The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

9 October 2004

Saturday spottings (Etruscan edition)

On the south side of the campus of St. Gregory's University, a small (850 students) Benedictine school in Shawnee, Oklahoma, is the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, founded in 1914 by Father Gregory Gerrer, a Benedictine monk and an artist in his own right.

It's always worth the half-hour trip (35 miles, but traffic on I-40 tends to move at close to 80 mph once you're past Tinker Air Force Base) from the city to Mabee-Gerrer, but this year they have something literally unique: Unveiling Ancient Mystery: Etruscan Treasures, the first-ever showing of 225 pieces of jewelry from the collection of Count Vittorio Cini (1885-1977), passed down to his daughter Yana and made available by her husband, Prince Fabrizio Alliata di Montereale.

In addition to the Alliata-Cini collection, Etruscan Treasures features items that were imported to Etruria from other Mediterranean venues — Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia — that inspired the Etruscans' own artifacts. (For instance, to supplement an image of an Etruscan sarcophagus, there's an actual Egyptian sarcophagus from the museum's permanent collection.) There are workaday items and luxuries, reproductions of typical clothing based upon statuary, everything you'd want from a serious archaeological dig.

But the exhibition inevitably is dominated by the jewelry: small, intricately detailed, constructed with incredible precision using highly-sophisticated techniques. (A local jewelrymaker who contributes to the Antenna Audio tour program has actually duplicated some of the pieces; the reproductions can be bought at the museum at prices which reflect the difficulty of the task.) I quote from the catalog ($27.50) description of one piece in the collection:

Disc-shaped earring decorated with a six-petalled flower of beaded wire and central granule, inscribed in concentric circles of twisted, plain and spooled wire. Suspended from the disc is a pendant in the form of an inverted three-sided pyramid with a grain on the tip, decorated at the edges with spiral-beaded wire.

And they were doing this around 350 BC, mind you.

Of course, the greatest Etruscan mystery is "Where did they go?" We know that Etruria, whose borders correspond roughly with those of present-day Tuscany, eventually became part of the Roman Empire, and we are learning that some vaunted Roman innovations were derived (or blatantly copied) from Etruscan work. The exhibit is a celebration of Etruscan culture at its best, but it's also a grim reminder that no civilization, however sophisticated, lasts forever.

Unveiling Ancient Mystery: Etruscan Treasures runs through the end of October at Mabee-Gerrer. It's a national exclusive: this is the only place in the entire country to see this exhibit. And unsurprisingly, the museum register records visitors from all 50 states. (New Hampshire, says the front desk, was the last.) If you're anywhere in the vicinity, or even if you're not, it's worth the trip.

Posted at 4:16 PM to City Scene