Earlier this week I took a pre-opening tour of the new Greek and Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum. (All praise to my cheerful guide Chris Lightfoot, a Met curator of Roman art. When we talk about “digging” in my business, we don’t mean anything as literal as what he does in Turkey.) Just like the Getty Villa in Malibu, which re-opened last year just as the storm over the antiquities trade was hitting home, the Met galleries are debuting when there are still a lot of claims from Greece and Italy on ancient works in U.S. museums. And the (very beautiful) central court of the new Met galleries is named for the late Leon Levy and his wife Shelby White, major collectors who have some questions hanging over some of their purchases. So more, no doubt, to come on all that.
All the same, the Met has also arrived at an agreement with Italian authorities for the return of some the objects they were after, and the museum’s press people tell us that nothing in the new galleries, which will open officially on April 20, is presently in dispute. (Unless you count the spectacular Etruscan bronze chariot that came to the Met in 1903, and that the little Italian town of Monteleone, where it was dug up, would like back. But that’s a weak and outdated claim that even the Italian prosecutors are belittling — for now.) So, just for a moment, can we put aside the Mystery of the Purloined Prizes and talk about the art?
For today I just want to take note of one big improvement of the new galleries, which were designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, the same firm responsible for the Met’s Temple of Dendur wing. The spectacular frescoed bedroom from a 1st centuryt B.C. villa at Boscoreale, near Pompeii, has been restored in a new, brighter and more accessible setting.
Even the Getty Villa, where I stopped in again a few weeks ago, has nothing to compare in the way of Roman painting, which had reached surprising levels of sophistication before its discoveries were lost to the Dark Ages. The trompe l’oeil shadows, the unsystematic but persuasive use of perspective, the rising escarpment of pavillions and temples with angled roofs that foreshadow the quattrocento — it’s art that has an intimacy you don’t often associate with the antique world. And the new galleries should make the Boscoreale frescoes a real destination at the Met.