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Monday, May 24, 2010

Past Times: The Warren Cup

First, a little background:  In 1900, Edward Perry Warren - a wealthy gay "American collector who lived in Lewes in Sussex, England, with his collection of Greek antiquities and his lover John Marshall," according to Wikipedia - gave a commission to the sculptor Rodin for a marble copy of his exquisite statue The Kiss, the contract specifying that "the genitals of the man must be complete."  Figures.

Having obtained the statue, in 1914 Warren lent it to the Lewes town council, to be put on public display at the town hall.  It is a lovely thing, isn't it?

Oh but - Horrors!  The local prudes were all up in arms, and managed to get the statue hidden away from public view.  Musn't encourage that sort of thing, you know.

This much of the story I already knew most of.  Tonight I was cheered to discover that Warren was also the owner of another work of fine art that bodes well to become even more famous than Rodin's - it is certainly more explicit, which you might expect from the collection of an artsy old queen, right?

In 1998, the British Museum paid £1.8 million for this other highlight from Warren's collection:  a silver Roman drinking cup dating from about the year ten, supposedly found near Jerusalem and bought by Warren in 1911.  Of course, for most of the twentieth century, such a frankly homoerotic piece of work could not be openly displayed or discussed at all; but now it is on permanent display at the British Museum.
Do click here for an even better, zoomable photograph to explore the fine details of this piece; and while you're there, listen to the very insightful BBC Radio 4 commentary on the cup.

Paul Roberts, curator of the British Museum:
To the Romans it was a drinking cup to be used not just admired. Picture a dinner party, course after course of exotic food and lots of fine wine. The guests talk about politics and love as they pass round the table this luxurious, tactile silver cup. Their host is delighted that they admire its decoration (and its value).

As a work of art it’s a masterpiece – its fine decoration achieved by beating the silver into shape from the inside using fine hammers and chisels. Luxuriant fabrics and musical instruments indicate a world heavily influenced by Greek culture, which the Romans admired and adopted.

So what is so special about the decoration that made it one of the British Museum’s highest-profile and most controversial acquisitions? What kept the piece out of permanent museum collections until 1999, and ensured that its purchase by the British Museum earned it a place in all the British media?
Continued after the jump . . .


One side of the cup shows two teenage males, while the other shows two older men, all of them caught in the act of making love. The older men are watched by a peeping-tom, a young slave who spies on them from behind the door.

Were the dinner party guests offended by this? Probably not at all. Scenes of love-making were everywhere in Roman art. The cup is unique today, but in Roman times there were many others. Same sex relationships? Love and sex between men, often of differing ages, was part of Greek and Roman culture. One of the boys looks underage to us, but he was of marrying age to the Romans.

So this little cup embraces the Romans’ love of banqueting, their passion for conspicuous shows of wealth, their love of beautiful things and their skill in creating them. It also allows a glimpse into the private life of the Romans, challenging our traditional view of how they lived and loved.

Today some people take the cup out of its Roman context and see it as a symbol, either of sexual liberation, an affirmation of gay identity and proof of this identity through time, or of ancient decadence and a cautionary lesson in modern liberalism.

And here is the real beauty of the piece. It makes you think, and what better tribute could there be for an object from the past than to stimulate and provoke debate in the present?


David said...

I've never heard of this cup before, it's facinating.

Russ Manley said...

I think so too, for several reasons.

dave said...

My my, how very advanced of Mr Warren

M. Pierre said...

actually i had heard of the "warren cup", maybe from you, but didn't remember what it was

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