The Death of Sarpedon: Who does art “belong” to?

10 Sep

One the most irritating cases of this kind of “repatriation” of art (Where Do Antiquities Belong?)  was this red-figure Greek vase, dated around 515-510 B.C., I think of Attic origin:


This vase, one of the most beautiful depictions we have of one of the most beautiful deaths in the Iliad, was in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until a few years ago, when it was “returned” to Italy because it was supposedly found and looted from a Tuscan archaeological site.  It was one of the must-see stops for me anytime I was at the Met and looked glorious in the museum’s renovated Greek and Roman art wing.  Here’s a description from NYU School of Medicine’s (?) website:

“Euphronios, one of the first to work in the red-figure method, uses his simple but skillful technique to draw the hero’s body at the moment it succumbs to death. Especially vivid are the three open wounds on Sarpedon’s body from which blood spills to the ground. Sarpedon’s eyes are closed, his limp hands drag along the ground. Zeus, powerless to prevent his son’s suffering and death, sends the god Hermes to attend to his son’s burial. Hermes, in turn, summons the caretakers Sleep and Death to transport Sarpedon to his grave.”

Yep, that’s just what Italy needed — another vase.

Italy can barely handle the maintenance and restoration of the artwork it has.  Whenever I’m there I constantly feel like I have to move very carefully at all times or else I’ll break something.  I say this to people and they look at me like I’m a psycopath, but whenever there’s an earthquake in Italy — not like the 1980 one in Campania, where thousands were killed, but this latest one, for example, in Emilia — I’m less shook up by the casualties than I am by the irreplaceable art and architecture that have been destroyed.  I guess I think maybe the destruction of the frescoes of the upper church of San Francesco of Assisi in 1997 is as tragic as a loss of life.

The Basilica of San Francesco (click)

And the interior collapsing during the 1997 earthquake

The Metropolitan’s Greek collection is not terribly impressive.  The Sarpedon vase shown like a jewel there.  In Italy, even if it had been put somewhere central like the Capitoline Museums, it would’ve been lost in the overwhelming artistic weight of everything around it.  But they put it in the Quirinale, the Presidential Palace!  Can the public even see it there?  I would expect this from Greece, which is constantly grasping at anything that it believes will bestow it with the cultural capital of antiquity.  I never expected Italy to be so petty.

A final note.  A classic piece of regressive ideological projection from the NYU site: “Euphronios’s depiction of Sarpedon’s death is an early portrait of the barbarity of war and the needless death that is its legacy.”

Really?  Is that what you think the Iliad is about?  That’s pretty funny…



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