Persia at the Getty Villa

Vessel Handle in the Form of a Winged Ibex, Achaemenid, 400-350 BC. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Iskandar the Accursed is the archvillain of Persian history, a barbaric mass murderer and sworn enemy of all that was peaceful, civilized, and decent. In the West, Iskandar is known as Alexander the Great. He's a prime example of how history is written by winners. The American conception of antiquity casts Greece and Rome as the protagonists, with Persia as a mostly offstage adversary. This view is  reflected in our museum collections and even our movies (the "300" franchise). The Getty Villa's latest exhibition is an attempt at a corrective. "Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World" explores the visual culture of three successive empires—the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian—centering on modern Iran. The show offers ample demonstration of how much of Greek culture was cribbed from Persia (and vice-versa). 

Installation view of "Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World." At left is a Greek portrait head of Alexander III ("the Great") of Macedon, about 320 BC, from the Getty collection

Relief with a Lion and Bull in Combat, Achaemenid, 359-338 BC. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Modern geopolitics rules out loans from Iranian museums. But the exhibition, curated by the Getty's Timothy Potts, Jeffrey Spier, and Sara E. Cole, has assembled 185 objects from museums ranging from the Louvre to LACMA. That includes the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which—despite being off the cultural tourism radar—is home to one of the great antiquity collections in the Western Hemisphere. 

Plaque with a Winged Lion-Griffin, Achaemenid, 500-330 BC. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Image: Courtesy of the Oriental Institute

Persian Guard, Achaemenid, 486-465 BC. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo (c) 2022 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The exhibition's time frame spans about 1200 years, from 550 BC to 651 AD. The layout is chronological and may seem front-loaded. The gracefully assured lines and volumes of Achaemenid artists (550-330 BC) are a standout, even for those who know nothing about Persian art. The show juxtaposes quintessential Persian objects with those of hybrid style, theme, or ownership. On view is a panel from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We think of this as Greek, for the tomb's sculptures were created by a dream team of Greek artists. But Mausolus was governor of Caria, a state allied with the Persians. 

Greeks Fighting Amazons, Carian, about 350 BC. British Museum. Originally from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos 

Circle of the Triptolemos Painter, Eurymedon Vase, 465-460 BC. Museum für Kunst and Gewerbe Hamburg

The Eurymedon Vase, from Hamburg, must have been a rude political cartoon. One side shows a Greek holding his erect penis. The opposite side shows an archer in Parthian or Scythian costume bending over. The inscription seems to read, "I am Eurymedon / I stand bent over." The name refers the Battle of the Eurymedon (River), in which the Greeks defeated the Achaemenid Empire of Xerxes I. The message seems to be "We screwed the Persians!"

Bracelet with Griffin Terminals, Achaemenid, about 400 BC. British Museum, London. (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Many of the most spectacular works here are small: jewelry, carved gems, and coins. But for those who like their art immersive, there is a worthwhile 3D visualization of the palace complex at Persepolis. It's available via timed tickets at the Villa, or online

"Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World" runs through Aug. 8, 2022.

Glazed brick wall panels from palace at Susa, Achaemenid, about 552-486 BC. Musée du Louvre


Anonymous said…
The amazing skills and craftmanship of ancient peoples remind me of how generations much latter, during the reign of Louis XIV, the rise of the sophisticated building known as the Palace of Versailles took place.

However, a lack of enough running water meant the huge water fountains of the landmark's lavish gardens couldn't be run at the same time. Mechanical water pumps didn't exist. So the elaborate fountains weren't able to operate in tandem.

A lack of modern indoor plumbing also meant that people at Versailles would relive themselves all over the place. So the place reeked like a homeless encampment under an LA freeway overpass. Apparently the primitive indoor plumbing of ancient Rome was less backwards than the plumbing (or lack of same) in France was centuries later.

So advanced and resourceful in one way, so "oops, pathetic!" in another.

Analogous to Los Angeles in 2022 during the reign of people like Michael Govan.

Speaking of water fountains and mechanical water pumps, the old LACMA had them, the Water and Power building in downtown LA has them too. So does the revamped front of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. But the former got ripped out, the second is rarely operating (budget? drought?) and the latter is named for benefactor David Koch.