Figured vessel: Aphrodite in a shell, First quarter of the 4th century BC, Attica (?) Clay, polychrome paints, Copyright © State Hermitage Museum
Eros on a dolphin, Roman work by Greek samples 3rd century BC, Marble, Copyright © State Hermitage Museum
Black-figure hydria: Heracles with Triton, Nereus, Poseidon, 525-500 BC, Attica, Artist Antimen’s manner, Clay, Copyright © State Hermitage Museum
The Sails of Hellas. Classical Antiquity Navigation
September 21, 2010 - April 3, 2011
As their website explains, the exposition covers the period from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century AD and consists of 231 items (painting, sculpture, ceramics, glyptics, numismatics, art bronze). Its artwork and cultural monuments tell you about the development of sailing and shipbuilding in the ancient world, offshore operations and piracy; show you how ancient people perceived sea gods that patronized or destroyed seamen.
The significance of the sea in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome cannot be overlooked. The sea gave food, served as the fastest and most convenient means of communication, with active trading carried out by sea.
But the sea also was a source of many hazards. It terrified. When a man went aboard he clearly understood that the risk of his never returning to the land was extremely high: wrecks of many ancient ships scattered over the bottom of the seas explored by ancient people is a good proof of this.
The first part of the exhibition is related to old Greek heroic cults. Among the exhibited items are inscriptions in honor of the hero Achilles worshipped in various regions of the ancient Hellas. Heracles (Hercules) who according to myths was granted with immortality and joined Olympic gods is represented as the cult object in statues, reliefs and statuettes and as the myths character in attic painted vases of the 6th-5th centuries BC, engravings and painted canvasses.
In the old Greek legendary tradition a special place belongs to the Trojan War narrated by Homer. This plot can be seen on painted vases, marble and bronze reliefs, in painted and graphic works.
The next part includes artwork of the Renaissance and the New age and tells you about real historical characters whose genealogies trace back to divine and heroic ancestors favored with heroic or divine honors. Obviously, among them is the Macedonian king Alexander the Great who was believed to be Heracles’s paternal descendant and Achilles’s maternal descendant; Gaius Julius Caesar who called himself the descendant of the epic hero Aeneas, the son of the goddess Venus (Aphrodite). Thus the border between the mythological hero and the real historical character was eliminated.
The accomplishments of ancient ship builders are testified by a crater at the edge of which top military ships sail; a big fragment of a fresco from Nymphaeum where among multiple graffiti an entire fleet of commercial ships is scratched. Different types of ships can be seen on intaglios and coins.
A big part of the exhibition is devoted to images of sea gods and fantastic monsters. Marble sculptures, beautiful painted vases, terracotta and bronze statuettes, jewellery items illustrate legends about Poseidon (Neptunes), nereides and nymphs, hippocamps, tritons and sirens. The love goddess Aphrodite was one of the few gods who helped travellers to safely reach their native land.
Another part is devoted to the sea operations and tells you which seafood was used by the Greeks and Romans. Works of the ancient art mention various animals, fish and shellfish that used to be sold on the market. Artists depicted the sea creatures in such great detail that ichthyologists can determine the type of fish: for example, on Attic and Italic fish dishes or coins. If fish was used in kitchen and dining tables, other trophies from the sea bottom such as pearl, corals, shells were rightfully placed in women’s boxes. The sea theme was generally popular in applied arts.
Active sea trade in the ancient times is reflected in coins of different cities and, of course, famous amphoras. These vessels made specially for carrying good by sea were used as containers for transporting liquid and loose products such as grains, fish, wine and olive oil. Amphoras made in different cities were of a particular traditional form that would not change for centuries and of the specific volume established by special laws; such amphoras would become a “trademark” of a manufacturing city. The data obtained through the examination of ancient amphoras, marks and inscriptions on them help to understand the geography of trade routes and commodity exchange in the ancient times.
A color illustrated catalog is issued for the exhibition (The Publishing Office of the State Hermitage, 2010).
The exhibition curator is Olga Gorskaya, research associate of the Department of the Ancient World of the State Hermitage.
For more information please visit: The State Hermitage Museum