Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The delightful and the disappointing

Man, I'm having a hard time making my midnight deadline for blog posts. Trip fatigue is definitely setting in - I wrote about half of this last night before I had to go to sleep. I may not be sorry to see the end of this trip.

I barely strayed six blocks away from my hostel yesterday. My first visit was to the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, which combines the fantastic with the frustrating. The frustrating first: this museum has a bad reputation for poor labels, dusty sculptures, dim lighting, and inexplicably closed wings, and I saw a bit of each of these today. The worst part was the closed sections: I wasn't able to go into the Secret Cabinet or the rooms of mosaics. So no Alexander Mosaic for me, which was a real bummer, because I was really excited about examining it up close and thinking about "copies" v. "originals". As for the Secret Cabinet, well... I was really looking forward to visiting Pompeii's naughty bits, and getting a good look at my favorite pornographic sculpture, the Pan and Goat. But I guess this means I'll have to make another trip to Naples.

All was not lost, however. The first floor galleries of mostly ancient Roman sculptures from the Farnese collection were available, as were the galleries of wall paintings taken from Pompeii, so I had plenty to keep me busy.

I really liked this polychrome statue of Apollo:

His clothing is all carved from porphyry, and I think it may have been a single piece, because I wasn't able to find any seams. This must have been an incredibly expensive and difficult undertaking, especially given the depth of the drapery folds.

This statue of Antinous was rather amusing:

That head does not go with that body. The find spot for the body is unknown, but the head was purchased later and screwed on top of it. The job here is much better than some others I've seen, though - if it hadn't been for the fact that the statue has recently been cleaned and thus the two marbles are obviously of different colors, I might not have noticed this Frankentinous. As it was, I had a chance to record this and to think a bit more about how the noble families of Italy made completely new artworks in their desire to have complete antique sculptures. Someone with a knowledge of antiquity and an interest in sculpture should really work on how these collections of antiquities worked for these families, if no one is doing it already.

This little fellow caught my eye among all the white marble statues:

I think he was made of red limestone, and was only about three feet tall at the most. One thing that has really been great about this trip has been seeing all the works from antiquity executed in multicolored stones. It's a dimension of the story of sculpture that isn't usually covered broadly in art history classes.

I also got a chance to see the most complete known sculptural group of the Tyrannicides:

These two works, found in Hadrian's villa, are believed to be statues of two Greek brothers, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and copies of famous Greek works (read their whole story here). These guys are symbols of Athenian democracy, and it's interesting that they were so popular during Roman imperial times, and even with the Roman emperors. Were they only cherished because they represented Greek art, or was there something more to it? It's hard to be sure.

Here's another work invented by restorers:

The find consisted of the area draped with the dress, and the head, hands and attributes are modern restorations. What was probably a standard portrait of an empress or private individual is now a Muse. Funny how these things work out.

On to the meat of the collection! When I reached the room labeled "Baths of Caracalla," I knew what I was going to see when I turned the corner:

The Farnese Hercules! He really is impressive when you see him in person - check out the scale with that person standing next to him. I still kind of think that left arm looks like a pantyhose stuffed with Play Doh (sorry Adam), but I really enjoyed seeing the big lug in the flesh. He's beautifully carved.

Take a look at this face:

The weariness of the expression is really quite evident, and the hair and beard are beautifully and deeply carved.

I also spent a long time walking around and around the Farnese Bull:

I forget the whole story here, but I know this group is highly restored from a pile of fragments that were found in the Baths of Caracalla. Walking around it, I could see big sections of marble that were clearly integrated into the fragments, and although I'd heard that there was wall text to explain this, it really wasn't up to my standards. One thing I found interesting was the claim that this work was originally made in antiquity from a single block of marble - if we found it in a million pieces, how do we know? Strange.

Here are some more Farnese shenanigans:

For many years, this statue was labeled in the Farnese collection as a bust of Brutus because of its resemblance to a bronze portrait also believed to be of Brutus. We now know that the bronze portrait is not of Brutus at all, and furthermore, that the lower half of the face of this bust was highly reworked to turn a clean-shaven portrait bust of Trajanic date into a bearded bust of Brutus. Now, that is funny.

