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Amsterdam secret: A den of antiquity

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The van Goghs dazzle, and the luster and subtlety of the Rembrandts take one's breath away. But visitors to Amsterdam seeking diversity after the Rijksmuseum and the van Gogh Museum, will find it at the Allard Pierson Museum, which houses an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Etruscan art.

The Allard Pierson, which is part of the University of Amsterdam and sits on the Singel Canal near the city's popular shopping streets, offers everything from mummies and an explanation of the process by which they were buried to an elegant collection of Roman glass, Greek vases and Etruscan votive offerings. A bronze mirror with a small statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as its base and tiny putti surrounding the mirror, from the fifth century B.C. the height of Greek artwork is as superb a piece as might be found in any major antiquities collection. And the Etruscan collection of terra-cotta votive offerings in the shapes of human body parts from hands to breasts to wombs and penises, as well as babies wrapped in swaddling clothes raises the still unanswered question of what they were used for, although experts generally speculate that they were brought to the Etruscan temples in the hope that the gods would help heal ailments related to those particular parts.

The museum is relatively small and displays 8,000 objects, about half its total collection. That affords the opportunity to comfortably compare the differences in workmanship of objects such as Greek vases and Etruscan vases, for example. The Allard Pierson was built around a collection assembled by C.W. Lunsingh Scheurleer, a Dutch banker, who died in 1941. Scheurleer was particularly intrigued by the ancient Greeks. Although he was not as enterprising as Heinrich Schliemann, the German industrialist who went off to discover Troy using the works of Homer as a guide, Scheurleer educated himself on the ancient world, traveled extensively in Greece and gave money to the Egypt Exploration Society. In exchange for gifts, donors were allowed to keep some of the finds. The group did excavations at a number of ancient sites, including Amarna, home of King Akhenaten. The museum also acquired objects over the years. In the early 1900s, for example, the museum bought from a German private collection a mummy of an ancient princess whose likeness is decorated with bracelets, rings on every finger and extravagant gold earnings that look very similar to jewelry made today by the Greek designer Ilias Lalaounis. The mummy's breasts are covered with gold cups to hold the milk that would suckle the children she was expected to deliver in the next world. The Egyptians were great believers in magic, as is evident from a pair of papyrus slippers that were found in one grave. They are displayed so that the visitor can see inscriptions on the bottom of each slipper that give instructions for how to crush one's enemy. There is also a small ivory wand that had been placed in a baby's cradle. Decorated with an array of animals, it was supposed to help ward off the scorpions and snakes that might harm a newborn. The Greek objects range from coins to vases, statues to mirrors. And although it has no pedigree, there is a mock-up of the ancient city of Olympus that gives a useful overview of how that city was laid out.

The Roman glass, which has been donated little by little by an anonymous donor, underscores how subtly glass was worked in ancient times. The museum's collection includes wine jugs, plates and a tiny flacon with a face of a woman that was used for fragrant oil. The Allard Pierson also owns a somewhat eccentric collection of plaster likenesses of what Lunsingh Scheurleer, the director of the museum and the grandson of the collector, called the greatest sculptures from the ancient world. Starting in the 18th-century plaster replicas became a popular way for museums to show visitors the treasures of the ancient world in the early 20th century. Visitors can make an appointment to see the collection, and students at the university frequently use it as a study source. Campari even used it as the background for a commercial some years ago. Some gifts come from wealthy individuals. For example, friends of the museum purchased a Greek sarcophagus that had been at England's Hever Castle, the former estate of the Astor family. The object had been in the gardens of Rome's Villa Farnese in the 16th century and was famous enough to have been the subject of 15th-century drawings by Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano. No one knows precisely how it got from Italy to England, but often such objects were acquired during the grand tours of the British aristocracy. Not all gifts come from wealthy donors, however. About 30 years ago, Scheurleer got a call from a man offering the museum 120 antiquities. The key part of the collection was 40 shabtis: funerary statuettes inscribed with hieroglyphics.

"I drove to see Cornelis Pieter Dobber in Heiloo, in North Holland," Scheurleer recalled. "It turned out that he was a postman who lived in a very modest house."

Dobber, who did not speak English, had taught himself to read the hieroglyphics by buying an Egyptian grammar written in English and then a Dutch-English dictionary to try to understand the English in order to understand the hieroglyphics. He had assembled the collection by buying pieces at auction. "I felt a bit awkward taking the collection because he came from such modest means," Scheurleer said. "But he really wanted the museum to have them." Starting in February, the museum is showing an exhibition on color in ancient times. The show, which will begin in Munich, studies how objects actually looked in ancient times and displays plaster likenesses of the objects, painted as they would have been. The colors, Scheurleer said, are far more brilliant than one would imagine.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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