Thursday, April 23, 2020

Roman Ivories: An Inherited Art

Ivory Triumphant Soldier standing before plundered shields at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Humans have ornamentally carved ivory since prehistoric times. Very fine detail can be achieved, and as the material, unlike precious metals, has no bullion value and usually cannot easily be recycled, the survival rate for ivory pieces in the archaeological record is much higher than for those in other materials. Ivory objects were not crafted exclusively from the tusks of elephants but from a number of species including hippopotami, walrus, narwhale, sperm whale, elk, and even wart hogs.
Worked ivory has been found from the earliest periods of Egyptian history, including both the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods. Most were made of hippopotamus tusks, however, as elephants had disappeared from Egypt by the historical period. Elephant ivory was imported from Nubia, though, as well as Asia, since populatiions of elephants and hippopotami survived in western Asia into the Late Bronze Age. As hippopotami in Egypt decreased, imported elephant ivory became the most used source, reaching its peak in the late 18th dynasty probably during the reign of Amenhotep III although ivory is mentioned in Akhenaten's Amarna letters. The Ptolemies acquired both ivory and live elephants both from the Kushite kingdom of Meroe and from India but despite indication it was used lavishly, few pieces have survived in the archaeological record. An in-depth history of ivory carving in Egypt can be read here:
Ivory was also a royal medium of choice in the ancient Near East as attested by such finds as the so-called Nimrud ivories from the 9th - 7th centuries BCE excavated in the Assyrian city of Nimrud in modern day Iraq. These ivories mostly originated outside Mesopotamia and are thought to have been made in the Levant (many made in Phoenicia) and Egypt. They are carved with motifs typical of those regions and were used to decorate a variety of high-status objects, including pieces of furniture, chariots and horse-trappings, weapons, and small portable objects of various kinds. Many were found at the bottom of wells, having apparently been dumped there when the city was sacked during the poorly-recorded collapse of the Assyrian Empire between 616 BCE and 599 BCE. They have been dispersed between a number of museums including The British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. Ivory was also used in the Palace of Darius in Susa in the Achaemenid Empire. According to an inscription by Darius I, the raw material was brought from Africa (Nubia) and South Asia (Sind and Arachosia).
Chryselephantine sculptures , a mixture of ivory, usually for the flesh parts, and other materials, usually gilded, for the clothed parts, were used for many of the most important cult statues in ancient Greece and other cultures. The huge Athena Parthenos, the statue of the Greek goddess Athena made by Phidias was made of ivory panels and the focus of the interior of the Parthenon in Athens.
Etruscan craftsmen imitated the Phoenicians' ivory luxury goods. An ivory pyxis dating to the 7th century BCE found in Cerveteri, Italy incorporates many Near Eastern elements in its decoration, including sphinxes, a lotus plant, and chariots, but the style of the figures shows it is clearly the product of a local Etruscan workshop.
In Roman times elephant ivory was primarily obtained from North Africa. Roman caskets with ivory plaques carved with intricate reliefs have survived as well as funerary bed carvings and appliques, ivory jointed dolls, gaming pieces, and celebratory panels such as a detailed relief of Trajan conquering the Parthians now in the Ephesus Museum in western Turkey.

Ivory was often used to form the white of the eyes of statues. There is some evidence of either whale or walrus ivory used by the ancient Irish. Solinus, a Roman writer in the 3rd century claimed that the Celtic peoples in Ireland would decorate their sword-hilts with the 'teeth of beasts that swim in the sea'. Adomnan of Iona wrote how a penitent would bring the gift of a sword decorated with carved ivory to his master so he could redeem himself from slavery. Late Roman Consular diptychs were given as presents by the consuls and civil officers who played important administrative roles until 541 CE, and consisted of two panels carved on the outsides joined by hinges with the image of the consul. The most important Late Antique work of art made of ivory is the Throne of Maximianus. The cathedra of Maximianus, bishop of Ravenna (546-556 CE), was covered entirely with ivory panels. It was probably carved in Constantinople and shipped to Ravenna. It consists of decorative floral panels framing various figured panels, including one with the complex monogram of the bishop.

Ivory carvings applied to a funerary couch from tomb 1140 in Bazzano, Italy II-I century BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.

Consular diptych of Manlius Boetius (thought to be the father of philosopher Severinus Boetius) who was Consul in 487 CE

Diptych dating from the 5th century CE, showing two couples of lovers from the pagan tradition, possibly Diana and Endymion and Fedra and Hippolytus. Exhibited in the archaeological Santa Giulia Museum, in Brescia, Italy.

Ivory garlanded horse head found on a funerary couch in Tomb I of the necropolis of Navelli 1st - 2nd century CE

Ivory figure carved on a funerary couch found in tomb I in the necropolis Of Navelli 1st - 2nd century CE

Etruscan pyxis crafted of ivory exhibiting Near Eastern influences, 7th century BCE, from Cerveteri, Italy now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ivory reliquary case dating back to the end of the 4th century, known as the Lipsanoteca (Brescia), kept in the Museum of Santa Giulia in Brescia.

Ivory sandaled foot from a small statue with flesh parts of ivory and with drapery in another material, perhaps metal or semiprecious stone. The tongue of the sandal is decorated with a personification of the Nile, suggesting that the statue depicted was either an Egyptian deity or the Emperor Augustus, who annexed Egypt after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The ivory throne of Maximianus crafted in Constantinople c. 550 CE.

Fragmented ivory relief depicting Trajan's victory over the Parthians at the Ephesus Museum in Turkey.

Fragmented ivory relief depicting Trajan's victory over the Parthians at the Ephesus Museum in Turkey.

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