Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ancient Family Tombstones in Malibu

The Victorious Youth
A group of school children blush as they enter the private room of The Victorious Youth, a rare bronze life-sized statue of a naked athlete crowning himself with an olive wreath. The 10-year olds elbow each other, trying not to stare at the fully-depicted genitals. Their teacher patiently points out ALL aspects of the statue.

The Victorious Youth is one of the most stunning Greek, Roman, and Etruscan works at the sumptuous Getty Villa in Malibu, CA. Situated on 64 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the museum is a re-creation of a first-century Roman country house that was buried when Vesuvious erupted.

Getty villa peristyle with shaded walkways and pool
As we wait for the museum to open at 10am, Becky and I explore the outdoor amphitheater, herb and fruit tree garden, and the peristyle (a colonnade in a building around an internal open-air court and garden). Fish swim in the long shallow pool where Roman children would have splashed on a hot day in the original Villa dei Papiri.

1st century mummy of Herakleides
Since Becky loves all things ancient, she is in heaven. But the most fascinating pieces for me relate to death, for example, the rare first century Roman-Egyptian mummy of Herakleides. The young man's name is inscribed over his toes, the painted wooden covering of his corpse a beautiful portrait showing luminous eyes, aristocratic nose, and neatly-trimmed beard. CT scans show he was about 20 years old when he died.

Even more unusual are the tombstones depicting the deceased interacting with their families, something we've never seen before in any cemetery or museum in any country. One shows an older couple talking to their son. The father seems to be making a point, perhaps giving some final advice to his heir. But the young man is not looking at his father. He and his mother gaze into each other's eyes, their hands joined.

Another tombstone, made in Athens in 400 BCE, depicts a man with his battle shield and helmet, perhaps indicating that he died in battle. He seems to be shaking his wife's hand. According to the names on the headstone, this is Philoxenos and Philoumene, their final farewell etched in perpetuity.

As more people today are choosing green burials, which require no headstones, perhaps contemporary cemeteries could recoup that lost business by reviving the ancient practice of carving enduring family portraits in marble!

Nancy Manahan