CJ Online Review: Antonaras, Fire and Sand

posted with permission:

Fire and Sand: Ancient Glass in the Princeton University Art Museum. By Anastassios Antonaras. Princeton University Art Museum Series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. 408 + 556 color + 40 b/w illustrations. Hardcover, $65.00/£45.00. ISBN 978-0-300-17981-1.

Reviewed by Chloë N. Duckworth, University of Nottingham

Antonaras is an archaeologist and curator at the Museum of Byzantine Studies, Thessaloniki. His work to date has been extensive, though with a focus on ancient glass and particularly Byzantine material from northern Greece. In this attractive book he presents the illustrated collection of 509 ancient glass objects from the Mediterranean world housed in the Princeton University Art Museum, with which he has worked extensively. The objects range in date from the mid-second millennium bc to the 7th century ad (though the majority are Roman and Byzantine), and in type from simple flasks and jugs to core-formed vessels, fragments of millefiori glass, and miscellaneous items such as stirring rods and inlay. Most were purchased by the museum in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. In addition to the catalogue, an introductory essay and glossary of glass working techniques are provided.

Antonaras ensures that his 19-page introductory essay adds to, rather than replicates, the existing body of glass catalogues and introductions to ancient glass by pursuing a specific focus: the people involved in glass making, working, and trading. He does this well, marrying archaeological, historical, and literary evidence in a brief but interesting and well referenced introductory section in which the social status, gender, and provenance of glass artisans, and the value of glass itself are all commented upon. These considerations are interspersed with the usual introduction to the raw ingredients and furnaces used in glass making. Throughout, the focus is on the Roman-Byzantine periods, for which there is more abundant historical evidence.

The introductory essay is followed by an illustrated glossary of glass working techniques, a useful reference tool for those not familiar with glass production who wish to fully understand the catalogue descriptions that follow. The description of cold-working (“carving”) glass may be somewhat misleading, as it states that this technique is now thought to have been used only very rarely if at all, but does not make clear that this opinion is not yet shared by all scholars. The other entries are well summarized and clearly written, however, and the accompanying illustrations or photographs facilitate understanding of these.

The catalogue consists of 5 sections, divided according to the technique by which the glasses were worked: Core-Formed Vessels; Rotary-Pressed, Slumped, Cast, and Sagged Vessels; Blown Vessels; Rod-Formed Vessels; Miscellanea. These sections are further sub-divided as appropriate. Each entry in the catalogue is accompanied by a full color photograph, and includes details of date, dimensions, provenance, modeling technique, and condition, as well as a thorough technical description and list of comparanda. The collection mainly consists of a wide range of complete vessels and tableware, though smaller fragments are also included for earlier periods (Egyptian New Kingdom) and unusual production techniques (such as millefiori or cameo). Of particular interest are three glass baby feeders of the 1st–4th centuries ad, two 1st-century ad inkwells, and two fragments of rare cameo glasses of the early 1st-century ad.

The volume also features profile drawings of the entire collection, presented together following the main catalogue. This is a most useful addition for those interested in glass typology and in using this book for comparative purposes. It might have been helpful to include scales along with these illustrations, but given that dimensions can be found with the main catalogue entry for each item, this is a minor criticism.

The presentation of material from this collection, which has never before been published in full, is justifiable in itself. The value of this book is increased, however, by the comprehensive nature of the catalogue entries, the inclusion of profile drawings as well as color photographs for each item, and the interesting introductory essay. It is also an attractive, well produced book that could easily fit into the “coffee table” as well as the academic genre.

Neron Kaisar

Here’s something of interest from Seven Days:

Americans are writing new, intriguing-sounding operas all the time. In the last five years alone, operas about Walt Disney and John Brown have premiered, and a work based on author Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain” will be sung next year.

Of course, these operas are usually in English. But M.D. Usher, associate professor and chair of the classics department at the University of Vermont, and Oregon-based music professor John Peel were apparently looking for a bigger challenge. They decided to write an opera about Nero in the languages the first-century Roman emperor actually spoke: Greek and Latin.

Selections from Neron Kaisar will premiere this week at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., where Peel is composer-in-residence and Usher used to teach. The title is a transliteration of Nero’s name as it appears in Greek.

An opera in one ancient language and another dead one? Usher, the librettist, says the rarity of the enterprise was part of the draw. He previously collaborated with Peel on an opera oratorio in Latin, Voces Vergilianae, which was based on Virgil’s Aeneid and premiered in 1999. “We always wanted to collaborate again,” Usher says by phone, “and we thought Greek would be good because it hasn’t really been done before.”

