Monday, July 19, 2010

My first trip to the Vatican Museums

How can I chronicle my day at the Vatican Museums today? The only way I can think of is by showing a whole lot of pictures. And these are only a few of many highlights - I took around 200 in total. If you're interested, I'll show you sometime when I get home.

The first piece of information that is important for this story is that I promised Charlie that I wouldn't go into the Sistine Chapel until he gets here next week. I decided to do this because Charlie really wants to see it, and because I've had so many wonderful "first times" with various artworks already - David, the view of Florence, the Venus of Urbino, and many others that I'll mention below - that I wanted to have one "first" moment that was really important for the two of us, to share together. This will become important later.

So I got up relatively early, ate my breakfast, and practically skipped over to the museum. On my way, I passed through the Piazza San Pietro and Bernini's colonnade, and when I walked through those columns, I felt like dancing. I arrived at a long line, and I did end up waiting more than two hours to get in, but the time passed by quickly while I talked to a lovely family from Ohio who were in line behind me - we swapped travel stories and talked about art. Meeting people is definitely one of the best parts of traveling!

Once I made it into the museum and walked into the first courtyard, my visit began with a bang:

It's the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius! Scholars of Roman art or teachers of the first half of the survey might know this work as the piece we use to explain the shift in style from the classically-influenced sculpture of the high period in Roman art to what is sometimes called the ""late Antique". Of course, this is the kind of narrative that becomes much more complicated as soon as you press it, but it was lovely to see such an old friend nonetheless.

Passing on, I walked past this sculpture, labeled as a copy of the Doryphoros by Polykleitos (some of you are aware of my obsession with this topic). I've seen lots of Doryphori since I've been on this trip, many more than I knew existed in complete form, and some of which I suspect are highly restored. This one was kind of funny, because no way is that a typical Polykleitan head. It almost looks like Vespasian or something, which makes me think there's more to this story.

After walking through a few more galleries, I was disappointed to find the entrance to a long gallery of Roman sculpture roped off. I knew from my guidebook that the Augustus of Prima Porta was down this hallway somewhere, and when I asked a guard why it was closed, he simply shrugged. I was pretty upset, because I really wanted to see that statue, but I knew I needed to get over it and move on, because there were many more things to see, including......

TA-DA! The Apollo Belvedere! Oh, how excited I was, although probably not quite as excited as Winckelmann would have been. Talk about evoking the Grand Tour - here I stood in front of the statue that for travelers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the epitome of high classical art and idealized male beauty. How the poor Apollo has fallen, though. Today, the crowd around him was not particularly intense, and most of the tour guides simply used him as a backdrop while they talked about other things, and then mentioned as an afterthought that Michelangelo had modeled the head of Christ in the Last Judgment after Apollo's head.

Side note: later, when I was walking around in souvenir stores, I was thinking about how completely Michelangelo's David has eclipsed the Apollo Belvedere both as everybody's favorite single-figure statue, and, if Florence's obsession with David's... err.... "pisello" is any indication, the perfect artistic representation of masculine beauty and feminine lust, as well. Funny how fashions change - what will people love in a hundred years? Claes Oldenburg's soft mixers, perhaps?

Anyway, after giving the Apollo a good long look and musing on these things, I turned my attention in another direction, and found a huge crowd:

I do have better pictures of the Laocoon, and several of them, but in the interest of this narrative I'm not going to post one - there are plenty of others online. I could have written a whole post just about the Laocoon, but I'm going to spare you all, because there is so much more to say.

I couldn't resist this detail, though:

When my dear sculptor James Edward Kelly was trying to get into the National Academy of Design when he was a young man, he submitted a sketch of this son of Laocoon, and was accepted. I definitely thought of him today, in addition to many other things.

I love this view. If you look at the niche on the left, you will see the Apollo Belvedere, and on the right is the Laocoon. What more could a girl want?

Oh, I know what I want. Charlie, please to be buying me a bathtub like this. But I think I want mine in porphry.

In looking at the major highlights, I have to make sure to throw in a few less celebrated friends. I had to dodge a tour group talking about something else and crouch down on the ground to get a photo of this little tombstone of Diadumenus, which has figured in at least a few Roman art articles that I've read. The figure on it is a rather crude copy of Polykleitos' Diadoumenos, and it is suspected that the man who was buried with this tombstone ordered the carving to make reference to his own name. I didn't even know this was in the Vatican collection, but I'm so glad that I noticed it.

Birds for the birders! There was a lovely room of animal sculptures that followed the courtyard discussed above, and it was completely ignored by the tour groups and the mass hordes tramping toward the Sistine Chapel. Basically, I was in there with a few parents and kids. What say you, birders? Is that thing second from left a pelican?

