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February 4, 2002

Classical Carlos

By Eric Rangus


To hold the shards of a millenniums-old Greek vase is to touch history. The pieces are smooth, the illustrations so intricate, so finely crafted, that the goddess Hera’s eyes blaze just as sharply as they did in the time before Alexander the Great. Or Jesus Christ.

Touching an antiquity is to experience the past in a way more intimate than a photograph or display under Plexiglas could ever convey.

“You can learn more by picking up a piece of pottery for five minutes than you can reading 20 boring articles,” says Jasper Gaunt, the Carlos Museum’s new curator of Greek and Roman art. It is Gaunt’s job to acquire pieces for the museum’s classical art collection, and the handful of stray slivers of Greek pottery he has stashed away atop some books in his tiny office are just a small sample of his work. They date to roughly 510–470 B.C.

“You have no idea how lucky this university is to have this museum,” Gaunt says. Gaunt’s British accent softens his voice, but when he speaks of his work, his cadence quickens. “Yale has fine antiquities, Harvard, Princeton, maybe there are two or three other schools. We are in an extraordinarily privileged situation to have antiquities at all, and to have very high-quality ones.”

“It’s a small collection, but it’s growing,” he says. “There is a depth of quality that very few universities have.”

The Carlos recently has added several pieces to its classical art collection—some through donation and others through purchase—and Gaunt, on the job only since mid-December, is quick to credit Michael and Thalia Carlos, along with art history Associate Professor Bonna Wescoat for the growth of the collection.

“I wanted to work in a museum,” says Gaunt, who graduated with his Ph.D. in art history from New York’s Institute of Fine Arts this past fall. “Among museums with classical collections, [the Carlos] seemed unique in its opportunities for growth and expansion. Also, there’s an ambitious program of exhibitions, which I’m beginning to think about.”

Gaunt also is an adjunct professor in the art history department, and while he doesn’t teach any classes, he helps out on occasion and often consults with both students and faculty members alike. “That’s a nice combination of ways to pass the day,” he says.

One of Gaunt’s first projects will be to reorganize some of the museum’s classical art galleries in order to make better use of the their limited space. He wants to reorganize in terms of grouping pieces together in terms of chronology or theme.

One idea he has is to put together a case on Greek theater, which he says would go nicely with Schwartz Performing Arts Center being built down the street. The Carlos owns several pieces in this theme outright and shares others with the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida. A little bit of exchanging here, some fine-tuning there, Gaunt says, and the Carlos would have a very interesting display. That is just one of his ideas.

“So there might be something on ‘Women in 5th Century Athens,’ then there will be something for the men,” Gaunt says. Mentioning a couple of other thematic ideas.

“Let’s say we have one [case] for geometric Greek art, then you can have a group of 15 or 20 good objects,” Gaunt continues. “There will be literally a window onto the geometric world. And then the next one will be something quite different.

“The kind of titles I am dreaming up for myself are sort of absurdly ambitious,” he laughs, “but I think that by doing that we can make much better use of the space that we have.”

Gaunt’s career in art was destined almost from birth. Born to British parents in Rome, the only place he could play and not get run over by the city’s traffic was in the Roman Forum, the city’s ancient marketplace.

When he was 9, his family moved back to London, and he entered into a classical education. He began studying Latin that year and Greek the next. Eventually, he went to Oxford, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literae humaniores—a combination of ancient languages, history and philosophy.

During one of his finals, Gaunt was given an option of doing an archaeology paper. He was far from unfamiliar with the subject, his grandmother was an archaeologist, and Gaunt found that was much more exciting than, say, philosophy.

“You can buy a copy of Plato any day of the week,” Gaunt says, “But you can also pick up something that Plato might have had in his hand. That is much more exciting.”

Shortly after graduating from Oxford, Gaunt found employment at Christie’s in London, working primarily in the books and manuscripts department of the world-famous auction house.

Part of Gaunt’s training involved spending three months on point at Christie’s front desk. People would come in off the street, thrust what they hoped was something rare and expensive in front of Gaunt’s face, and he’d tell them which of Christie’s specialists to consult. Gaunt saw his share of junk and some very obvious fakes as well as some truly beautiful pieces.

“If you’re on the front counter, you’re bombarded with this stuff,” Gaunt says. “You very quickly get a sense of what’s what and the difference between Japanese and Chinese pottery. I was very happy there for a couple years.”

Gaunt came to the States in 1990 in order to work with Dietrich von Bothmer, a worldwide expert in Greek vases (Gaunt’s primary area of interest), who was the curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for more than 30 years.

Throughout the 1990s, Gaunt worked on his advanced degrees (he earned a master’s in art history in 1995) and did some curating on the side. His new position is his first full-time museum job.

“Being part of a university museum is wonderful for me, because it stands between the university and the community at large,” Gaunt says. “We exhibit the tangible remains of what so many people are fascinated by, whether they are professional scholars or members of the public whose curiosity has been fired. And we’re trying to build it up as best we can.”