In May I fulfilled a long-held ambition to see the ancient Cypriot collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, as the highlight of a whirlwind visit to the city. The building in which the Museum is housed is truly spectacular, and merits a visit on its own account.
An outer room featuring large-scale limestone statuary leads into a gallery filled with ceramics and smaller terracottas; what first caught my eye were these wonderful Late Cypriot Base Ring figurines.
I particularly liked these askoi in the shape of a stag and a non-specific animal – the tail should give a clue, but I can’t quite place it.
There were also fantastic White Painted vessels such as this one, in amazingly good condition, with multiple tiny loop-holes, for string? It’s difficult to picture how it might have been used.
I was also very taken by this bird-shaped askos – it does have the appearance of a sitting bird protecting its nest (though there is definitely something pie-shaped about it as well – reminscent of RAMM’s ‘Devon pasty chicken’).
There were plenty more birds on view – from a rather rotund example on a Bichrome pyxis to an elegantly striped long-legged waterfowl on a White Painted jug which itself resembles a bird.
This Proto-White Painted Ware askos is more conventionally duck-shaped, and is quacking with its body angled forward on webbed feet.
Some of the terracotta groups were also enchanting, such as this Cypro-Archaic scene showing a baker’s dog taking a close interest in the baked goods.
This Cypro-Archaic figurine is very helpful in interpreting a fragmentary figurine from the Leeds City Museum collection. The object held by the LCM figurine is broken, but we can be fairly confident that it is a small animal like the one below, and not a hide, as has been suggested.
I’ve been giving some thought lately to ancient Cypriot figurines and the most effective ways of displaying them. It was interesting to see this fragmentary figurine displayed with a modern reconstruction of the lower part of the body; I’m not sure how recent this reconstruction is. It does help to give a clearer idea of how the figurine would have appeared, but could it be perceived as misleading? There are several different approaches to displaying fragmentary figurines in this case – some unmounted, some on small wooden plinths, and the central figurine, with its large kalathos, having some of its original stature restored by a perspex mount.
Overall, the gallery was very impressive; as befits a museum of art history, the objects are all beautiful as well as fascinating. The background lighting in the gallery is low, with individual objects brightly lit, and the colour scheme is red – the overall effect is quite dramatic, with the objects casting strong shadows, as can be seen above. I’m reminded of L.P. di Cesnola’s 1872 display of his collection at G.L. Feuardent’s on Great Russell Street in London: he wrote
‘The walls at my request have been painted dark red with pedestals and shelves of the same color and the statues make a grand and striking aspect indeed’.¹
The Kunsthistorisches Museum has a fantastic website with much better photos than these, and all kinds of additional information, which is well worth a virtual visit – see Room 1 of the Antikensammlung for the ancient Cypriot collection. Next on my list is the Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm, though it might take me a while to get there!
¹ Quoted by O. Masson (1992) ‘Diplomates et Amateurs d’Antiquités à Chypre vers 1866-1878’, Journal des savants pp.123-154 (p.147).