And here's Caracalla:

Why are busts of Caracalla always so compelling? I know that he's been handed down through history as kind of an awful guy, but I rather love his portraits.

And then, I got to see one of the works that I've been most excited to visit in Naples:

The Doryphoros! It's kind of funny, though - I didn't feel quite as much of the magic thrill that I've experienced in front of so many other artworks on this trip. He's not very well lit - as you can see, he's standing on what is more or less a wooden pallet, in a hallway that is flooded with sunlight, except where he's standing because he's shaded by a big pillar. And he's dusty. And it looks like he's been the victim of some kind of overzealous conservation, because his face just looks... bland. No light or shadow from careful lighting to help him, not even any darker material in the crevices of the marble that would leave the impression of this. It all made me a little sad, but maybe this just proves my point about how individual examples of the Doryphoros are undervalued. This statue meant a lot to somebody in Pompeii once, and it's illustrated in every art history textbook that talks about ancient art. So what's it doing in a hallway? Hmm.

On the second floor of the museum, several rooms were full of resplendent examples of Pompeian wall painting. Unfortunately, I was hitting my museum fatigue at this point - it was very hot in there, and my feet were really starting to ache from the hard floors. The works weren't particularly well labeled - it was the kind of setup where there is one central label that says what everything is, and then you have to find particular works on it. And often, the labels didn't even say in which houses the panels were found, and so context was pretty much completely lost. I'm hoping that I have a better experience walking around Pompeii today.

But I did really enjoy seeing this portrait:

This image of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife appears as an example of Roman painted portraits wherever this topic is discussed, perhaps because it is one of the few examples we have of this genre. I really enjoyed looking at it up close.

Then there was this whole room of still lifes:

For some reason, this room was roped off and no one was allowed to enter, so I had to snap this photograph from the doorway. I really would have liked to look at these works up close, but I guess that's another example of the strangeness of this museum.

So that was my visit to the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale! My day was not over, though - after a quick lunch, I decided to check out Underground Naples, a tour strongly recommended by Giovanni, which turned out to be another excellent suggestion. Naples was one of those cities that for centuries had a city wall for protection and a law that forbid building outside the city wall. As a result, as the city became more populated, tenants began building up (not unlike Manhattan!), and when Nero's ancient theater was toppled by an earthquake, the semicircular area was buried under new housing. That shape is still visible when looking at Naples from overhead, and some of the remains of the theater are still underground, along with a complicated series of tunnels related to an underground Roman aqueduct. The tour involves looking at some of these underground remains.

I took several pictures, but my flash was not enough to counteract the darkness, and my slow exposures are pretty blurry. We started out by visiting a small part of the theater that would have been part of the backstage area, then moved on to the aqueduct. Here's my best picture of one of the cisterns:

These underground spaces were used as bomb shelters during World War II, and also played an important part in the city's resistance against occupation from the Nazis. Parts of this history and the history of the building and maintenance of the aqueduct were told in dioramas featuring creepy mannequins that looked rather like iron maidens. Definitely added to the weird factor.

Then there were the tunnels (this is a Wikipedia photo):

This tunnel was relatively short, but part of the experience involved taking candles and walking along a tunneled path that had a pretty high ceiling - probably about 40 feet - but was so narrow that at times I had to turn sideways because my hips were too wide to pass through frontally. I was so glad that I wasn't any heavier - you probably couldn't run an attraction like this in America. My companion on this tour was a lovely English girl named Isabel, who distracted me from my claustrophobia by asking me to talk about my grad school studies. I really appreciated this kindness.

Can you believe I did that? My fear of heights and claustrophobia have really been challenged on this trip, but I guess there's a lot I will do if history and aesthetics are involved.

Well, today I am off to Pompeii! I need to get myself ready to go - I have been as slow as molasses lately.

1 comment:

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