“The overarching goal of this exhibition is for visitors to understand Egypt, Greece, and Rome not as monolithic, separate entities but as cultures that shared and exchanged aspects of their religion, artistic traditions, languages, and customs in an evolving milieu.”
-- Jeffrey Spier, Getty Museum senior curator of antiquities and co-curator of "Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World"
We all know one detail about Ancient Rome’s dealing with Egypt: Her name was Cleopatra. KPCC Cultural Correspondent Marc Haefele says a new exhibit at the Getty digs a lot deeper than the Hollywood treatment of this ancient land.
Cleopatra (properly Cleopatra VII Philopator of Egypt) was the last member of the last Egyptian Dynasty, not to mention assassin of her siblings, admiral, general, author, and lover of two of history’s most famous men, Anthony and Caesar. We know her because of Hollywood: first with Claudette Colbert in “Cleopatra’’ of 1934:
Then the most famous of all, with Elizabeth Taylor; in 1963, which was then the most expensive movie ever made...
And there was even an obscure 1989 Rolling Stones song, "Blinded by Love:"
The queen of the Nile
She laid on her throne
And she was drifting downstream
On a barge that was burnished with gold
Royal purple the sails
So sweetly perfumed
And poor Mark Antony's
Senses were drowned
And his future was doomed
He was blinded by love
But Cleopatra -- handsome, murderous and brilliant as she was -- is only a portion of the Getty’s mighty new 2,300 year show: “Beyond the Nile.”
How about this roly-poly dawn-red hippopotamus, small enough to fit in your back yard, big enough for the kids to ride, charmingly cute and beautiful, who extends his right foot in welcome. Carved in stone 2,000 years ago by a craftsman unknown, he signals the juncture of the mightiest civilizations of the ancient Western world.
A thousand years before Homer, as commerce spread around the Mediterranean, civilizations like Crete and Mycenae’s artistic and cultural influences intermingled with that of the great Nile kingdom. Getty director Tim Potts says this exhibit shows how much the Mediteranean lands owe one another.
"The important part about these cultures is they didn't develop in a bubble. There is, in fact, even in the ancient world just as there is today, this huge interchange between cultures, in languages, in the arts, in forms of government, in bureaucracy. All these things were interconnected."
-- Tim Potts, director of The J. Paul Getty Museum
As the Bronze Era collapsed somewhere around 1200 BC, Egypt was civilization’s sanctuary. When the Greeks returned around 700 BC, they found much to admire, and in the Getty show you can see the deep Egyptian roots of classical Greek art and architecture.
After Alexander the Great, Egypt was ruled by the Greek Ptolemy dynasty for 300 years; and the arts, culture, religion and even the sciences flourished.
After Cleopatra, Rome ruled Egypt, and Egyptian imagery and culture flooded the Roman world -- much as the West became obsessed with Egypt after the opening of King Tut’s tomb in the 1920s.
The show’s astounding paintings, statues (including that hippo) and mosaics come from Pompeii, Herculaneum, Palestrina, and other Italian sites. They portray crocodiles, hippos, parties of pygmies along the Nile, as well as the gods and heroes of Egypt. Even Roman furniture evoked Egyptian themes.
But the most astounding Roman borrowing was Egyptian religion. First there was the goddess Isis, of whom there is a particularly sexy statue on display from around 100 BC. Isis joined the Ptolomaic Serapis cult, which Roman Soldiers carried to the far corners of the empire. This religion, with its own trinity - complete with nursing mother - competed with Christianity until outlawed by the newly Christian Empire in 380 AD. The devotional statues at the Getty suggest an alternate history of modern religion.
By odd coincidence, there are three noteworthy displays of ancient Egyptian art in LA right now: the King Tut road show at the California Science Center, a selection of LACMA’s Egypt treasures at the Vincent Price museum in East LA, and this broad-spectrum spectacle at the Getty Center.
See them all, if you can.
"Beyond the Nile" is at the Getty Center through September 9.
"King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh" is at the California Science Center for a limited time.
"Passing Through the Underworld," with items from LACMA's collection, is at the Vincent Price Art Museum through December 8.
(Correction: The on-air introduction for this feature incorrectly stated that the Getty exhibit puts a "spotlight" on Cleopatra.)