His unblinking black eyes are what first draw you in. Beneath curled brazen locks, his piercing gaze is arresting — in part because he’s an unblemished four-foot statue older than Jesus. Visitors to the Israel Museum will soon lock gazes with this rare Roman bronze — one of just a handful remaining intact from the ancient world — when it goes on public display for the first time in June.
The 1st century BCE nude, with its original colored-glass eyes, was among several hundred ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman artifacts recently donated to the Israel Museum by New York art collectors Robert and Renee Belfer in honor of the institution’s 50th anniversary. The museum hailed the addition as a “transformative gift” that helps flesh out its already impressive collections.
The exhibit, titled “A Roman Villa — The Belfer Collection,” will showcase about 100 of the newly acquired pieces and aims to highlight the luxury wares the likes of which would have graced the homes of the Roman elite. Other items will be displayed in the museum’s permanent collections.
The adolescent figure’s identity is uncertain, as the object it once held in its right hand is missing. “If divine, the possibilities include Hercules, who might have held his club, or Bacchus, who would have held his kantharos,” or two-handled drinking bowl, the catalog description of the statue reads. “If an athlete, he could have held a palm branch or a wreath.”
His provenance is likewise obscure. What’s known is that he was obtained by late TV mogul John W. Kluge after passing through the hands of at least two other antiquities retailers. The Belfers bought the boy at a Christie’s auction in New York for a cool $1,351,500 in 2004.
“We have very few complete bronze statues in the world” from the Greco-Roman period, Dr. Silvia Rozenberg, one of the curators involved in assembling the exhibit, said as we perused the new acquisitions in the museum’s cavernous interior. Her favorite was a bronze mirror whose cover is decorated with the profile of a Roman noblewoman, perhaps its original owner.
Other highlights of the exhibit include a majestic Roman marble head, mouth slightly agape; glass mosaics of fish so lifelike they’re easily mistaken for digital photos; a Phrygian bronze helmet with decorative mustaches; bird’s-eye view mosaics of ancient Rome’s cityscape; and a gilt glass tomb marker with the images of a family of four, stylistically similar to a contemporary Jewish piece already on display at the museum found in Rome’s catacombs.
Curators at the museum said that the addition of the Belfer’s artwork enhanced the already substantial collection of ancient glass and Greco-Roman art. The rarity and exquisite quality of the newly acquired pieces, which include glass, mosaics, bronzes, gargantuan ancient ceramics and marble sculptures, couldn’t be overstated.
“I think that one of the things that characterizes the collection is the high quality of the items they gathered,” Rozenberg said. “Almost every piece is a highlight.”
The “unique” marble head, duplicated from an earlier Greek bronze as was fashionable during the Roman Empire, is exemplary of classical beauty as defined by master sculptor Polykeitus in the 5th century BCE. Adhering to its delicately carved curls, the encrusted remains of marine life indicate that at some point the statue was submerged at sea. Its stone indicates it hails from Rhodes, and perhaps sank aboard a ship sailing to Rome, Rozenberg posited.
The bulk of the collection, however, is ancient glass pieces, the oldest of which come from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt — a period remarkable for its distinctive artistic style.
Israel Museum director James Snyder said that the Belfers’ gifts were remarkable for being “the finest, most pristine examples” of the ancient craft. Despite their fragility and great age, they’re amazingly intact. But he also pointed out the historic harmony: “Blown glass first appears historically in Jerusalem, so the connection of glass here is very strong.”
The collection as a whole also offers experts like Natasha Katsnelson, curator of ancient glass at the museum, a chronology of glasswork techniques and styles from across the ancient Mediterranean, from Italy to the Middle East.
“That’s the whole beauty of the assemblage: we see the influence of one area on the other,” Katsnelson said, “the dialogue between East and West.”
One piece in particular, a Carthaginian head pendant, demonstrates the skill and creativity of glassworkers in antiquity. The Phoenician bauble is well known, and its eyes and whorled beard typify the Punic look, but it’s remarkable for its size, preservation and quality of craftsmanship.
Robert Belfer, a former Enron director whose father fled Poland in the 1930s and made his fortune in oil, has donated extensively to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Corning Glass Museum upstate.
But the Belfers’ first ancient glass purchase was made in Israel in 1965 — the same year the Israel Museum opened — a factor which may have, in part, contributed to their decision to send their impressive collection to Jerusalem, Snyder said.
“When deciding on an ideal home for our collection, we could not think of a more fitting venue than the Israel Museum, especially for its emphasis on the foundational narrative of humankind that is so relevant to us all today,” Renee Belfer, who also serves as chair of the American Friends of The Israel Museum’s executive committee, said in a statement.
“Our collection represents an important chapter in the history of civilization, and we are delighted to bestow the Israel Museum with this gift on the occasion of its 50th anniversary so that it may preserve and share the story of these ancient objects in perpetuity from Jerusalem, one of the central sites of that long history.”