And if I'm going to include birds, I need my favorite animal as well.

And now for another famous hunk of antiquity, the Belvedere Torso. I first saw it from the back, and it really didn't look like much - I thought I was going to be disappointed. But after I walked around to the front, I really knew I was looking at something special. I can see why so many artists loved to quote it, from Michelangelo to John Quincy Adams Ward.

I'm going to skip over a few highlights here to speed up my story, but once again, you know where to find me if this isn't long enough for you. By this point, I was starting to worry a little bit that I might not be able to find an exit before the Sistine Chapel, but I put it out of my mind as I walked through one spectacular space after another.

This was the fantastic hall of maps, which has frescoed maps on its walls and a mixture of fresco, gilding and stucco on the ceiling. I'm starting to become a bit obsessed with ceilings, and with assemblages of different materials on them. I photographed a lot of ceilings today.

And then, some more winding, climbing up and down stairs, and increasingly worrying more and more about finding an exit. I found a brief respite from worrying in front of another old friend:

How many times have I looked at Raphael's School of Athens, or taught students about it? It was much bigger than I expected, perhaps because I'm used to projecting it on a slide screen or seeing it in posters. This was another of those moments that was really worth it.

Raphael's Stanzae passed, I knew that I was in trouble. There had been no exits, and all signs and corridors threaded me through a maze that led straight to the Sistine Chapel. Finally, I reached the last twist and the final stair, and saw there was no way to avoid it. I ducked into the little cafeteria that was just before the chapel, and mulled my options while drinking a Pepsi. When I walked out, I ran into the same family from Ohio whom I had met on the line (I had told them about my promise to Charlie), and we talked it over some more, and we finally decided that there was really only one thing I could do.

Today, I walked through the Sistine Chapel, and I didn't look up.

Charlie, when you get here, we will look at the ceiling together. In the meantime, I'm staying the heck out of that museum, because I don't know if I'd have the strength to do that twice.

But wait, that's not the end of my story! On my way out of the museum, I walked past a glass door and saw people in the gallery of ancient statues that I was unable to access earlier in the day. I asked the guard about it, and he explained how to get back. And so, finally, I saw another work of art that I have loved ever since I first saw it:

Prima Porta. I can't explain why I like it so much, and I know that such an overt piece of imperialist propaganda is a strange choice for an anarchist's favorite sculpture. But there it is. I gazed and gazed, and I may or may not have surreptitiously blown a kiss and promised to come back.

Also, I can now file away one little detail for future teaching purposes:

I had heard that the index finger on the right hand raised in the adlocutio/speaking gesture was missing when the statue was found and is thus a complete restoration, and now I have the picture to prove it. The crack that shows the restored finger is pretty clearly visible.

A few more images (even I'm getting tired!):

This was just neat. It's a bust from the Antonine period, and if I'm not mistaken, it appears that the sitter had a little goatee and mustache! I never knew that facial hair like this was ever in fashion in Roman times.

And finally, here's a Frankenbody. This head does not go with this body, folks. The head is clearly from some poor Doryphoros somewhere, and the body is something completely different, in a different type and color of marble. Oh, those wacky restorers. What will they think of next?

I didn't quite go home after the Vatican Museums - walked around Rome a bit and saw a few other sights - but I think I need to call it a night. If there's one thing I've learned today, it's that I'm not sure if three weeks is enough time to see everything in Rome! I am so excited, and I can't wait to see what tomorrow will bring.


  1. Is it just me, or is the head on that last sculpture proportionately smaller than the rest of the body?

    I don't think the second bird from the left is supposed to be a pelican. It looks more like a vulture to me, maybe a Lammergeier. A lot of Old World vultures have feathered neck ruffs, though this one is more pronounced than on any species that I know of.

  2. I, too was amused by the diminutive head on that last sculpture not to mention the wattle on the bird in question. Love the goats! How about the facial hair on Marcus Aurelius? These photos are wonderful! The hand of the Prima Porta appears to have had more than the index finger replaced. Your powers of resistance are greater than Lot's wife's were. Don't know if I could have done that!
    Great post!

  3. Sarah, your narrative and photos have been vastly entertaining and educational! Great photos!

  4. John, so I guess these birds aren't as wonderfully specific as the ones by Giambologna that I saw last week?

    Mama, I think you're right about the Prima Porta hand, although I think the visible crack at the wrist represents a repair rather than a restoration. My reading tells me that the first two fingers of the right hand were restored in the adlocutio gesture based on an examination of the position of the muscles and tendons on the back of the hand. Plausible, but it makes me laugh because we always, always mention the gesture when we teach the sculpture, but it's a restoration!

    Janet, I'm glad you're enjoying the blog!

  5. Sarah, I guess not. They're not as recognizable to me, anyway.