Mercury Rising: The “Berthouville Treasure” in Kansas City

July 2016 saw the opening of “Luxury: Treasures of the Roman Empire” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. While the exhibition certainly features the precious metals and bejeweled goods used by the elite citizens of the Roman Empire to advertise their status and sophistication, it embraces far more than profligacy. “Treasures” also showcases the emphasis placed upon domestic life and entertaining in the imperial home, with an array of silverware, mosaic tiles, wine goblets, and decorative vases complementing the cameos and crowns.

The exhibition highlights works from the “Berthouville Treasure,” on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los angeles  and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques in Paris, collaborative partners in researching and restoring the silver hoard discovered in 1831. This trove of Roman valuables was originally dedicated to the god Mercury at a shrine in Berthouville, France.

A figurine of Mercury, the trickster god of travel, communication, and deceit, is a favorite of patrons and curators alike, having been the subject of an extensive examination and subsequent restoration at the Getty Villa in Malibu. When the votive offering was unearthed in the 19th century, its original restorers badly scratched Mercury’s silver finish during the cleaning process. At the Getty, spectrographic photography allowed for a full restoration not only of the statuette’s silver plates but of its fragile joined limbs and head. “Luxury: Treasures of the Roman Empire” is on exhibit through 2 October 2016.

Further Reading:

Susan Lansing Maish and Eduardo P. Sánchez, “Looking Inside a Reconstructed Roman God,” The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty, January 2012.

Tony Allan. Life, Myth and Art in Ancient Rome. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005.

Rosemarie Trentinella. “Roman Glass” in The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

Ruth E. Leader-Newby. Silver and Society in Late Antiquity: Functions and Meanings of Silver Plate in the Fourth to Seventh Centuries. Burlington: Ashgate, 2004.

Posted by Jean Marie Carey

Cup with Centaurs, c. 100, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris. Accession Nr. VEX.2014.1.7

Perfume Flask with the Seasons, c. 50, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris. Accession Nr. VEX.2014.1.172.

Bracelet from Byzantium, c. 600. The Ferrell Collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City. Photo by Bruce White.

Views of the Berthouville Treasure‘s Statuette of Mercury (Roman, c. 150) during its 2015 restoration at the Getty Villa in Malibu. Permanent collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris.

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