That is, aside from the efforts of two other brave souls he can think of: Greek native Mikis Theodorakis, who scored Aeschylus’ Oresteia in the mid-1980s (not to mention iconic films including Zorba the Greek); and the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Elliott Carter, who was reportedly working on a Sapphic song cycle before he died last November. “And us,” Usher adds.

The Shoreham resident can speak both ancient Greek and classical Latin — “which is not Church Latin,” he specifies. The singers? Not so much. Usher phoneticized the libretto and Skyped with the performers to ensure they could at least pronounce their parts. “It was really quite an amazing experience to hear them speaking Greek, even though they didn’t know what they were saying,” he recalls.

Ancient languages aside, Neron Kaisar is surprisingly relevant to current American culture. While Nero’s life seems tailor-made for opera — the despot murdered his half-brother, mother (with whom he had an incestuous relationship) and two wives before committing suicide at age 30 — Usher chose to focus on his “subcareer” as a singer, poet and musician who played the kithara, a large lyre.

Nero longed for fame in the musical world of his time, and his obsession is meant as an ironic comment on Americans’ infatuation with celebrity singers today, according to program notes. One scene features an “American Idol”-like competition between Nero and other soloists who sing poems by Sappho, Alcaeus and others from the Hellenic repertoire that was popular in 55 A.D.

“Nero never wanted to be emperor,” Usher explains, noting that the ruler was crowned at age 17. “He just wanted to be the equivalent of a modern rock star with his modern boy band.”

Usher hopes the opera will one day be staged in Vermont, but it’s not the language barrier that makes that unlikely. As the composer points out regretfully, “It takes a lot of money to put on an opera.”

Folks who are opera fans will be pleased to know that a recording of the performance will be put on the web later tonight or tomorrow … the link provided by Seven Days is bringing up an error page right now, so I’ll update this some time tomorrow (if I forget, I’m sure someone will remind me 😉 )

Alexander the Great(ish) Miniseries in Development

This looks interesting … the first couple of paragraphs from an item in Variety:

India’s Jungle Book Entertainment is targeting the U.S. market, working with Canadian producer Fred Fuchs to develop big-budget English-language TV drama “Greeks,” in association with Canada’s Take 5 Prods. (“Vikings”).

“Greeks” is set in 326 BC during Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Indian subcontinent. The skein focuses on two boys who study together, the Greek Seleucus Nicator and the Indian Chanakya, who find themselves in opposite camps years later when the former becomes a general in Alexander’s army and the latter is adviser to Indian ruler Chandragupta Maurya. […]

Interesting premise … possibly has potential. It will probably inevitably be compared to Spartacus, though …

Cirencester Cockerel Restored

Interesting item from the BBC:

A restored Roman cockerel figurine is the best result from a Cirencester dig in decades, archaeologists have said.

The enamelled object, which dates back as far as AD100, was unearthed during a dig in 2011 at a Roman burial site in the town.

It has now returned from conservation work and finders Cotswold Archaeology said it “looks absolutely fantastic”.

The 12.5cm bronze figure was discovered inside a child’s grave and is thought to have been a message to the gods.

‘Highly prized’

It is believed that the Romans gave religious significance to the cockerel which was known to be connected with Mercury.

Experts say it was Mercury, a messenger to the gods, that was also responsible for conducting newly-deceased souls to the afterlife.

The figurine had to be sent away for conservation work to be carried out which has taken four months to complete.

Archaeologist Neil Holbrook, from Cotswold Archaeology, said the work had “exceeded expectations”, particularly for highlighting its fine enamel detail.

“It reinforces what a fantastic article this is and how highly prized and expensive it must have been,” he said.

“This must have cost, in current money, thousands of pounds to buy and countless hours to make, and so to actually put this into the grave of a two or three-year-old child is not something that you would do lightly.

“It really shows that this was a very wealthy, important family, and signifies the love that the parents had for the dead child.”

The cockerel was found during excavation work at the former Bridges Garage site on Tetbury Road in Cirencester – once the second largest town in Roman Britain.

A burial site was unearthed at the site including more than 40 burials and four cremations; something experts said was the largest archaeological find in the town since the 1970s.

‘Best ever’

This particular figurine is one of only four ever found in Britain, with a total of eight known from the whole of the Roman Empire.

Mr Holbrook added: “Without a doubt this is the best Roman cockerel ever found in Britain. […]

If you want to see the coverage from back when it was found: Cirencester Cockerel Find