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.
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.