Persepolis was the greatest and most beautiful metropolis in the world when Alexander the Great arrived before its walls in 330 BC. Three months later, a fire ordered and started by Alexander destroyed the most powerful city ever built: its walls, statues and columns crumbled; the gold plates on statues and the throne melted; Persepolis was reduced to the pile of ruins still visible today some 50 kilometres away from the city of Shiraz, Iran. 

Aquileia, one of the greatest and wealthiest political, administrative and commercial centres of the Roman Empire, withstood Alaric’s raids, but Attila eventually managed to have the city walls tumble down on 18th July 452 AD. The city was devastated and, as the legend tells, Attila scattered salt on its ruins.

Today, some eight hundred years later, the memory of the two great cities, both destroyed by fire and sword and both now belonging to the heritage of culture, art and imagination of all humanity, becomes ideally actualized in the exhibition “Lions and Bulls from ancient Persia in Aquileia”. The exhibition will be staged from 25th June to 30th October 2016 at the National Archaeological Museum of Aquileia, organized by Fondazione Aquileia in collaboration with the Polo Museale del Friuli Venezia Giulia, the National Museum of Iran and the Iranian Cultural Heritage Handcrafts and Tourism Organization.

This is another event of the cycle “Wounded Archaeology”, following last year’s exhibition, when some remarkable objects from the Bardo Museum of Tunis reached Aquileia to receive great appreciation by the public and the critics. The President of Fondazione Aquileia, Antonio Zanardi Landi, writes: “The exhibition is dedicated to the Achaemenid and Sasanid arts and features extremely important exhibits from the National Archaeological Museum of Tehran and the Archaeological Museum of Persepolis. It is not, however, directly related to the tragic events of the recent past and those still underway in the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. While the issue here is still “Wounded Archaeology”, the responsible for the wounds and destruction of the capital of the empire of Darius was Alexander the Great back in the 4th century BC. He was quite distant from present day terrorists and from a violence whose roots we can hardly understand. And yet, if you look closely, a large portion of the world’s archaeological heritage actually stemmed from a wound, from devastation, from the desire to wipe out the identity of an enemy, or simply of the other. Aquileia is also a symbol, not only of coexistence in the early centuries of the Roman Empire, but also of the devastation wrought by Attila and by the peoples who came from the East to whom, for so long, Aquileia had been a gateway and way of access”.

Besides, like in a common thread, the same destiny of destruction had hit Carthage, which was only few kilometres away from Tunis, home to the Bardo Museum.

The exhibition opening in the National Archaeological Museum on June 25th is also aimed at boosting dialogue and a revival of interest in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a great cultural and, to a greater extent, political and economic partner, as highlighted by Masoud Soltanifar, vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and President of the Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization: “Staging an exhibition like this one, under the present conditions, attests to the importance we give to protecting the common heritage of mankind and giving visitors a chance to appreciate it. A heritage that evidences the millenary relations between the different human societies on which today’s cultures and civilizations are founded. A shared legacy that strikes peace and friendship between nations, both in the past and in the present”.

Therefore, as stated by the President of the Autonomous Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, Debora Serracchiani: “The initiative shows that both Iran and Italy see art and culture as a firm and essential foundation for the development of all other relations. Any venture founded merely on contingent political initiatives or economic advantages will prove to be short-lived. A cultural project like the one launched in Aquileia has, by its very nature, the potential to leave its mark, albeit small, not only in government papers and files, but also deeply imprinted in the collective imagination”.

What is more, Iran is a country where Italy has always nurtured great interests, also during the darkest and hardest times, as recalled by Minister Dario Franceschini: “After the Second World War, the two countries established an even closer relationship, which enabled some of Italy’s foremost archaeologists to carry out excavations of considerable importance in Iran”.

In fact, all field experts are well aware of the works and discoveries made by the Italian restorers of IsMEO, which excavated in Persepolis from 1964 to 1979 under the guidance of Giuseppe and Ann Britt Tilia, as recalled by Pierfrancesco Callieri in his contribution to the catalogue (published by Allemandi). Italian archaeologists are still very active in Iran today.

Not to mention that Giosaphat Barbaro, the Venetian ambassador, was the very first European to visit the ruins of Persepolis. As highlighted by Minister Franceschini, “Barbaro symbolizes the special and solid relationship that existed between the Venetian Republic and the Persian Empire during the late Middle Ages and the modern era. The ancient ties between the Serenissima – hence Italy – and Persia later formed the basis for constructing relations between the Unitary State and Iran”.

Luca Caburlotto, Director of the Polo Museale del Friuli Venezia Giulia, adds: “After the exhibition on the treasures of the Bardo Museum, the National Archaeological Museum of Aquileia is proud to host a second exhibition about the history of Antiquity and the most precious vestiges that have survived to date. This time, the exhibits come from a different area, Persia, though one that mostly gravitated around the Mediterranean basin. Therefore, by bringing together different civilizations through a “direct” dialogue in the setting of the museum, the exhibition becomes an instrument of cultural enrichment and at the same time an opportunity to verify the reciprocal “strength” of the masterpieces on permanent and temporary display alike”.

