Friday, July 23, 2010

Colossal heads, dying Gauls, and relics old and new

Today, I decided to make my way over to the Capitoline Museums. I got a little bit of a late start, first because I slept a bit later (I think I needed it) and then because I wanted to catch up on blogging from yesterday before filling my head with a whole bunch of new thoughts. Writing this blog has really been a helpful way for me to record my major observations each day, and I'm very happy about that. It will be nice to look back on these posts when the trip is all over.

After buying my ticket, which also gets me admission to the awesome Centrale Montemartini (I think I'll go there tomorrow), I headed into the first open courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, and immediately ran into a familiar face:

It's funny that the colossal head of Constantine is displayed outside, because what with the heat and the strong sunlight shining directly and blindingly on the white marble, I could barely stand to look at it for too long. My ticket is good for seven days, though, so I may go back in the evening at some point to have another look. While I was standing there doing my best to look at it, two elderly ladies came up and had their pictures taken next to the pointing finger (at the right of my photo). One got a picture while pointing up, and the other posed while flipping the bird. Stay classy, ladies.

To a certain extent, a visit to the Capitoline Museums involves ticking off a checklist of famous works, like the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius:

It was pretty awesome to be in the presence of the only surviving equestrian statue from the Roman period and the inspiration for countless statues of generals that dot American town squares and battlefields. I'm not sure if I had any profound thoughts while looking at it, but I was happy to be there.

Watching people interacting with the statue below made me laugh:

To get my picture of the Capitoline Wolf, I had to wait for a large crowd of people who all wanted to be photographed in front of this work. Weirdly, a lot of them wanted to stand behind the wolf and put their heads between her legs, as if they were also nursing, just like Romulus and Remus. One kid even reached up and grabbed one of the wolf's nipples, and thankfully got a round scolding from the guard. I don't know why people think they can just reach out and grab stuff around here - I've seen it a lot, and it shocks me.

The whole fascination with the Capitoline Wolf is especially funny considering that it's now believed that the wolf dates from the medieval period, not from the Etruscans, and either way, the babies were added in the fifteenth century by Pollaiolo. I wonder if all the people getting their pictures taken today knew that.

In addition to the major blockbuster works above, the Palazzo dei Conservatori side of the Capitoline Museums also had some pretty fantastic less familiar works. I laughed at the wall label for this cow:

It was a pretty impressive cow, but the wall label identified it as a Roman copy of a 5th century BC work by the Greek sculptor Myron. How, pray, did they know? Was Myron the only sculptor capable of making a nice cow in the entire Mediterranean? Sometimes, the desire to make Roman works of art into Greek works really strikes me as desperate.

After I finished up with the Palazzo dei Conservatori (I also saw the so-called Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, but I wasn't allowed to photograph it, I'm guessing because it was in a room full of wall paintings and the guards thought I was the kind of heathen who would use a flash), I headed through an underground corridor over to the Palazzo Nuovo. On the way, I had a bit of a fantastic treat:

The tunnel between the two palazzi connects to the ruins of the old Roman Tabularium, built into the side of the Capitoline hill. During the Roman empire, it was a storage facility for important law documents, but now it is a series of open-air tunnels leading to a stunning vista of the Roman Forum. It was a dazzling prospect after the darkness of the underground tunnel.

I knew that the displays on the Palazzo Nuovo side would be packed with sculpture, and indeed they were:

Here is the Room of the Emperors - this photo also gives a bit of an idea of the sumptuous decorations in each of the halls. I really enjoyed wandering among the emperor portraits; after all the studying I did for my minor exam in Roman art, the familiar faces of the emperors are starting to seem like old friends.

And here was one old friend that I've adored in photographs on many occasions:

Called a Portrait of a Flavian Woman in Gardner's Art through the Ages, I've always been greatly impressed with the drillwork on this bust. The position in front of the window made the bust difficult to photograph, but beautiful to see, because the sunlight made the marble appear to glow from within. After I had been looking at this bust for a while, though, I could tell I was getting hungry, because her hair was starting to look like pasta. But I still had a bit more to see....

