Ars Antiqua Highlights Maine's Premier Collection of Ancient Art

Story posted July 06, 2005

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Portrait bust of the Emperor Antoninus Pius ca. 140-150 A.D.

Ars Antiqua: Treasures from the Ancient Mediterranean World at Bowdoin College showcases the Bowdoin College Museum of Art's significant collection of art and artifacts from Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and Cyprus. The exhibition will open July 26 in the Susan Dwight Bliss Room in Hubbard Hall, and will continue for 18 months while the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is closed for renovation.

Ars Antiqua highlights the surprising variety, quality, and depth of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art's collection of ancient art and artifacts, the only such collection in Maine. Though it contains many fine examples of the accessories of ancient daily life, such as coins, burial goods, and household items, it also boasts outstanding masterpieces. These include a vivid 8th-century B.C. stone portrait of King Assurnasirpal II of Assyria with rare traces of paint still showing on his eyes and beard; a stunning 5th-century B.C. Greek red-figure vase by the Niobid Painter depicting a mythical abduction scene; and the striking 2nd-century A.D. marble portrait head of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, which has been called one of the most important 1st-century portraits in the United States.

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Attic Red-Figure Eye Cup ca. 525 B.C..

Though these objects have long been on view in the Walker Gallery at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, housed anew in the intimate atmosphere of the Susan Dwight Bliss Room they provide a fresh look at important aspects of daily life in the ancient world and emphasize cross-cultural connections around the ancient Mediterranean.

Bowdoin's collection of ancient art dates back to 1860, when an alumnus of the medical school sent the College five large carved stone panels from the walls of the newly excavated 9th-century B.C. palace of King Assurnasirpal II of Assyria in what is now northern Iraq.

It expanded over the years thanks to the gifts of various patrons, such as the Walker sisters, who funded the Walker Art Building and presented the Museum with various Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artifacts; and Dana Estes of Boston, who gave the Museum part of the Lawrence-Cesnola collection of antiquities from Cyprus. Susan Dwight Bliss, whose private library will house the exhibition, also contributed generously to Bowdoin's collection of ancient art with a gift of Egyptian and Roman artifacts.

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Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora ca. 460 B.C..

The collection's greatest benefactor, however, was Edward Perry Warren, an eminent collector of antiquities in the early 20th century and the buyer of ancient art for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He contributed numerous masterpieces of ancient Assyrian, Greek, and Roman art to the College, as well as a large assortment of artifacts from Greek and Roman daily life.

The Susan Dwight Bliss Room is a befitting space for an exhibition that seeks to render the ancient world more vivid to today's viewers. The ceiling, from a 16th-century Neapolitan palazzo, as well as the mantelpiece, were made during the Italian Renaissance, a period in which ancient Greece and Rome were "rediscovered" and ancient ideals were greatly emulated in art.

The room houses the Susan Dwight Bliss Fine Bindings Collection, donated to the College anonymously in the 1950s and '60s, which contains more than 1,200 volumes and is particularly noted for its numerous examples of fine and elaborate European bindings and various other rare books. The room, presented to the College in 1945 and installed in Hubbard Hall, contains the original Renaissance ceiling and French walnut woodwork of Miss Bliss's library in her Manhattan residence. Books from the Susan Dwight Bliss collection are available for research use by inquiring at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives on the third floor of the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.

Ars Antiqua is open to the public and admission is free. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 2 to 5 p.m. The exhibition is closed Mondays and national holidays. For more information call 207-725-3275.

For more information on the Susan Dwight Bliss Room and the Susan Dwight Bliss Fine Bindings Collection call Special Collections and Archives at 207-725-3288.

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