Great Greece in Tampa

The sponge docks and Greek salads of Tarpon Spring already bring a Greek flair to the Tampa area. The Tampa Museum of Art brings even more in its new exhibit, Magna Graecia.

For the next 11 weeks, the museum will exhibit 81 pieces of Greek art seen in only one other city in the United States, Cleveland. It presents a range of artwork from the Greeks who colonized Sicily and Southern Italy from the eighth to fourth century B.C. Because of the Greek influence on that area, it became known as Magna Graecia, or Great Greece.

The artwork includes vase paintings, sculptures and three large terracotta altars. Putting the exhibit together was a three-and-a-half year odyssey for Aaron J. Paul, the Richard E. Perry Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Tampa Museum of Art.

“It’s a massive cultural event for this region,” Paul said.

The exhibit is divided into sections representing the eight museums the objects came from: Agrigento, Gela, Paestum, Palermo, Reggio Calabria, Sibaris, Syracuse and Taranto.

The objects were selected by Paul Michael Bennett, the curator for Greek and Roman Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Mario Iozzo, director for the Center for Conservation in Florence. The art was exhibited first at The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Paul said the objects were selected from hundreds seen by the curators. They chose the objects that had a high aesthetic appeal. Some of the art is in pristine marble. The terracotta is painted with bright-colored mineral paints.

The exhibit was made possible, in large part, because of an $8,000 grant from the Sister Cities program. The program pairs two different cities in order to build cultural relations. One of Tampa’s sister cities is Agrigento, Italy.

That was taken into consideration when the marble statue “The Youth of Agrigento” was chosen as the centerpiece of the exhibit. Paul said the fifth century B.C statue is “the jewel of the exhibit.”

The objects are on loan to the United States from the Italian government, which means that the United States guarantees their safety. This makes the exhibit something more than aesthetically pleasing. It’s a cultural exchange, Paul said.

The National Endowment for the Arts supported the exhibit. The National Endowment for the arts is a federal agency that funds arts and art education. Several organizations in the state also made contributions.

“There are many heroes locally,” Paul said.

Paul pointed out that Greek culture is part of the fabric of Tampa’s cultural history, so it’s important for attendees to acknowledge their connection to these people of the past.

“We’re only removed by time and place,” Paul said.

The artwork depicts characters of Greek mythology. It also depicts Magna Graecia culture. For instance, the terracotta seen on many of the sculptures was used because marble wasn’t readily available. The myth of Demeter and daughter Persephone, which tells how the seasons came to be, figures prominently in the exhibit, Paul said.

An impressive part of the exhibit is the terracotta altars from Gela. The altars have been exhibited in Paris and Rome. The three altars range in height from about three to about five feet.

Paul said he was surprised by how generous the museum was to loan their artwork. He’d ask for the first best, hoping to get the second or third best. The museums would often offer him whatever he wanted, Paul said.

He attributes his success, in large part, to asking for the loans in person.

“In Italy, your personality has a lot to do with it,” Paul said.

Paul said the exhibit proved to him that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“It really is a dream come true,” Paul said.

Attendees to the exhibit can rent an audio tour that also features Greek museum.

A lecture series will offer speakers on a wide range of topics, from Greek pottery to Greek heroes.

Contact Kristan Brightat