After viewing the prehistory in the Natural History Museum I crossed over the Maria Theresa Platz to visit the arts history Museum. Here I ignored at first the marvellous art collection which is most famous part, and instead took myself off to see the Egyptian and the Greek and Roman Galleries
The Egyptian galleries are splendidly laid out with Egyptian columns from an Egyptian site giving it the feel of an Egyptian temple.
The most famous piece is this wonderful limestone head which is what is known as a Reserve head. These are a special type of head known only from the fourth dynasty that is in the Old Kingdom at a time when the pyramids were being built. About 30 of these are known, and they appear to have been a sort of substitute head in addition to the real head. Their real purpose is unknown and controversial, but this one in Vienna is one of the finest.
The highlight of the Greco-Roman galleries comes right at the very end, in the Roman galleries, which have the finest piece of all, the Gemma Augustea. I was quite stunned by this – I had never seen anything like it.
A cameo is usually a small gem set in a ring, made from a piece of onyx, a stone which contains layers of different colours, and it is carved to show the top colour, usually white, against a darker background. However the Gemma Augustea is really huge – about 9 inches across, and it is superbly carved – it is supposed to be the work of Dioscurides, the finest gem cutter of the Augustan era.
It has never been lost and was purchased by the Hapsburgs form 12,000 gold pieces in the 17th century. It is carved in two tiers. In the top tier Augustus is seated, apparently in the pose of Jupiter and accompanied by Roma sitting next to him, looking rather like his wife Livia. The bottom tier is the scene of a triumph, with the triumphal column being raised and various conquered figures in the corners.
There are a number of other cameos in the same gallery, of which this is one of the finest. Between them they demonstrate the superb quality of Roman craftsmanship in the first century A.D.
Going backwards in time to the Greek Galleries there was a fine collection of Greek pottery most of it very well lit so I was able to take some good photos. Here for example is a splendid ‘geometric’ vase.
This charming small bowl is later, in the ‘proto-Corinthian’ style. I love the way that the lion on the right is facing a bird that is almost the same size. One gets the impression that the artist had never seen a lion, and really thought it was a rather large form of cat. Note the small rosettes placed as decoration in the spare space.
And here is a full-blown Corinthian pot. Note that it is much whiter than the Attic vases, being made out of a different clay. By this time, the rosettes are filling every inch of spare space.
This is followed by a red figure pot where rather more realistically, the figures are in red against a black background — something that is rather more difficult to achieve, but it produces a much more realistic picture.
I looked in vain for the usual nude Greek statue, but this is the best I could find. It is a statue of a lady who didn’t quite want to be nude, but who was wearing such a thin dress that she might as well have worn nothing: her nipples are showing through quite clearly. But I gather that these very thin dresses were quite fashionable among upper-class ladies in Athens. Perhaps not surprisingly she is labelled simply as ‘Aphrodite’.
And finally, here is a nice very small mosaic made out of very small tesserae, said to come from Rome. It is said to be a love scene: presumably the well dressed lady reclining on a bed, with her rather large bum well enveloped in a protective rug is being addressed by the nude man who is presumably hoping to seduce her. To the left, an attendant is pouring a rather large cup of wine intended to reduce the lady’s inhibitions.
But the man does seem to be staring at her in a rather unpleasant way, while she is smiling most demurely while wrapping the blanket firmly around her middle. Has she rejected his advances, and he has returned with an attendant behind him, another attendant pouring the wine, and a third lurking in the background, and he is saying to her;:”I’m going to rape you my girl, whether you like it or not!” (Click to enlarge and see the man’s expression).
On to the Paintings