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Florida art collector finds triumph in Greek theater

ST. PETERSBURG

William Zewadski, like the poet William Blake, understands the virtue of seeing a world in a grain of sand. More than 20 years ago, he began pursuing a small, minor (at the time) area of antiquities, those relating to the theatrical tradition of ancient Greece. He seemed to be about the only person in the world interested. Everyone else clamored for buff athletes parading across terra cotta urns.

Vindication must be sweet for the collector, who grew up in St. Petersburg and lives in Tampa.

His identification of this niche market and persistence in finding choice examples of it have yielded one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in the world, frequently compared to those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Louvre.

"Theater in Ancient Art: The William Knight Zewadski Collection" is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, making a focused point that opens up a broader view of the Greco-Roman world. Using theatrical themes for decorative objects is "tangible witness to one of the great traditions of ancient times," Zewadski says, important because so few of the plays performed in ancient times have survived.

It isn't a huge collection, 50 or so objects, dating from the fourth century B.C. to fourth century A.D., a period of hundreds of years which saw the zenith of Greek culture and Greece's vast expansion, then subjugation by and absorption into the mightier Roman empire.

But since this is a grain-of-sand view and not a vast terrain of historical narrative, we don't get a world picture from the show. All the world's a stage in this gallery. And Dionysos rules.

Most of the drama is delivered by large ceramic vases decorated with red-figure paintings. All were created in southern Italy, an area known as Magna Graecia after it was colonized by the Greeks. They were used to mix wine so Dionysos, the patron god of wine and party boy of Greek mythology, appears on many of them. He was also the god of theater. That might seem like an odd pairing. But theater, especially comedy, originated in part from the winey get-togethers called symposiums, the Attic precursor to guys night out. So the vessels, called kraters, also depict dramatic productions. One especially fine krater from about 340 B.C. has a scene from the Orestia written by Aeschylus about a century earlier. (Aeschylus is one of the few ancient playwrights whose work has survived.) Another from about the same time has a scene from one of Euripides' lost plays, with its hero and Pegasus, the winged mythological horse.

Stock characters were part of the comic tradition in Greek theater as were masks, exaggerated so that even those sitting in the highest reaches of huge outdoor auditoriums would recognize the parts. The collection includes tiny clay masks and statuettes of these characters. Theatrical themes also decorate practical items such as jugs, ceramic oil lamps, a perfume bottle and a loom weight. An ivory disc is described as a theater token but Zewadski doubts it. "I think it was some sort of game piece," he says. "If it were a theater ticket, there would be hundreds of them out there and there aren't."

Zewadski should be an inspiration to anyone wanting to collect art. He's a prominent attorney and a member of the Trenam Kemker firm, successful but not a person of great wealth. He began collecting old master prints as a college student but was also interested in antiquities.

"I studied and had background in both areas," he says. "The money spent on antiquities was a bargain compared to the prints. I found the theatrical theme was an uncollected area. I didn't have serious competition for years."

He says a person doesn't have to be rich to collect; he bought many of the small figures for less than $200. The large vessels were far more and "most of the time bought with money I borrowed. It took years to pay off one loan. It's been a sacrifice but I thought it was important."

He has specified in his will that the collection will be given to an arts institution (or institutions) that he declined to name.

Zewadski also has an extensive group of fine art photography, some of which he has given away. The Museum of Fine Arts has about 400 such prints. His personal collection includes many historical examples of the medium including a lovely Arnold Genthe print of Sarah Bernhardt performing as Phaedra in 1906 that accompanies this exhibition.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or

lennie@sptimes.com.

. IF YOU GO

Theater in Ancient Art

The William Knight Zewadski Collection is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, through March 9. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors and $6 students seven or older. (727) 896-2667 or fine-arts.org.

Florida art collector finds triumph in Greek theater 05/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 12:23pm]

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