Face to face with the Phoenicians in Venice

THE mammoth show now at the elegant 18th-century Palazzo Grassi is meant to be ``the exhibition on the Phoenicians,'' its organizers say, not ``an exhibition.'' The idea is to give the most complete possible global overview of this ancient civilization, in every country in which it appeared. Such a thing has never before been tried.

The Phoenicians - variously called ``Canaanites'' and ``Sidonians'' - achieved a recognizable identity by about 1,200 BC, says expert Sabatino Moscati, the show's scientific director. But Moscati is the first to admit that ``there is no such thing as a clear-cut, broadly accepted definition of the Phoenicians.''

The name ``Phoenician'' has some connection with the fact that these Iron-Age merchants were famous for their expertise in dyeing cloth purple. Classical writers admired the Phoenicians for their marine skills. In the Bible, Phoenicians appear as great builders, but also as the polytheistic worshippers of Baal who lost a contest with the monotheistic Israelite prophet Elijah. They were also the first people who could rightly be called colonialists.

Their beginnings were in the Mideast, mostly in what is now Lebanon. Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician (or ``Punic'') cities. Individual Phoenicians, in fact, identified most strongly with their cities - not with a ``nation.'' Even as the Phoenicians spread across the shores of the Mediterranean, they only had a vague sense of national unity.

Archaeological investigation of the Phoenicians has made great progress in the last 25 years - particularly among Italians. This fact surely accounts for the gigantic and brilliantly staged exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi.

A staggering array of artifacts is on display here - from pottery to multicolored glass necklaces, from grotesque terracotta masks to softly painted ostrich eggs, from gold jewelry to carved ivories, from stone statuary to small bronzes. These items come from a variety of international sources. But the scholarship is largely Italian.

The show itself was designed by the imaginative Italian architect Gae Aulenti. Ms. Aulenti was also responsible for the transformation of the Gare D'Orsay in Paris from train station into museum.

Visitors are confronted in the courtyard entrance hall of the Palazzo by a great dune of red sand. Out of this extend the carved figures and heads of sarcophagi - as if they were just waiting for archaeologists to discover them. Similarly spectacular examples of ``exhibition dressing'' recur throughout the show. One room has a large pool of water with models of Phoenician vessels floating on it. Aulenti also arranged for descriptions of the exhibits to be painted directly on the walls with the casualness of graffiti. The linear print used in these legends reminds visitors that the Phoenicians provided an essential link in the development of the alphabet we use in the West today. Though they had no vowels in their alphabet, they reduced the myriad Egyptian hieroglyphics to a mere 22 letters. It was left to the Greeks to introduce vowels into writing.

In all, this exhibition takes a nebulous subject by the horns and presents it to the public with style. We visit Lebanon, Sardinia, Cyprus, Sicily, Malta, Tunisia (where ancient Carthage was) and Iberia. We witness the mutual influence of the Phoenicians and their adopted colonies. Their art and artifacts were influenced on the one hand by Egypt and on the other by Greece. But they adapted to local traditions and crafts, too. They were great manufacturers and exporters of what the Greeks dubbed ``athyrmata'' or knickknacks. There seem to be hundreds of little scarabs, amulets, earrings and pendants in the glass cases.

As eclectic as the Phoenicians were, a real individuality emerges in their masks. Found mostly in tombs, these fanciful physiognomies seem to have had some sort of funerary function, rather than a theatrical one. But they are theatrical and full of vigorous life and apparent humor nonetheless.

Another delight among the small objects are the terracotta votive figurines - bell-shaped deities or people with primitive rolled-clay arms. They have great character and variety.

Certain striking things stand out among this medley of objects: a massively amorphous statue of a deity called ``Bes,'' whose obese form mysteriously energizes the great sponge-like, worn mass of sandstone in which it is carved; a smooth basalt statue of a seated lion; a tall, 2nd-century BC statuette of a lion-headed female. Near the end of the show there is an extraordinary Greek sculpture of a Phoenician youth. This tall, sinuous, and realistic marble figure was discovered on the Island of Motya in 1979 by a team of archaeologists from Palermo University. Thought to date from the 5th century BC, it has a languidly posed heroism. It vividly symbolizes, what Vincenzo Tusa (in the overwhelming exhibition catalog) calls ``the meeting between the Greek and the Phoenico-Punic civilizations - the two elements that for centuries determined the history of the Mediterranean, that history which is our history.'' Through Nov. 6.

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