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When she was first offered the works, depicting Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Mary with the Christ child surrounded by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, Mrs. de Menil was skeptical about their provenance. She quietly approached the Church of Cyprus, which said the frescoes had been secreted out of the apse and the dome of the church of St. Euphemianos in Lyssi, in a part of Cyprus that had been annexed by Turkey in 1974.
From early on, the field of archaeology was deeply involved in political endeavors and in the construction of national identities. This early relationship can be seen during the Renaissance and the proto-Italian reactions against the High Gothic movement, but the relationship became stronger during 19th century Europe when archaeology became institutionalized as a field of study furnished by artifacts acquired during the rise of European colonialism led by the British and French. Colonialism and the field of archaeology mutually supported one another as the need to acquire knowledge of ancient artifacts justified further colonial dominance.
But has the Euphronios Krater really come home? This is the challenging question posed by James Cuno’s latest book. The president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cuno takes a provocative approach to the age-old controversy over the ownership and display of cultural artifacts. In his view, the claims of countries like Italy to antiquities taken from their soil are unwarranted. The modern nation-state of Italy, after all, is less than 200 years old. What particular right does Italy have to a vase that predates it by over two millennia? Yes, the Euphronios Krater was probably stolen, but once the theft had occurred, and valuable information about the work’s archaeological context had already been lost, should the vase have been destroyed or hidden in a private collection rather than displayed in a museum—one of the few places where it might introduce citizens to an element of their collective past?
The agreement between the Boston museum and Turkey acknowledged that the museum had acquired the object “in good faith and without knowledge of any ownership or title issues,” according to a statement from the museum. (In 1981 the museum had acquired a half-interest in the torso, with the other half owned by the American antiquities collectors Leon Levy and Shelby White.)
According to Roman myth, Rome was founded by Romulus, the first victor to dedicate spoils taken from an enemy ruler to the Temple of Jupiter Feretrius. In Rome's many subsequent wars, blood-stained armor and weaponry were gathered and placed in temples as a symbol of respect toward the enemies' deities and as a way to win their patronage. As Roman power spread throughout Italy where Greek cities once reigned, Greek art was looted and ostentatiously displayed in Rome as a triumphal symbol of foreign territories brought under Roman rule. However, the triumphal procession of Marcus Claudius Marcellus after the fall of Syracuse in 211 is believed to have set a standard of reverence to conquered sanctuaries as it engendered disapproval by critics and a negative social reaction.