Like this guy:

How many times have I talked about, heard about, or examined the Dying Gaul? This was really one of those special moments, probably the best of the day.

And here's another gratuitous detail.

I could go on and on about the sculptures in the Palazzo Nuovo, but I feel like I'm starting to head into art history fangirl territory. I found one last display in the courtyard, though, that seemed strangely incongruous for the setting, and definitely unexpected:

These are two pieces of the steel girders of the World Trade Center, given to Italy's Knights of Columbus in gratitude for services they performed on and surrounding September 11. It's strange seeing these objects in a museum setting. On the one hand, they are relics, almost like pieces of the True Cross or something like that, and on the other hand, they evoke modernist sculpture (Mark di Suvero is one artist who makes effective use of steel beams). These pieces of the World Trade Center are incredibly resonant objects - I wonder if anyone is writing about them.

Leaving the museum, I took a quick photo of Michelangelo's piazza:

I keep coming across fantastic outdoor sculpture and architecture, but it's funny - the heat and my general tiredness are preventing me from photographing things the way I would otherwise. I've walked past fountains by Bernini scads of times, but I lack the will to walk into the strong sunlight long enough to photograph them properly. I'll have to start making a better effort at some point.

I had a quick lunch of gnocchi at a little restaurant near the Campidoglio (I'm starting to be a big fan of gnocchi) and then I decided to take a quick trip over to S. Pietro in Vincoli to get a look at the Julius Tomb and Michelangelo's Moses. I had a bit of trouble getting there, because none of my maps show me where the hills are, but I got there eventually, and this was my best photo:

I'm starting to get really tired of being elbowed out of the way while looking at an important work of art so that some moron tourist can stand in front of it for three seconds and get their picture taken, and then walk away. I seriously don't know why people come and find works of art if they're not actually going to look at them. I even saw two ladies getting their picture taken while looking at the Moses, but really they were just listening and waiting for the camera to click so they could stop posing. It would make me laugh if it weren't so annoying.

A little more musing on relics: S. Pietro in Vincoli is a basilica that was created to house a very important relic, the chains that supposedly held St. Peter while he was in prison. The display case holding these chains is only a few yards from the Moses, but most people who were at the church today were there to see the statue, and not the chains (I admit I was one of them). How should we feel about this? At what point did Michelangelo become more important than St. Peter? What would Michelangelo think about this? Does this say anything about the place of religious art in the Catholic faith? Of relics? There are a lot of interesting questions here.

That's all for today - tonight, I get to eat free pasta in my hostel, which is nice.

Does anybody have any advice on getting through the Galleria Borghese in two hours? I'm going on Sunday (birthday present for myself), and I hear they are pretty strict about herding people out at the end of the time. How do you make it through a museum like that in that time frame?


  1. The story of the Capitoline Wolf is interesting. If it is a medieval work, I wonder if it was intended simply as a contemporary depiction of the wolf or as a forgery of an antique sculpture. If the latter you'd have another sculpture/relic parallel since relic forgeries were very common in the middle ages (consider the Shroud of Turin, for instance). If it wasn't intended as a forgery, I wonder when it took on its identity as an ancient sculpture.

  2. Another post crammed with beautiful sculpture, provocative questions and behavioral curiosities. Sacred art, relics, cavatappi hair, familiar imperial faces, suckling tourists, fatally wounded Gauls and girders, good old Marcus Aurelius, a sunburned art historian (where is her hat?), etc. This blog will be an excellent record for you and a source of discussion for all of us.

  3. I like the parallels you're drawing there, John. I just did a little looking on Wikipedia, and apparently the Etruscan dating of the wolf was suggested by none other than dear old Winckelmann! Gosh, he's responsible for so many problems. It would be interesting, too, if it were intended as a forgery, especially considering that it was made in the 13th century, and I think considered ancient by the Renaissance - not much time to completely lose track of a provenance.

    One could also question whether this wolf was meant to be THE wolf, because without the babies that we know were added, all we have is a wolf with large teats.

  4. I'm not THAT sunburned! I've been using my umbrella pretty much any time I'm in the sun.