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Getty Villa shows off a treasure trove of Roman silver a French farmer almost destroyed

Imagine digging this up in your back yard? The Roman silver treasure dedicated to Mercury, found at Berthouville in 1830.
Imagine digging this up in your back yard? The Roman silver treasure dedicated to Mercury, found at Berthouville in 1830.
Tahnee Cracchiola/Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reviews "Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville," at the Getty Villa through August 17, 2015.

A  French farmer in the days of "Les Miserables" does with his new field just what any farmer anywhere would do with a new field. He digs it up to see what it’s like. The farmer’s name was Prosper Taurin and he struck buried treasure in a story straight out of an old fairy tale. Fifty pounds of precious classic silver dishes and statuary up to 1,600 years old, much of it embossed with deep reliefs of gods and goddesses at play, with cupids and centaurs and even some winsome, buxom centauresses.

It was all too much for the rustic, pious Monsieur Taurin. Such pagan sensuality had to be diabolical. He didn’t even dare to touch it. Instead, he used his pickax to rake the priceless pieces into a large sack, causing some irreparable damage. Taurin didn’t care. Melted down, the treasure would be worth some $8,000 — perhaps enough to buy the biggest field in all of Normandy.  

Luckily for us, someone convinced him the treasure might be worth even more as antiquities. Which is why the so-called Berthouville Treasure can now be beheld in its total, restored splendor at the Getty Villa.

(Mercury, Roman, A.D. 175-225; silver and gold. Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Its 60 pieces belonged to a temple dedicated to Mercury, god of messengers and thieves. Why his priests decided to bury the treasure, sometime after 200 AD, we know almost nothing. Scholar Isabelle Fauduet suggests that German tribal raids disrupted this region that had been peaceful and prosperous for centuries. Most of the objects were from worshipers, seeking divine favors or giving thanks for good fortune.  Many have names of the donors scratched on them. The biggest donor was named Quintus Domitius Tutus. But we know nothing about him but his name.

Then the priests went away, and left the fruits of devotion below the rich soil. There is a silver statue of Mercury, about a third life size, the largest classical silver statue known. There is a smaller, less complete version of the same. There are great silver cups, each weighing nearly two pounds, envined with beautiful little characters enacting scenes from Homer and the Greek myths. The Getty’s curators suggest these originally were literally conversation pieces — that the dinner guest handed any particular cup or gilt ewer was expected to tell the story it illustrated, with suitable embellishment.

(Beaker with Imagery Related to Isthmia and Corinth, Roman, A.D. 1-100; silver and gold. Poseidon (Neptune) and Demeter (Ceres). Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Knowing those stories was a basic indication of classical literacy, even in the faraway Imperial north of what was to become France.

Let’s imagine that holiday meals then were as strained as they are today. But instead of just clenching your teeth while grandpa talked about how much better things were under the reign of old Emperor Nero, you could pick up your drinking cup and stop all conversation by saying, “Did you ever hear the story about how Hercules got Queen Omphale’s housekeeper pregnant back when he was disguised as a woman in her court? See, it’s all right here on my cup. Let me tell you.” For the Berthouville treasure is more than tableware … it’s a reservoir of tradition.

As though this trove were not enough, the exhibit at the Getty Villa also includes later serving plates from all over the disintegrating Roman Empire. They suggest that, continuing for nearly 300 years after Christianity became Rome’s official religion, classical mythology still had a grip on domestic tradition. The Roman People may have worshiped Jesus on Sunday, but as late as 600AD, some were still serving dinner on plates that showed Hercules strangling the Nemean lion.

(Plate with Hercules Wrestling the Nemean Lion (detail), Roman, A.D. 500-600; silver. Bibliothèque nationale de France)

And, you assume, sharing stories of Herk’s mighty deeds.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of the silver items. KPCC regrets the error.