Art of Rome on display at Newark Museum Objects in exhibit include domestic goods, tools and public art


NEWARK, N.J. — NEWARK, N.J., - By the fourth century, when St. Ambrose offered St. Augustine the advice "When in Rome, live as the Romans do," Rome had long been more than a city. It was a vast empire that extended over three continents.

The entire enterprise was financed by Rome, with raw materials and finished products flowing between Alexandria and Olbia on the Black Sea, Carthage and Cologne, Gaul and Britain. Provincial centers became in effect little Romes, retaining an autonomy of taste and style that enriched daily life throughout the empire.

The workings of this network is the subject of an exhibition at the Newark Museum, "Artisans of Ancient Rome: Production Into Art," which extends through next year. This is a rich collection of objects in glass, metal, pottery and stone made during the first to the third centuries.

Although the basic procedures of manufacture had long been established, the artisans of the Roman Empire invented shortcuts and streamlined technologies that enabled them to mass-produce goods without sacrificing quality.

For the artisans, some of whom recently had become freedmen, taking part in manufacturing was a way to gain prestige. And many of the wondrous objects they created, both utilitarian and ornamental, have survived as works of art.

Within social context

The show's organizer, Dr. Susan H. Auth, who is the curator of the museum's classical collection, has placed each object within a social context. (Since the exhibit represents only part of the classical collection, a visit to the main galleries, where the rest of the holdings are displayed, could enrich one's understanding of the subject even more.)

The exhibition also sheds light on the artisans themselves. Beyond their signatures and stamps - some of which are in Latin and Greek - on flasks, bowls and even a brick fragment, there are marble tombstones and votive reliefs that provide portraits and pictorial information about the artisans' tools and dress and the interiors of their workshops.

Often members of a specific artisans' guild would help pay for these memorials. One such monument is a honey-colored marble tombstone for a silversmith named P. Curtilius; it depicts him working on an intricately designed silver vase with a mallet and an engraving tool. Though done in shallow relief, the carving suggests the whole man; the toga he wears is a sign that he died a free citizen.

The objects in the exhibition are divided into three categories: domestic goods, tools and public art. One aim of the curator was to show how regional distinctions affected the rendering of a particular object.

No dowry, for instance, was complete without a statue of Venus for the household shrine, as three examples demonstrate. One from Panderma, in Asia Minor, is made of white marble, probably from a quarry on the Sea of Marmara. (Colored marble was controlled by the emperor for imperial decoration in Rome, but smaller cities retained control over local white marble.) Another from Syria is made in bronze, and a third from Egypt is a turquoise faience.

Influence of molds

Molds are credited with changing the nature of manufacturing and of glassmaking in particular. A two-handled cup, outside the special exhibit, in the main galleries, is an example of glass blown into a mold. It is signed "Ennion made me," and its maker, Ennion from Sidon, may be the inventor of the technique.

Glass ingots for the process were shipped from what is now Israel to the rest of the empire, and fortunately for latter-day scholars, a load occasionally went down at sea. "Shipwrecks tell the stories of the trade routes, which are deciphered today through nautical archeology," Auth explained.

Clustering objects according to their use helps the viewer imagine them in their actual setting. A Roman banquet hall must have sparkled with glass plates and beakers alongside silverware, like a silver bowl in the shape of a shell.

When Romans went to public baths, Auth said, they carried their oil in glass flasks with bronze handles. Unlike the plastic bottles favored by today's fitness fanatics, oil flasks, like the three on view, would make attending a public gymnasium an esthetic experience.

"Romans were snobs about good wine and oil," said Auth. A large amphora on display, now valued for its contour and finish, was once used to ship these commodities by sea. A pleasing bronze bowl made on a lathe would have been filled with wine served from a ladle decorated with a calf's head.

Coins of the realm, examples of which are on view, were used to promote the emperors and their conquests or to celebrate a good harvest in Egypt, which fed the Roman population.

The empresses, whose portraits also graced the coins, became style setters for women throughout the empire. A portrait bust of a woman from Asia Minor, who arranged her hair like the Empress Faustina, proves that women also were honored for civic achievements.

Romans of means crammed their homes with elegant wares. Even Cicero, who considered trade vulgar, was not above buying an artisan's goods. He viewed it as a means of upward mobility, by which artisans and merchants could "make their way from the port to a country estate."

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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