“There are strange and wonderful things here,” said Earl Powell, director of the County Museum of Art, as he flipped through the fat catalogue for “The Treasury of San Marco” exhibition. The sumptuous show of 49 relics, icons and liturgical objects from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice opens Wednesday at the museum, where it is expected to become the summer’s blockbuster.

“This is an entire exhibition in itself,” he enthused, turning to a Byzantine icon depicting St. Michael in silver-gilt repousse against a cloisonne garden of paradise. “I spent three hours with the show when it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but you could spend an eternity studying a few of these pieces.

“These are miracles of their kind, not the sort of stuff you’d find in jewelry stores,” Powell continued, progressing to some glowing reproductions of a Byzantine chalice that once belonged to the Emperor Romanos. Its round bowl and handles, cut from a solid block of sardonyx, sits on a silver-gilt pedestal ringed with cloisonne faces and glass insets.

Another object of the director’s wonder, among a cache of improbably ornate treasures, is a “Grotto of the Virgin,” incorporating works from three different eras: a 4th- or 5th-Century rock-crystal edifice, a late 9th-Century gilt-silver votive crown (used as a base) and a 13th-Century metal figure of the Virgin (set into the crystal).


While the public seems to have an escalating passion for foreign “treasures” shows, particularly such glittering examples as Scythian gold and the priceless Egyptian artifacts unearthed from Tutankhamen’s tomb, some art professionals have become jaded about the genre and its inevitable hoopla. Powell refuses to dismiss the importance of such exercises or to lump them all together.

“This really is different from the others,” he insisted, “because it comes from the only intact medieval treasury. The exhibition is very special here because there is nothing like this material in the area. New York has the Cloisters (the Met’s International Center of Medieval Art) for a frame of reference.”

The County Museum of Art only books traveling exhibitions of material in areas it collects, however meagerly. Though the museum’s holding of medieval material is regrettably small, Powell says it presents an opportunity for visitors to make connections between a temporary exhibition and the permanent collection. He also cited his institution’s “great Islamic collection” and its decorative arts, including the Gilbert collection of silver and mosaics, as logical extensions of the exhibition.

While Powell was being interviewed, the objects were arriving at the museum and a retinue of Italian technicians was on its way to assist with unpacking and handling. Bernard Kester has designed the museum’s installation, using Italian-made cases that have traveled with the artworks.


Los Angeles is the fifth stop for “San Marco,” which began its journey in Paris before traveling to London, Cologne and New York. The American tour (with other engagements pending) includes some artworks not seen in Europe, such as Tiepolo’s allegorical painting of Neptune presenting a sack of treasure to Venice, a relief of St. John the Evangelist from the Basilica’s exterior and an imperial porphyry head.

Museums and foreign nations put their artistic treasures on the road for reasons of recognition, visibility and chauvinism, according to Powell. In the case of “San Marco,” the exhibition is the second evidence of “a love affair between Olivetti and Venice.” The corporation backing the “San Marco” tour and catalogue also sent St. Mark’s great bronze horses packing. These shows of Venetian treasures yield no money for the basilica or Olivetti, unlike the Tut extravaganza, which was a fund-raising venture for the Egyptian Organization of Antiquities.

“The Treasury of San Marco” is “the first great medieval exhibition” to come to Los Angeles, according to Powell. During its recent three-month run at the Met, the show attracted 179,341 visitors. A Metropolitan spokeswoman says that figure is “high,” though considerably lower than “The Age of Caravaggio,” a blockbuster that packed-in 208,000 people in two months.

Comparing the County Museum of Art’s installation of “San Marco” with the Met’s presentation, Powell said: “We don’t have their luxury of space, so we are going to install it more densely. Not to the point of crunch, but to re-create the experience of being in a reliquary or a cathedral treasury. People will be able to compare similar objects in the same gallery and really examine their brilliance.”


More than 60,000 tickets have already been sold to “San Marco” in Los Angeles, a “surprisingly high” number in Powell’s estimation. Early interest indicates a show that will be popular but probably not keep pace with last summer’s Impressionist crowd-pleaser, “A Day in the Country.”

“San Marco has more esoteric objects,” he noted. “They are very complex to read and study the iconography, iconology and symbolism. But they’re also fun to look at, and 49 is not a gigantic number of pieces.” Emphasizing the scope of the show, he said: “It’s not just gold. It’s not just jewelry. There’s Byzantine, Islamic and Western material covering a whole range of expression.”

Because the exhibition is smaller than “A Day in the Country” and the objects are more complicated to translate, the museum will allow only 400 people to enter per hour, compared to 650 for the Impressionist paintings. Those who must wait in line can do so in the shade of an overhang behind the Hammer Wing and away from the museum’s massive construction project.

Tickets to the exhibition are available at the museum and through Ticketron and Teletron. Information: (213) 857-6373 and (213) 857-6386.