Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Palazzo Altemps and a surprise concert

Well, I'm having a little more success with the internet here this morning, so I'm going to do my best to get this post out before I head out to visit the Capitoline Museums!

My plan for yesterday was to take the subway as close to the Palazzo Altemps as possible (the other major museum on my combined ticket for the Museo Nazionale Romano), and then maybe head up to the Piazza del Popolo to search for some Caravaggios. The Metro system here is kind of strange - there are only two lines that are in kind of an X, and they don't cover the bulk of the major downtown area. I can understand why, because I'd imagine it's pretty hard to dig subway tunnels through all that history, but it's still rather inconvenient. It means I'm walking a lot of long distances, since I haven't figured out the bus system yet. This may not be a bad thing, though, because health-wise I'm feeling better than I have in a long time.

I got off the subway at the Spagna stop, and while I was there, I thought I might as well photograph the Spanish steps:

I've gotta admit that I really don't get the fascination with the Spanish steps. I mean, there are so many things in this city to get excited about, and yet everybody comes here? If I wanted to climb stairs all day, I would have just stayed at my hostel.

Anyway, on to the Palazzo Altemps. In some ways, this was the most interesting (and frustrating) museum that I've been to since I got to Italy. The collection is made up largely of the antiquities that belonged to the powerful Ludovisi family, and they are presented in a palace environment that perhaps evokes how great families would have shown off their collections. Since this is a collection belonging to a family that was rich and powerful during the time that extensive and invasive restorations were in vogue, many of these works are heavily restored, and some of them may even be fakes created shortly before they were purchased by the Ludovisis. The museum is incredibly honest about this, with wall labels that show the added portions shaded in gray and point out which works may be entirely fake. Unfortunately, the labels also cling to the fashion of attributing Roman works as copies of lost Greek models, but I guess nobody's perfect.

When I saw this Orestes and Electra, I really felt like Winckelmann and all of the ghosts of the Grand Tour were peering over my shoulders:

I'm familiar with this sculpture mainly because it appears in John Singleton Copley's Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard, and is a major part of Maurie McInnis' fascinating article on the painting:

As you can see, a copy of the statue appears in the background between the two sitters, and they are also discussing a drawing of the same work. Copley would have met the Izards during his Grand Tour through Italy before he settled in London for the rest of his life. McInnis argues that the presence of the statue has a lot to do with revealing the couple's pro-Revolutionary politics.

I got a little hot and bothered reading the wall label for this work:

There was a whole body involved in this sculpture as well, but since my issues were with the head, that's what I'm showing. This is another one of those situations where restorers had an antique sculpture without a head, and an antique head from a different work and period lying around, and so they screwed the head onto the body. The wall label points this out, which is great, and mentions that the head is from the Roman Antonine period, but then goes on a tangent about how the head is imitating the work of Skopas, a Greek sculptor from several centuries before the head would have been made. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, who cares about Skopas? The head is clearly in the style of the Antonine period, with that really rich contrast between the rough curls of the hair and the smooth skin. It's a beautiful work, and it does credit to the person who carved it, who was a Roman of the second century AD, several hundred years after Skopas. And finally, it's just a head with no body to help identify it, and we have almost no actual Skopas works for comparison, so why even try? This sort of thing makes me so mad.

But this sort of thing fascinates me:

This sculpture was heavily restored by Alessandro Algardi in the seventeenth century, or maybe the better word is created. The only ancient Roman fabric here is the torso - the head, arms, and legs are all added, completely altering the composition and the subject. What do we do with something like this? In some ways, I feel like there's a point where things like this become works of art in their own right - collage sculptures that are based on (ancient) found objects. There were so many works like this in the Palazzo Altemps, and it's kind of nice to know that there's a museum out there devoted to presenting these strange creations, but educating the public about them.

Now I need to spend a little time gloating about the blockbuster sculptures I saw:

The Suicidal Gaul! I think I'm going to get to see the Dying Gaul at the Capitoline Museums today, so I'll have a complete set of pictures of defeated Gauls. There are a few restorations here, but nothing that really changes the fabric of the sculpture. I was glad to know this, because when I saw all of the other works in this museum, and how recreated they were, I was starting to worry.

