Today, I had a welcome break from my laptop and desk. I drove over to the gorgeous Getty Villa in Malibu to research an article about an exhibition of Roman silver curated by a friend and colleague who I hadn’t seen in a few years. The exhibition, Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, was a treat on many levels. First, it had a great story. The hoard of silver was discovered in Normandy in 1830 by a farmer digging in his field. Many great art history discovery stories begin like that, like the Korean children playing in the Kyongju dirt in the 1920s and stumbling on pieces of a 6th-century solid gold royal crown, and the 1970s Chinese farmer who unearthed soldiers from the terracotta army of the First Emperor Qin Shihuangdi. Second, the silver had been badly scrubbed or repaired after it was found in the 19th century, and the techniques and processes – including steam cleaning! – used by the Getty to re-conserve it were fascinating. Third, listening to my friend Ken as he generously and enthusiastically shared his knowledge about the decorations, function and techniques used to make the silver treasures reminded me of why I love art history. Art objects contain stories about the lives, beliefs and creativity of people from different times and places. If we learn how to read the clues in their details and we understand who made them and why, it is like having a chance to speak to these people and listen to their stories. Through these stories, other worlds are brought to life.
(NB: The Berthouville Roman Silver Treasure, not my giveaway!)
Ken has been working at the Getty for over 10 years now and is a renowned scholar of the luxury arts of ancient Greece and Rome. It goes without saying that he really knows his stuff, but what more surprising is the wonderful clarity and the enthusiasm with which explains his material. As someone who has spent 20 years in the field of Asian art, I am always delighted and grateful when colleagues open up their worlds to me and we can explore together some of the parallels between our specialties. As a thank you to Ken for sharing his brilliance and time with me today, I gave him two books from my own bookshelf about ancient Chinese and Central Asian metalwork, hopeful that he will discover in them new exciting connections between the treasures of different ancient worlds.