1. Statuette of Mercury, Roman, AD 175–225, silver and gold. H. 56.3cm. D. 16cm.

Devotion and Decadence

After its tour to four venues across the US, then to Paris and Copenhagen, Devotion and Decadence: The Berthouville Treasure and Roman Luxury has reached its final destination at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York.This exhibition showcases the Berthouville Treasure, a spectacular cache of ancient silver, unearthed in northern France in 1830, together with a rich selection of additional Roman luxury objects, drawn from the collections of the Cabinet des Médailles (now the Department of Coins, Medals and Antiques), of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The 160 works on show, offer an insight into the rich cross-cultural exchanges that characterised the Roman province of Gaul, as well as the cultural significance of Roman luxury arts. Star exhibits include two important silver statuettes of the Roman god Mercury and other figurines; superbly worked Late Antique missoria (large silver platters); drinking cups, offering bowls and other vessels; cameos; intaglios; jewellery; and a fragment of a mosaic from Hadrian's villa in Tivoli.

ISAW's associate director for exhibitions and gallery curator, Clare Fitzgerald, notes: 'Ancient Rome is justly celebrated for major feats of engineering, such as aqueducts, monumental constructions like the Colosseum, and the network of roads that facilitated exchange throughout the Empire. Yet, as Devotion and Decadence reveals, Romans were also capable of truly virtuoso work on a far smaller scale…'

2. Cup with centaurs and cupids, Roman, AD 1–100, silver and gold. H. 11.7cm. W. 26.8cm. D. 17.4cm.

Recognised today as one of the finest surviving hoards of ancient Roman silver, the Berthouville Treasure was discovered by a French farmer while ploughing his field near the village of Berthouville, in Normandy. The cache – comprising around 90 silver and gilt-silver objects dating from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD – had been buried in a brick-lined pit in antiquity.

The farmer had originally planned to sell the treasure for the value of its weight in silver but, before he did so, he showed it to a local expert who identified its potential importance and communicated news of the find to Paris, where it was acquired by the Bibliothèque national de France in a bidding war with the Louvre. Subsequent excavations at the site of its discovery, in 1861 and 1896, revealed the foundations of a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Mercury Canetonensis. 

In 2011, the Getty Conservation Center began a multi-year project to conserve the entire Berthouville Treasure. Individual pieces underwent in-depth study using new imaging and research technologies. These revealed valuable fresh evidence of ancient production techniques, as well as unknown details, while also informing the subsequent restoration and treatment of the objects. 

In the first gallery of Devotion and Decadence, a Roman statuette of Mercury (1) introduces the importance of the god in Gaul. Dating from AD 175–225, this is one of the largest statuettes in precious metal to survive from antiquity. The messenger of the gods, as well as the patron deity of travellers, shepherds, commerce and the arts, Mercury was much venerated in Gaul.

3. Bowl with a medallion depicting Omphale, Queen of Lydia, silver and gold, Roman, AD 1–100. H. 8.2cm. D. 28.9cm. All found in Berthouville, northern France.

As Julius Caesar stated in his chronicle of the Gallic War: 'Among the gods, they most worship Mercury. … they deem him to have the greatest influence for all money-making and traffic.' Berthouville's location at the intersection of ancient roads and on the frontier between the Seine and the commercial route leading to the British Isles made it a centre of pilgrimage and exchange and is particularly appropriate for a sanctuary in this god's honour. The role of the temple of Mercury Canetonensis (a place where Roman and Gallic cultures interacted) is testified to by the presence of objects such as a superb offering bowl that shows Mercury with either his mother, Maia, or the Gallo-Roman fertility goddess Rosmerta, which shows how the fusion of Gallic and Roman features. Donor inscriptions on silver objects also indicate that the temple was a place where both Roman citizens and Gauls worshipped and reveal that artefacts were dedicated by both men and women, by ex-slaves and the freeborn.

Several of the most lavish votive objects found at the temple dedicated to Mercury were offered by a Roman citizen named Quintus Domitius Tutus. These include cups (2), pitchers, a ladle and an offering bowl, all with elaborate ornamentation and gilding that place them among the finest examples of ancient Roman silver. Most feature scenes and iconography related to Bacchus, a god associated with wine and revelry, as seen on a pair of drinking-cups known as skyphoi. Other examples of elite tableware include a large plate, in the centre of which is an image of Omphale, the mythological queen of the kingdom of Lydia, curled up after over-indulging (3).

These objects provide vivid examples of the multiple uses and roles of luxury items, which, as seen here, could be transformed from tableware intended for banqueting and revelry into votive objects.

The second gallery of Devotion and Decadence explores the significance of Roman luxury items in their broader context. For the elite, hosting and sharing meals was a way to cultivate desirable social, political, or economic relationships but tableware, such as the missoria, were primarily a means of displaying wealth, status, and even erudition. This gallery also displays carved stone vessels, jewellery, coins, ingots, intaglios and cameos.

This is the last chance to see these fine treasures before they are returned to Paris. 

• Devotion and Decadence: The Berthouville Treasure and Roman Luxury is on show at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (www.isaw.nyu.edu) until 6 January 2019.
Lindsay Fulcher