A new exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery attempts to shed light on questions of culture and identity at the territorial edges of what was once the Roman Empire.
“Roman in the Provinces: Art on the Periphery of Empire,” which opened on Aug. 22, focuses on art dating between the first and sixth centuries C.E. and draws from the YUAG’s own collection as well as those of several other museums, such as the Princeton University Art Museum. The show features ancient artifacts from a range of media — sculpture, ceramics, textiles, coins, jewelry and mosaics — and geographic origins, incorporating objects from three continents. Organizers explained that the exhibit highlights the diversity of beliefs, norms and customs — as well their artistic expressions — within the Roman Empire, adding that they hope the show will help dispel the notion that the empire’s culture was entirely determined by tastemakers in the city of Rome.
“I think a lot of people, when they think about the terms ‘Roman culture’ or ‘identity’ get a kind of consistent picture in their mind about everybody speaking Latin, wearing togas, worshipping Roman gods, gladiators” explained curator Lisa Brody. “But when you start looking around the edges, the frontiers, it’s a much more complicated picture than that. Roman Syria looks very different from Roman Britain, or from Roman North Africa.”
Boston College professor Gail Hoffman, who collaborated with Brody on the exhibit, also stressed the importance of challenging common beliefs about the cultural homogeneity of the Roman Empire and the dominance of its center as a dictator of common beliefs, structures and practices.
“In public there might [have been] one set of behaviors — doing very ‘Roman’ activities — whereas in the home, the privacy of the domestic world, local foods continue to be eaten, or local gods continue to be worshipped. The idea was to use works of art … to present some of these themes in a way that people could visualize them,” Brody noted.
Brody said she thinks the gallery is particularly suited to host such an exhibition because Yale’s involvement in excavations at Dura-Europos and Gerasa — located in present-day Syria and Jordan — has left the YUAG with a repository of artifacts from these regions. She added that she thinks the exhibit is a good opportunity for the gallery to put the objects from Yale’s excavations in context.
One such object is a newly restored floor mosaic from the sixth-century Church of Bishop Paul in Gerasa, fashioned out of earth-toned limestone tesserae — the small square or rectangular pieces of glass, ceramic or stone used to create mosaics.
A second mosaic reconstruction is featured in the exhibit’s recreation of a Roman dining room. The photographic reproduction of a Gerasa home’s limestone and glass mosaic floor pieces together the mosaic’s 25 surviving fragments. Arrayed at its center are three cases of red terracotta tableware — bowls, pitchers, jugs and dishes — many of which combine traditionally Roman forms and regional influences.
“I see a lot of [similar pieces] at the Metropolitan Museum of Art … [so] I feel at home,” said Selma Manley from New York, one of the exhibit’s visitors.
“Roman in the Provinces” also includes a collection of six sculpted portrait heads, five in marble and one in chalk. Among them is a third-century example that depicts Syrian-born empress Julia Domna, the influential and politically savvy wife of emperor Septimius Severus. Domna — whom Brody said was known for her distinctive hairstyle, long believed to have been a wig — has sparked the interest of Janet Stevens, a Baltimore-based “hair archaeologist.” Stevens has suggested that, in fact, the style could actually have been completed using the empress’s natural hair. Stevens will be coming to the gallery to recreate Domna’s hairstyle on a real-life model.
Kate Ezra, the YUAG’s Nolen Curator of Education and Academic Affairs, said she is excited that the exhibition is up so early in the semester, allowing students and faculty to take advantage of “Roman in the Provinces” in their courses.
“Roman in the Provinces” will be on view at the Yale University Art Gallery through Jan. 4, 2015.
Correction: Aug. 27, 2014
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that restoration of the Gerasa mosaic from the Church of Bishop Paul was completed at Yale’s West Campus Center for Conservation and Preservation. While the treatment was completed at West Campus, it was in fact executed by Yale University Art Gallery employees (Carol Snow and a large team of YUAG art conservators) in YUAG spaces, not the Center for Conservation and Preservation.