We’ve asked curators from the Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.
This week, curator Kenneth Lapatin dives into a new world through a Roman carved gem that features Aeneas fleeing Troy. To learn more about this artwork, visit: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/336770/.
Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every Tuesday.
Listen to the full series of short reflections here.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. As we all adapt to working and living under these new and unusual circumstances, we’ve asked curators from the Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. We’ll be releasing new recordings on Tuesdays over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll find these stories about our daily lives—from laundry on the line to a dog at a scholar’s feet—thought provoking, illuminating, and entertaining.
KENNETH LAPATIN: I’m Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the Getty villa. In quarantine, working from home in a seemingly endless soup of time, it’s easy to get sucked into rabbit holes, delving too deeply into the depressing news of the day, or binge-watching Netflix. But this strange time has also afforded space to read, write, and think. And for me this unexpected opportunity for research has become a kind of escape, a happy place where sometimes I can slip into the zone where time is momentarily suspended.
I’ve become particularly fascinated by this one Roman gem, less than an inch tall, about the size of an olive. This translucent reddish orange stone is a cornelian. When held in the hand and rotated in the light, this gem would have flashed, gleamed and glowed, amazing viewers in an age before electric light.
Using minute cutting wheels dipped in abrasives and other tools, the anonymous ancient gem engraver carved into its surface a scene of escape. The large central figures the Trojan Prince Aeneas, he carries his aged father on his shoulder and leads his son by the hand.
But here in this tiny gem, there’s so much more than just the three heroes. The gem engraver has carved each block of the impregnable walls of Troy. The scene takes place at night, but the bright glowing stone itself vividly evokes the fires that consumed Troy when it was sacked by the Greeks, after they breached the tall gate of the doomed city, hidden in the infamous wooden horse.
Here in the tumult of the sack of his city, Aeneas has already lost his wife and will soon lose his father. It was the will of the gods.
But there is also hope. In the lower left, three sailors prepare for escape as Aeneas brings his family aboard the ship that will take them to a new life in Italy.
The ancients viewed the destruction of Troy as the necessary precursor to the founding of Rome. This gem was carved early in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, after decades of civil war. It is in remarkably good condition. It has suffered only a few minor scratches. This exquisite gemstone evokes destruction and suffering, loss and pain, but it also contains messages of durability, strength, and hope for a better future.
CUNO: To view this Roman carved gem with Aeneas and his family escaping Troy, made in Italy around the year 20 BC, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on getty.edu/art/collection.
JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. As we all adapt to working and living under these new and unusual circumstances, we’ve asked curators from the Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute to share short reflections on works of art they’re thinking about righ...
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Dear Mr. Lapatin,
I regret to inform you that thee is a mistake in your article. The gemstone is called carnelian, not cornelian. Cornelian is only the name of a Roman family, plus the cornelian cherry, cornus mas.
Margaret Saine PhD
Thanks, Margaret for your comment.
To be sure, the Cornelii were a prominent Roman family. You are also correct that carnelian is a term commonly used today for this reddish orange stone. “Carnelian,” however, is a medieval linguistic corruption, based on a false etymology using the Latin carne (flesh), of “cornelian,” which I prefer, as it is derived from the Latin name of the cornel cherry, to which you refer, whose bright red fruit first gave name to this stone.
Darker versions of the same stone, incidentally, are frequently called “sard,” as it was thought to come from Sardis in Asia Minor, and hence some banded stones are called “sardonyx.” Of course, today mineralogists refer to all of these stones as various colored chalcedonies.
Thanks for sharing. This is really beautiful.
Thanks for posting such an amazing story! Even though the story is so short, and the piece is so small, it definitely comes to life. Well Done!
I am a jeweler and a lifelong student of history, so this thrills me to no end. I have always been fascinated by the making of jewelry, especially from ancient history as everything was carved by hand and to be able to see this ancient piece of history is a true privilege.
Beautiful, Ken! I could listen to you all day describe each object in the Getty Villa collection. And that image….wow! Stunningly executed by Getty gem photographer, Niki Nakagawa. Such a rich marriage of ancient history and art. Thank you, as always.
Bellissimo lavoro,bravo continua cosi!!
I watched the Getty sculpting itself into the hillside.And once that was done our family has made countless ntless trips to the Getty .We went there with children later grandchildren with friends visiting relatives or just to get away from the fury and fret of life.The collections the Gardens the stone walls have me freedom to think of the past and renew myself for the future. I miss you Getty.Ph more s po ecial memories I even did a Storytelling Hour .What an honor for me Tha Deep gratitude Getty.and to the curators who are bringing Getty into my home Blisd.