New Byzantine and Roman galleries open at the Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada will be opening a new set of permanent galleries tomorrow that will showcase its impressive collection of artifacts from the ancient civilizations of Rome, Byzantium and Nubia.

Highlights of the collection include an exceptionally rare Byzantine ciborium (altar canopy) dated to AD 550, a gladiator’s helmet that was found in the Colosseum in Rome and a marble bust of Emperor Lucius Verus, which was made during his reign in the second century AD.

“The ROM is pleased to bring these significant empires, which span more than 2,500 years of history from Europe, Africa, and West Asia, back to life for our visitors through notable artifacts and compelling video based on ROM research,” said Janet Carding, ROM Director and CEO. “As we explore the ancient civilisations in these stunning new galleries, we can see their lasting influence on today’s architecture, language, theatre, law, religion, and, of course, art.”

The previous galleries about ancient civilizations were closed in 2004 during a major expansion project at the museum. which is considered to be one of the most important in Canada. The expanded new galleries include extensive video displays, shot on location, and a wide number of artifacts, some returning and others newly added.

The Byzantine ciborium comes from the Near Eastern region of Syria/Lebanon. Originally purchased by a private collector in Beirut in 1930, the artifact has remained in private hands until it was bought by Joey and Toby Tanenbaum and donated to the ROM. Paul Denis, curator of the Greek and Roman sections at the museum, says “there is nothing else like it in any other museum in the world.”

The ciborium was made out of limestone and originally the block used to make it would have weighed close to 4000 pounds. The finished item is 1200 pounds, and is decorated with carved images of crosses, a lamb, grape vines and a pair of peacocks, all of which had symbolic importance for the Christian church. The ciborium has now been installed on a seven-foot stand over a display case containing a silver liturgical service.

The Byzantine gallery also displays a wide variety of ornate jewellery and church frescoes, as well as religious objects, exquisite glasswork, coins depicting successive emperors, elaborately carved architectural elements, and a stunning floor mosaic that emphasizes the Early Byzantine taste for intricate and colourful designs. Another set of objects that Paul Denis is fond of are small pilgrims tokens, which were made by Byzantine monasteries for travelling pilgrims. These small tokens, which bore images of popular saints, were believed to have spiritual/magical effects, such as helping to calm rough seas while sailing (by throwing them into the water) or to help cure an illness. Denis notes that some people would crush the tokens up into a powder and eat it to cure stomach ailments, like “an ancient Alka-Seltzer.”

The Eaton Gallery of Rome relates one thousand years of eventful history, putting on view more than 500 pieces from the ROM’s holdings of classical antiquities, the largest such collection in Canada. Spanning Pre-Roman times (about 900 – 300 BC) to Republican Rome (509 – 27 BC) and the Roman Empire (27 BC – AD 476), the displays of Early Italic and Roman artifacts feature outstanding examples of portrait sculpture, ceramics, metalwork, and funerary objects. The Eaton Gallery also includes tomb reliefs and intricately carved sarcophagi, military weapons and helmets, a gladiatorial helmet, terracotta figurines, wall paintings, mosaics, coins, large amphorae, and exquisite pieces of gold and silver jewellery. The displays offer a comprehensive survey of Etruscan and Roman culture throughout the Mediterranean World, extending to Roman Britain and Roman Egypt.

Fifteen major exhibits and themes highlight various aspects of life in the Roman world, comparing values in different regions of the empire, telling the story of Roman expansion, and illustrating the manners in which Roman ideas influenced local cultures. These exhibit and themes include: Bratty Exhibit of Etruria; Romano Family Exhibit of the Struggle for Italy (with a focus on the Roman Army); Italic Cultures in Pre-Roman Italy; Games and Entertainment in the Roman World; Britain and Ireland to the Time of the Romans; The Foundation Myth of Rome; The Roman Republic and Republican Roman Values; Roman Funerary Customs; The Romans in Egypt; Roman Portraiture; Roman Sculptural Techniques; Trade and Commerce in the Roman Empire; Roman Pottery; Bronze and Silver in Roman Daily Life; and Imperial Roman Coinage (showcasing a complete chronology of Roman rulers and portraits of every Emperor).

The ROM’s Galleries of Africa: Nubia traces the dynamic history of Nubia from about 4500 BC to AD 1323, and highlights one Nubian centre, Meroe, the capital city of the great African empire of Kush. Gallery lead curator Dr. Krzysztof Grzymski, Vice President in charge of the ROM’s World Cultures department and Senior Curator in its Egypt and Nubia section, stated, “This compact new space delivers a powerful statement on the magnificence of ancient Nubia, a civilization still being learned about to this day. I am proud to advise that a good number of the Gallery’s showcased objects have resulted from the ROM’s past and ongoing archaeological work in the area.”

Numerous engaging audio-visual installations bring history vibrantly to life, simply with the touch of a button. Extensive video fieldwork undertaken by ROM videographers and curators in locations as diverse as Sudan, Syria, Italy and Turkey resulted in the production of compelling stories right at the source. Interspersed throughout the suite of galleries, eight-minute documentaries deliver overviews and context for the Roman, Byzantine, and Nubian displays, while 44 shorter vignettes provide more specific information about particular objects and themes. These vibrant 90-second clips inform about the art, culture, religion, warfare and technology of these cultures, enabling visitors to select the topics they wish to explore in an interactive manner.

Click here to visit the Royal Ontario Museum website

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