January is often a very nice month to visit Rome – usually not too cold, and without the huge number of tourists you see most times of the year. So we decided to spend a few days there right after the holidays.
Museo centrale montemartini
On our first day, we visited the Museo Centrale Montemartini, an unusual museum of ancient Roman art in a former power station. Rome has so much ancient art that a lot of it is in storage facilities operated by the Capitoline museum. About 20 years ago, someone realized that this early 20th century power station, which had been out of commission since the 1960s, would make a terrific display space.
When we were there, the museum had a special exhibit of ancient Roman mosaics. I’ve seen a lot of ancient mosaics, at this point, but the variety and complexity of the subjects and designs continue to impress me.
Because of the museum’s size, it’s a great place to display some of the giant statuary that used to grace the streets of ancient Rome. Most of these statues are in pieces now, but you can see even from these remnants how large these statues must have been.
Most of the museum was dedicated to art of the later Empire – statues and busts of emperors most have never heard of. But there was also a room devoted to Roman statues of children. We’re used to seeing Roman statuary as monumental and heroic. Several of these pieces, though, depict older children with pensive faces and thoughtful expressions. I found them quite charming.
van gogh exhibition
A principal reason for our visit was to see an exhibition of about 50 Van Gogh paintings, on loan from the Kroller Muller Museum in the Netherlands. There are not many Van Goghs in Italy, so this exhibition was a major event.
Van Gogh was born in 1853, and he spent much of the 1870s in various unsuccessful jobs, as a bookseller, an art dealer, even a preacher. He did not decided to devote his life to art until around 1880, and he died by his own hand in 1890. Somewhat remarkably, his outsized reputation as an artist is based on an active career of slightly more than 10 years,
Much of Van Gogh’s early work was done in his native Holland. These works use a restrained color palette – mostly blacks, browns, and grays. But you can already see the intensity in the faces of his subjects for which he later became famous.
The Potato Eaters (1885); Head of a Woman in a White Cap (1884-85); Portrait of Sien, believed to have been Vincent’s lover, seated near the stove (1882).
In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris to be with his brother Theo, who managed an art gallery. He got acquainted with a number of artists working in Paris at the time, including Pissarro, Manet and Gauguin, and under their influence he began to paint using a wider variety of colors.
After about a year, Vincent moved to Provence, where his paintings became a riot of color, and where his most famous works were created.
His struggles with depression are well known. After leaving the sanatarium near St. Remy, Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France, where he went into a frenzy of work, painting at least one canvas a day for the last few months of his life. The paintings of this last year seem to be going in a very different direction.
Portrait of a Young Woman, and Tree Trunks in the Grass (both 1890).
The exhibition included one of Van Gogh’s last paintings, of man sitting in a chair, whose ineffable sadness reaches out to you over the decades and suggests what Vincent’s sad fate was to be.
Given Van Gogh’s enormous current reputation, it’s remarkable to note that only one of his paintings was sold during his lifetime. Vincent’s beloved brother Theo died only a short time after Vincent’s death. It was Theo’s widow, Johanna, a cultured woman who had many connections in the art world, who developed a wider audience for Vincent’s work in the years after his death.
Raoul Dufy Exhibit
We also visited an ongoing exhibit of Raoul Dufy, a 20th C French painter who I had formerly known mostly for his paintings of Nice in the early part of the last century.
He lived until 1953, though and in later years produced quite a variety of work, including fabric designs (some still in their original spools), marine landscapes and watercolors.
Note how in this painting you can see the floor and the wall through the glass tabletop – an effect which artists have been interested in creating since the Renaissance.
Regatta (1935) and the jetty at Honfleur (1928)
One of the exhibit’s most interesting works was a study for The Spirit of Electricity. The original, designed for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, presented the history of electricity and how it had changed the world in a few brief decades. The original mural, believed to be the largest painting in the world, is in Paris. But even in this reduced-size format it was pretty impressive.
The mural reminded me, in concept if not in style, of the Diego Rivera murals we saw recently in Mexico City, which were painted around the same time.
The Palazzo Colonna is a privately owned museum situated in the ancestral property of the Colonna family, which has been prominent in Rome for nearly 1000 years. The museum is open only a couple of days a week, since several members of the family still live in separate apartments on the property. We took an English-language guided tour, which I would highly recommend because there is so much to see.
