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The Elite Roman Lifestyle

Wealthy ancient Romans lived the epitome of luxury.

By Phyllis Schiller
Created by skilled artisans and crafted from the finest materials available from across the far-flung Roman Empire, the objects that the wealthy ancient Romans surrounded themselves with in their daily life were lavish works of art. Tableware was made of silver and gold and embellished with images that told fabled stories or honored emperors. The jewelry they wore was made of gold and precious gemstones. Household decor included bronze statues and intricately patterned mosaics.
   Offering a glimpse back in time, a selection of these extraordinary objects is on view in the exhibition “Luxury: Treasures of the Roman Empire” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, through October 2, 2016. The core of the exhibition was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California in collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris. It includes the Berthouville Treasure, a trove of ancient artifacts discovered by a farmer in the village of Berthouville, northwest of Paris, in 1830. That find, says Robert Cohon, Nelson-Atkins’ curator of ancient art, is “dazzling and wondrous to see.” Making the exhibition even more special are additional works from Nelson-Atkins’ own antiquities collection as well as items from The Ferrell Collection. As a result, says Cohon, “We were able to enrich the show and add new themes to it.”
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A Broad Span of History
   The exhibition basically covers items from the first century A.D. to the sixth century A.D., says Cohon, “a good 500 years of art history. It’s from all over the Roman Empire — Northern Africa, Egypt, a lot from northern France, Italy, everywhere.”
   The show depicts how the wealthy lived, points out Cohon, people who had access to tremendous wealth. They were, he notes, a small elite that controlled tremendous sums of money. “More than 90 percent of the Roman Empire consisted of farmers. This is the art of the 1 percent of the 1 percent and it is simply extraordinary.”
   The show begins with a section entitled, “Gold and the Power of the Empire,” which, according to Cohon, was chosen as something to “knock people’s socks off. It is just filled with gold jewelry and adornment.” From there, the exhibition leads into “The Body Adorned,” “Living in Luxury” and “The Roman Feast.” One of the final areas “showcases all of the very expensive examples of silver dedicated to Mercury in his sanctuary in Berthouville, France,” says Cohon. A section on early Christian dedications concludes the exhibition.

Concept of Luxury
   In the ancient Roman world, Cohon explains, luxury was epitomized in highly detailed items that featured valuable materials that often had to be imported, such as gold from Romania or Spain, sardonyx from India for cameos and emeralds from Egypt. The items tended to be shiny — “something the Romans liked” — and portable and, because they were expensive, available in small quantities. “The more you look at these pieces, more and more details become apparent.”
   Although these objects were meant for personal enjoyment, they also announced high economic and even political status. As an example, Cohon points to gold necklaces with large medallions with portraits of emperors and empresses. “These were meant to establish powerful political connections. Oftentimes, they were gifts of the current rulers, so wearing them was a sign of loyalty at ceremonial occasions.” In the ancient world, Cohon notes, even hair ornamentation and elaborate wigs were used to show status and impress others of the elite class.
   Homes were designed as much for business as pleasure, serving as offices where deals were struck and political connections made. All the things in the house, says Cohon, had to show the occupants’ wealth. In the banquet halls, men were able to display their riches, their education and their good taste at elaborate banquets.

All That Sparkles
   The exhibition features about 25 to 30 different jewelry items, from cameos to gemstones to rings, necklaces and brooches. A sixth century A.D. gold bracelet, pictured above, from a private collection has sapphires and garnets from India, emeralds from Egypt and pearls from the Red Sea or Persian Gulf.
   Some of these items were heirlooms, passed down from one generation to the next. A necklace from the Nelson-Atkins’ collection, “shows quite clearly that each generation added medallions,” says Cohon. “There is a personal element to this. Some of the cameos are just plain fun. We have an image of a rooster with the head of a helmeted warrior, carrying spears and a shield.”
   Although it was considered inappropriate for men to wear more than one or two finger rings, women would wear several at the same time, notes Cohon. “And, no doubt, they would have worn several necklaces, some of which would be sized to allow the wearing of three or four at the same time.”
   The whole point of the exhibition, sums up Cohon, is to bring people into the Roman world. And get them to look more closely at art. “This material really grabs you. One detail leads into another. That’s what I want most, for people to be drawn into something so much so that every moment is a discovery of something new. It’s that excitement that I feel is our job as a museum to stimulate — showing people the type of art that is amazing.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - September 2016. To subscribe click here.

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