Arts / Galleries

A Treasure Trove of Roman Silver is Shown Off in Houston

But France Wants Its Splendors Back (So Hurry)

BY // 01.11.17

Did you think Versailles royals, Renaissance popes, Mughal-era maharajas, or 19th-century American robber barons cornered the market on sumptuous silver? Think again. No one did it like the Romans — especially around the dinner table or as offerings for the gods, as evidenced by the fabled Berthouville Treasure, unearthed by a humble French farmer while plowing his fields in Normandy in the spring of 1830.

Considered one of the largest and finest collections of Roman silver, the newly restored trove has made its way to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, thanks to MFAH antiquities curator Frances Marzio and her close relationship with the Getty Museum.

The Getty spent four years researching and restoring the 55-pound cache of Roman silver: 90 objects dating from the first and second centuries AD, discovered in what was once the Roman province of Gaul. The collection is the property of the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which acquired the masterworks from their agrarian discoverer, Prosper Taurin, in the 19th century. Until their journey to the Getty in 2010, they had never left France. Their stop at the MFAH caps a four-city American tour, after which they’ll return to the French national library in Paris this spring.

The works rival and often exceed the silverwork of the Renaissance. Marzio singled out her Berthouville favorite: a pair of monumental silver pitchers bearing “beautiful reliefs that are dense compositions with clothing and shields gilded to punctuate the scenes.

They depict four battle related scenes from the Greek epic poem The Iliad, which tells the story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans.” Adding a fuller view of the riches of that epoch, the exhibition is augmented by 80 other artifacts, including precious gemstones, glass, jewelry such as dramatic cameos, a mosaic that once ornamented Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, and an imposing lion-legged table base.

“Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville” runs through Feb. 5 at MFAH.

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