Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Museums: Masterworks of Greek Italy Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by J.L. Shaya

[image]An early fifth-century B.C. altar from the city of Gela depicts Medusa. (Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela, Photo: Bruce White) [LARGER IMAGE]

Sailing a fragile boat along the treacherous coast of Sicily, the epic hero Odysseus and his men defied monsters, a terrifying landscape, and an unforgiving sea. In the eighth century B.C., Greek settlers followed Odysseus to the uncharted west and built cities on the coastlines and archipelagos of Sicily and southern Italy, introducing their alphabet, gods, legends, and art to a new world. Magna Graecia: Greek Art from South Italy and Sicily, an exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art until April 20, explores the art and culture of this ancient colonial world.

Interestingly, the exhibition displays eighty-one masterworks from the collections of eight Italian archaeological museums under strong lights, which mimic a sunny Mediterranean day, and highlight a fascinating assortment of gods, heroes, and monsters. Herakles grabs a giant by the hair on a sandstone frieze. A brilliantly colored terra-cotta figure balances a large drum on her knee. An exhausted Odysseus hobbles with his faithful dog on a gold ring. A marble youth from the city of Agrigento stands clothed in divine nakedness.

Although the exhibition includes a variety of media, its mix of terra cottas is a real treat. The scarcity of marble in the Greek colonies prompted workshops to create images in clay which they fired and painted. Magna Graecia reveals the vibrant possibilities of this medium. Most startling is a large, early fifth-century altar depicting a fanged Medusa who runs, wings open, with her children tucked under her arms. This piece, together with two other figural altars in the show, was discovered in January 2000 on the southern coast of Sicily. A sudden natural catastrophe--an earthquake or landslide--buried the altars before they were ever used. Americans have a rare opportunity to see these stunning new discoveries together with many other masterpieces of Greek art never before exhibited in the United States.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America