Western culture as we now enjoy (and deplore) it developed from a trajectory begun over 2,000 years ago in a place called Rome. If you go there today, all that remains, enveloped in the modern city that it has become, are relics of a glorious past. But these relics are glorious indeed — and survive as some of the most revered works of art in recorded history. Roman art, including statuary, friezes, mosaics, utilitarian objects, jewelry and other works of immense beauty, have been collected the world over. Now, by way of the Musee de Louvre in Paris, more than180 of these objects are on view in Indianapolis.
But what is truly astounding about the exhibition Roman Art from the Louvre on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art — a blockbuster if ever there was one — is the sheer scale and heft of the thing. Exhibition couriers from the Louvre, exhibition designers from the IMA — this cast of characters and countless others were handed the task of transporting and installing 50 tons of art. An act of enormous enormance, to borrow from Dr. Seuss.
Opening to much fanfare last week, the exhibition sprawls through the numerous spaces of the Allen Whitehill Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery, thematically organized by such categories as war, family, religion and funerary practices. Extensive wall text almost competes with the objects: You could spend all day reading and run out of time to look at the art. But that’s not a bad thing. Just plan to make a day of it.
The Roman Empire the exhibition represents is the stuff of lore and documented historical fact — remembered most for its decadence, brutality and intellectual vigor, not to mention its reverence for beauty, manifest in its art. But woe to you if you were born a slave, a woman or even an infant. (The man of the house decided whether an infant would live or die, often based solely on its sex.)
Walking through the exhibition feels like walking among a roomful of beautiful ghosts: From larger-than-life-sized statues of rulers and generals (such as Caligula) to busts of goddesses with elaborately coiled hair, they stand with empty gazes, ethereal in their remote grandeur. But unlike ghosts, they are solid marble, works of incredible ingenuity and detail.
For a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition and what it took to get it here, visit www.theromansarecoming.com. Admission is free for IMA members; nonmember tickets range from $12 to $6. Call the IMA at 317-923-1331 or visit www.imamuseum.org for hours and information.