Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Finding old friends at the Palazzo Massimo

Today, I decided to get started on visiting the many museums with major collections of ancient Roman art. A really great deal is the Museo Nazionale Romano, which offers admission to four museums: the Palazzo Massimo, the Palazzo Altemps, the Crypta Balbi, and the Terme di Diocleziano all for the relatively reasonable price of 7 Euros. The best part is that my ticket is good for three days, so that I don't have to try to visit all four museums in one day.

So today, my goal was to see the Palazzo Massimo and the Baths of Diocletian, which are right across the street from one another. I started with the Palazzo Massimo, which turned out to be packed with familiar and unfamiliar works of Roman art. I'm going to follow my pattern from the last few days, and show you all a few of the highlights.

Just inside the first gallery, there was a row of portrait busts from the Republican period, and while I'm not going to bore you with all my thoughts about them, I thought that the lady above was worth mentioning, because I've never noticed a bust with pierced ears before! In Greek and Roman times, all marble sculpture would have been painted, and now that I see the pierced ears, I'm wondering if they were decorated with other adornments as well. I don't think I've read anything mentioning this before, and I'd really like to learn more.

Glancing down to the end of the gallery, I was surprised by a familiar face:

The Tivoli General! It's been in vogue for art historians to pick on this poor guy for decades now, thanks to the fact that to a modern viewer, his aged and wrinkled face seems oddly matched with his youthful and muscle-bound torso. Christopher Hallett argues pretty persuasively, though, that this juxtaposition would not have bothered most Romans, because the head and the body would have conveyed complex ideas about manly virtue. Personally, on looking at it up close, I'm wondering at what point in his history he lost his right arm and the top of his head. The breaks are clean, almost as if they were sawn off. Could a restorer have done this somehow?

I love the idea that Roman artworks that I've read about are going to keep sneaking up on me. My guidebook tells me about the major works for a general audience, but I've found all sorts of other things as well. This is going to be a fun couple of weeks.

Here's a detail of one of the works I knew would be in the Palazzo Massimo:

That's Augustus dressed as Pontifex Maximus, or the chief priest of the Roman religion. I'm not quite as obsessed with this statue as I am with the Prima Porta, which I saw on Monday at the Vatican, but it was still pretty neat to see it. It's pretty clear that the writers of the wall text in this museum like Augustus a lot more than the other Julio-Claudians; one particularly florid example talked about Caligula's "innate cruelty and ferocity" and Nero's "nastiness worse than any other wicked passion." I bet it's even more passionate if you read it in Italian.

One of the Niobids! I think I learned about this statue in my first-ever art history class. I walked around it and viewed (and photographed it) from a bunch of different angles, and I finally decided that it was meant to be seen from this direction. Maybe it was once placed in a niche or something.

But something even more special awaited....

I've been wanting to see this Greek statue of a boxer, an original from the Hellenistic period, for quite some time, and it lived up to my expectations. It's so rare that a bronze statue of this quality and this level of intactness has survived. I couldn't get over the beautiful patination on the surface of the bronze, which makes the sculpture seem almost marbled, or the incredibly detailed rendering of the boxer's post-fight condition.

And he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out, in his anger and his shame...

Just look at all the cuts and bruises, and the way his ear is all swollen. The cuts are actually accented by gilding, and the level of detail is incredible. I'm so, so happy that I was able to see this work.

In the awkward family photo department:

We've got the Emperor, his wife, and his boyfriend. I'm finding the presentation of Hadrian's relationship with Antinous to be overall amusing; most of the wall texts refer to Antinous as Hadrian's "beloved". Downstairs in the gift shop, though, you can purchase matching Hadrian and Antinous magnets for your refrigerator (great gift for Valentine's Day!). I don't know why this makes me smile, but it does.

I'm suspecting that this portrait head of Vespasian might be a recut head of Nero, whose images were largely destroyed or recarved after his suicide. I'm guessing this because the face looks kind of small for the size of the head and ears, the chin is pretty weak, and the hair on the back of the neck does not look like typical Vespasian hair. No real evidence to support this, but I'm hoping to find some heads in other museums where it is more obvious!

I really like the fact that these two copies of the Discolobolus were placed right next to each other, because it really gave me an opportunity to think about copying technique. The Discobolous was one of the most-copied statues of the Roman period, but these two works definitely have their differences, especially in how the musculature is rendered. I wonder if the Romans had any access to mechanical devices to aid in copying - maybe I will find out later on this trip!

And finally, something a little different from the Palazzo Massimo:

The entire second floor was devoted to Roman mosaics and floor paintings, many of which came from the Villa Farnesina. Unfortunately, I was too tired and footsore by this point to throw my whol energy into looking at them, but even from my somewhat cursory look, I could tell that this was an excellent collection. I'm going to have many more opportunities to look at Roman wall painting soon!

After I left the Palazzo Massimo, I ate a quick lunch to revive myself and to rest for a few minutes, and then decided to take a stab at the Baths of Diocletian, knowing that I could always go back tomorrow or the next day to finish. I had snapped this picture of the Baths from the second story of the Palazzo Massimo:

Pretty impressive! The survival of these baths was kind of a fluke, because they were located on the edge of the ancient city, and it wasn't until the Renaissance that many people moved into this area. At that point, it was decided to use part of the ruin as a chuch, and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, partially designed by Michelangelo, was born. I stepped inside the church today:

You can really get an idea of the vast scale of the place - this would have been the largest bathing room. The imperial baths were truly impressive spaces, and I'm looking forward to seeing the Baths of Caracalla next.

I realized pretty quickly that I wasn't going to be able to accomplish much in the Baths' museum with my feet as sore as they were, but I wandered into the courtyard to snap a picture of these magnificent sculpted heads:

And then I ran into un gatto, who was unimpressed when I tried to pet him, and the walked away:

I headed back to my hostel pretty soon after this, to rest up for this evening. I just switched hostels today, and for the first time on my trip, I'm staying in a place that is air-conditioned! I may actually sleep well tonight.

In a little bit, I'm heading over to the Arch of Constantine to meet up and have dinner with a girl from England who I met in Florence. We realized we were both going to be in Rome at the same time, so we decided to meet! I am pretty excited about that.

Let's see what tonight and tomorrow will bring!


  1. my mom has one of those discobolus thingies, if that is a surprise

  2. Pop and I read this post together and of course had to listen to "The Boxer" right away - a great combination. Always liked the song and this sculpture.
    That elephant is a little odd. So nice that you ran into a cousin of Gizzie's.
    It looks like that Niobid was meant for a pediment. How wonderful to be in a RL Roman bath.