensive in their treatment of their theme than would otherwise be possible.

The span of time represented is from 29 B.C. to A.D. 300. It begins shortly after the end of the Roman Republic, which had lasted almost 500 years until it was brought to an end by the assassination of the dictator Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. Soon after that, Caesar's adopted heir, Octavian, became the first emperor and was given the honorific name Augustus Caesar. (The names of the months of July and August still commemorate these two, and all subsequent Roman emperors were called Caesar, a name preserved in the more recent titles Kaiser and Czar.)

The latter part of the period covered, from about A.D. 100 to about A.D. 300, is referred to by Edward Gibbon in the opening words of his classic history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as the time when "the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind." But immediately after A.D. 300, where the Louvre exhibit ends, began the "decline," which culminated in the "fall," when the last Roman emperor (whose remarkable name was Romulus Augustulus) was finally deposed in A.D. 476.

The visitor will do well to remember that the term "Rome" is often used, as it is in the official title of this exhibit, to refer not only to the central city itself but to any place in the vast imperial domain. The growth of this empire occurred mostly during the period of the Republic, before this exhibit begins. By the end of that period, it had grown to include not only all of Italy but virtually all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, which the Romans referred to as Mare Nostrum ("Our Sea"). Some areas were added later, including much of the rest of Europe, but nothing after the period with which we are concerned; in fact, some important components of the empire, notably Britain, were abandoned toward its end.

At its height, Rome was one of the greatest empires of all time. The administration of its whole area was highly centralized in the city of Rome. The famous Roman road system, some of it still in use in some form, facilitated communication and commerce. Most of the material in the Seattle exhibit comes from Rome itself, but by no means all.

The meticulously planned exhibit is divided into six separately named segments, preceded by a most effective prelude that is one of its high points. This first room consists entirely of one item, a female portrait bust of the late second century A.D., several times larger than life size. It was originally part of a full-length statue that was at some point later cut down. It represents Lucilla, daughter of Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor from A.D. 161 to A.D. 180 and the author of a famous work of philosophy, called Meditations, that is still read. The statue was found in Carthage, a city in North African Tunisia. The beauty of the subject, the serenity of her expression, and the size of the sculpture had one major purpose – to inspire awe. It will certainly have that effect on a modern viewer, and it forms a perfect introduction to the exhibit.

The main part of the exhibit, behind the curtain that supports the bust of Lucilla, is laid out in a wide, winding series of spaces and corridors. The sequence doubles back on itself and terminates near where it started – a convenient, trouble-free, and unusual arrangement.

The exhibit is arranged in several segments: "Rome and Its Empire," "The Emperor," "Citizenship, Civil Life and Military Service," "Foreigners, Freedmen and Slaves," "Religion," and "The World of the Dead." The background material provided by the curators is copious and authoritative. Every item gets full treatment, and the wall captions are in blessedly large type so they can be read from a distance by several people at one time, which should reduce crowding.

Another merit of the spacious layout is that very few of the exhibits are behind glass, so they can easily be admired from close range; one might even worry that modern Vandals could be a problem, but I trust the museum people have thought of that and taken adequate precautions.

At the very end of the exhibits, as a counterpart to the bust of Lucilla at the beginning, stands another large single statue. This represents Melpomene, one of the Muses who were the patron deities of the arts. The special interest of this work is that only the lower half is ancient; the upper half was skillfully added by an 18th-century Italian sculptor. Here it may be thought of as an appropriate representation of a continuing bond between all the arts of the Muses, after whom all museums are named.

In the gift shop of the museum, a sumptuous catalog of the exhibit by its curators and other scholars is available. It has excellent photographs and full discussions of every item in the exhibit and is altogether a beautiful book to match an altogether marvelous show.


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