And then:

The Ludovisi sarcophagus! This thing really deserves to be a part of all of our survey texts - the deep and intricate carving is just fantastic. I looked at it for a long time, and took a few details.

And finally:

This polychromed bust of Julius Caesar was probably a fake entirely, created by some sculptor who knew he could get more money selling "antiquities" than his own works. Kudos to the museum for making it possible to look at things like this.

After I left the museum, I decided to eat a nice, slow lunch at one of the restaurants in Piazza Navona to recharge my batteries and decide what to do next. While I was sitting there, a man walked by with a sign advertising a free brass and woodwind concert at 6pm in S. Agnes in Agone, a church by Borromini on Piazza Navona. Now, since I've been here visiting churches, I've been dying to hear music in them, because I really don't think I get the full experience of the church among yelling tourists snapping pictures. So I decided to hang out in the Piazza Navona area for the rest of the day to wait for the concert, and so my afternoon was kind of a hodgepodge.

First, I headed over to the Crypta Balbi museum, the last museum on my Museo Nazionale Romano ticket, and found out it was a display of archaeological material and pottery found during excavations in Rome:

Then, after some gelato and some water, I headed across the Ponte Sant'Angelo to look at Bernini's angels:

Here I am on the Ponte Sant'Angelo. You know, I look at these pictures of myself, and I'm starting to feel like that garden gnome from Amelie who goes on a "world tour" with the help of some travel posters.

And then, I was also in and out of Piazza Navona a lot during the afternoon. Piazza Navona is pretty fun in its own right, because, in addition to the art and architecture, there are street vendors, musicians, dancers, and other performers competing for attention.

I'm starting to get kind of obsessed with living statues:

I don't want to say too much right now, because I'm planning on maybe doing a whole post on living statues at some later point, and I'm still collecting pictures, but these people fascinate me. Such dedication.

And among the musicians, these two were my favorite:

They were playing songs on water-filled beer bottles! And this was quite a production - they had treble bottles and bass bottles, and while one played the main melody on the treble bottles, the other one provided counterpoint on the bass. Among their tunes were Oh Susannah!, The Yellow Submarine, and O Sole Mio. I talked to them for a while after their performance, and I found out they were college students from Poland who do this to make money for school. They also talked to me a bit about the good and bad of the street musician life, including the fact that it's hard to get attention in Piazza Navona because there are so many other things going on. I've been meeting so many fascinating people on this trip, and it's great.

Beetham siblings - sure, we can make wine glasses sing and hang spoons from our noses after dinner, but maybe we should be doing this instead! We could probably pull it together.

Finally, it was time for the concert. It turned out that the brass choir was a group composed of high school and college students from Olympia, WA, and the woodwind quintet consisted of their teachers. The program included both the sublime and the ridiculous, everything from Baroque music to Gershwin to the Habanera from Carmen (I lost my shirt!), to something that sounded almost like the theme music from Oregon Trail. I'm definitely going to try to find more free concerts in churches while I'm here, because I'm sure the city is packed with traveling student choirs and orchestras.

And finally, your weird Rome of the day:

Why does a souvenir store in Rome have an American Civil War chess set?

That's all from me for now - I need to get out and have some more adventures!


  1. Sarah, I learned so much from this post and couldn't agree more about the tendency to put down Roman sculptures as copies or imitations of earlier Greek works.

    I remember the Piazza Navona and its lovely fountain with great pleasure. I also recall all the activity and remember visiting S. Agnes in Agone. Little did I know then.... As I recall, the interior was quite darkened by centuries of candle smoke. Maybe it has been cleaned.
    No doubt in my mind that the Beetham siblings could put a great band together and if it's bottles they want to use they know where they can get them.
    Now don't tell me you passed up that chess set!

  2. They must have cleaned S. Agnes in Agone, because the interior last night was simply resplendent - polychrome marble and all.

    I did pass up the chess set, but I don't think it would fit in my backpack. :)

  3. I was only kidding, Sarah, but I bet you thought about it. I'm sure it was quite expensive.

  4. Thank you for your comment on the Spanish Steps. I.Don't.Get.It. They're just stairs!!