Cities may be destroyed, even razed to the ground; notwithstanding, their artistic and architectural know-how, their culture, their religious and non-religious symbols not only remain, but they can “travel” and blend with the ones of other peoples, even very distant by geography, roots and origins.

Today, we cannot dare to guess what Alexander the Great fell when he came before the Gate of All Nations erected by Xerxes, or before the 72 columns bearing the Apadana built by Darius the Great, or the endless cycle of bas-reliefs decorating it. In Greece, there were no buildings that could parallel the splendour of those royal palaces, or the majestic staircase of the Tripylon watched by three gates.

As well as by the astonishment of the Greek authors, the magnificence of the Persian court is also proven by the archaeological finds from the Treasury of Persepolis, even though they are merely the crumbs that remained after the sack by the Macedonians, and by the high number of objects of sumptuary art – pottery, weapons, jewels and ornaments – found in different areas of the plateau and in the rest of Asia.

An example of the wealth and of the characteristics of the art of the Persian court is provided by some of the precious objects on display in the exhibition of Aquileia, which illustrate its origins, its birth and its maturity: here the bulls and the lions recalled in the title are not only linked to the Mesopotamian and Elamite traditions but also to that of the Iranian world of the Iron Age, where there was a strong presence of animalistic elements related to a nomadic origin.

The precious exhibits span over a long period of time and are witness to two essential dynasties of pre-Islamic Iran: the Achaemenids and the Sasanids. They are also, beside their huge historic and artistic value, objects of rare beauty.

Visitors will be stunned at the sight of a rhyton featuring a crouching winged lion protome, whose body terminates in a semi-conical chalice, decorated with concentric grooves and embellished at the top by a frieze of palmettes and lotus flowers. The details of this lion (its muzzle with open jaws revealing its teeth and protruding tongue; its prominent eyes marked at the base by two swollen areas; its realistic looking claws and its large wings curving at the tips decorated with three tiers of feathers) make it a masterpiece of the arts and crafts. Equally astounding are a golden dagger decorated with animalistic motifs (lions again) and a marvellous bracelet bearing lion protomes at their ends, with gnashing jaws and protruding tongue. Here too, the face muscles and protruding eyes are highlighted with swollen areas, while the forehead comes with two two grooves marked by round elements. The mane, embellished with triangular elements and terminating with a circular band, marks the join with the body of the bracelet.

While we cannot guess what Alexander the Great fell before the 72 columns of the Apadana (the large audience hall in Persepolis), we can however get a clue from the two fragments of a majestic capital that will be on display in Aquileia.

We can as well imagine a lion hunt by admiring the fine reliefs on a silver plate with traces of gold or be amazed by the lion head on a cylindrical weight, which may have been used to weigh some of the innumerable gifts coming from all over the world. And we can be enchanted at the sight of the rotary movement of three advancing lions, modestly but perfectly modelled, in an artefact that used to hold a cylinder and was probably part of a piece of furniture or support.

It is easy to understand how much of this art has actually survived to our times. Suffice it to mention the features and design of an open-circle bracelet with cylindrical body terminating with lion heads to understand how much of this art, with its symbols and values, continues to be replicated today, sometimes unconsciously. This art comes from far away, from a land some peoples wished to destroy and cancel in the name of an alleged superiority or, like Alexander the Great did, to avenge the fire of Ephesus and the destruction of the sanctuaries in Athens perpetrated by Xerxes. And yet, it is still here to speak to us and to raise our hopes. As remarked by Minister Franceschini: “the exhibition staged by Fondazione Aquileia is particularly significant because it offers the public the first opportunity to see in Europe some artefacts from Persepolis and the National Museum of Tehran, after the signing of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, something that gives us reason to hope for and believe in a marked strengthening of political, economic and cultural relations between Europe, Italy and the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

The exhibition is also organized in collaboration with Fondazione Bracco, thanks to the sponsorship by Danieli & C. Officine Meccaniche S.p.A., G.S.A. S.p.A., Allianz, Faber Industrie S.p.A., Camera di Commercio Industria Artigianato Agricoltura di Udine, Pasta Zara S.p.A., Saf Autoservizi Fvg S.p.A., Despar, Banca di Credito Cooperativo di Fiumicello e Aiello, Confindustria Udine, Fondazione Fincantieri, Salp S.p.A., Fantoni S.p.A., I.Co.P. S.p.A, SNAB Sicurezza e Sorveglianza Diurna e Notturna soc. coop.


Exhibition title: Lions and Bulls from Ancient Persia in Aquileia

Duration: 25th June 2016 > 30th October 2016

Location:  National Archaeological Museum of Aquileia, Via Roma 1, 33051 - Aquileia (UD)

Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays, from 8.30 am to 7.30 pm

Entrance fee: € 7 full price € 3,50 reduced price

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