In 1830, a French farmer plowing his field near the village of Berthouville, in rural Normandy, accidentally discovered a hoard of spectacular silver-gilt objects that were deliberately buried during antiquity. The items, all dated to the first or second century AD, were dedicated to the Roman god Mercury and collectively became known as the Berthouville Treasure. After four years of meticulous conservation at the Getty Villa this splendid collection of Roman silver comes to San Francisco in Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville. The exhibition features more than 160 pieces, including selections from this find as well as precious gems, jewelry, and other Roman luxury objects from the royal collections of the Cabinet des médailles at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
The site where the Berthouville Treasure’s approximately 90 silver-gilt statuettes and vessels were found was surveyed and excavated in 1861 and 1896, revealing the foundations of a Gallo-Roman fanum, or sanctuary: a square, colonnaded precinct with two temples. There is no evidence of a permanent settlement nearby, indicating that the place may have been intended for pilgrimage, and perhaps was visited during annual festivals.
The most impressive items bear Latin inscriptions stating that they were dedicated to Mercury by a Roman citizen named Quintus Domitius Tutus. Several of the vessels, which are profusely ornamented in high relief and gilded, are recognized today as among the finest surviving ancient Roman silver objects. Shortly after their discovery, the pieces were acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where they were cleaned and restored using 19th-century methods. The recent conservation has allowed for more meticulous and modern treatments, which, combined with the research done by Getty scholars, have produced valuable new insights regarding these objects.
The Cabinet des médailles is one of the premier repositories of ancient luxury arts. The objects from its holdings on display in Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville include four newly restored Late Antique missoria (silver platters), cameos, intaglios, gold coins and jewelry, and marble and bronze sculptures. These artifacts demonstrate the high skill of Roman craftsmen, and their study at the Getty has revealed valuable information about social relations from the first to the sixth centuries AD, at the height of the Roman Empire.