The interiors are sumptuous. Note the column which is the symbol of the Colonna family (their name means “column” in Italian).
The Palazzo has a particularly impressive collection of tapestries.
Over the centuries, the Colonna married into many aristocratic Italian families. As a result, they accumulated a varied and extensive art collection. Here are some selections,
There’s so much art covering all the walls, that when the family found a Titian not long ago, they decided to display it in a spare room while they figured out where to put it.
One of the most interesting works is the Bean Eater, by Annibale Carracci. Carracci, a Bolognese painter, is usually considered a Baroque artist. But this painting of a humble peasant eating beans seems to be an early example of a type of realism that wouldn’t be popular in Europe for another few hundred years.
But, as our guide noted, its realism is a bit deceptive. The hands and clothes of the “peasant” are a bit too clean, his table manners a bit too dainty. And there’s a tablecloth and an elegant jug, tableware which few peasants at the time would have had access to. Note how the painter positions a drinking glass in front of the jug, so you can see the jug through the glass. Note that Raoul Dufy was still playing with this effect more than three centuries later.
The most famous room in the Grand Gallery, whose ceiling depicts the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, a naval battle in which a European fleet from several nations defeated the Ottoman naval forces. Marcantonio Colonna was the Admiral in charge of the Papal fleet, and you might be forgiven if, judging only from this gallery, you thought that Colonna was individualy responsible for the victory. In reality, there were a few other people involved, including the maritime republics of both Venice and Genoa.
The Gallery is also famous for being the location of Audrey Hepburn’s press conference in the iconic Hollywood film, Roman Holiday.
The Palazzo also has extensive gardens, hidden away from the entrance, and offering some magnificent views.
The maremma – Land of the etruscans
A little over an hour’s drive north of Rome, you reach a coastal plain called the Maremma, which starts in the northern part of the province of Lazio (the province where Rome is located) and continuing on through Tuscany. This was the heartland of the Etruscans, a native group that flourished from the 9th C BC. Rome gradually brought the Etruscans under their control, and the Etruscans were finally conquered by the Romans in the 3rd C BC. But “conquering” is probably too strong a word. Several kings of ancient Rome – the Tarquins – are believed to have come of Etruscan origin. And numerous Roman religious rites and ceremonies derived from Etruscan roots.
Today the region is relatively unpopulated, unusual for a place so close to Rome. So you can see some of the Etruscan artifacts in surroundings not dramatically different than those that existed 2000 years ago.
The Vulci Archeological Park, near the Lazio/Tuscany border, has the remains of an excavated Etruscan village. There’s not that much easily photographed here – the ruins require a lot of imagination. But the park does have a beautiful lake.
The town of Tarquinia is an ancient one, and it was known as an important trading city as early as the 9th C BC. It was also the birthplace of the Tarquin kings of ancient Rome. Today, it is a pleasant little town of about 15,000 with a first-class archeological museum.
The Etruscans had trading relationships all over the Mediterranean. This is most obvious in their pottery, which was clearly influenced by the Greeks but had its own unique decorative style. I was particularly interested in the unusual animals that appeared – this vase has something that looks like a leopard. And where did that monkey come from? These animals were not native to the area, but clearly the artists who made these pieces had seen them – evidence, to me, of a network of trade that was as extensive as it was robust.
These horses, from an Etruscan temple of the 3rd or 4th C BC, are a masterpiece of Etruscan sculpture.
The museum also has several examples of Etruscan tomb art – these are from the 5th C BC.
Etruscan glass was also of high quality. These pieces, dating from the 1st C BC, would not look out of place in modern gallery of art glass.
The museum also included the sarcophagi of several worthies, important men in their day, with detailed inscriptions of their names and titles. Our ability to read Etruscan is still imperfect, but we know that the language was read right to left, like Semitic languages but unlike Latin or Greek. The inscriptions indicated that several of these men had lived until their 70s or early 80s – indication of a way of life prosperous and secure enough to allow them to survive to a relatively old age.
Although it’s hard to see in the photograph, several of these inscriptions gave the decedent’s age using what we would call Roman numerals. This puzzled me, since the rest of the inscription was in the Etruscan language. It turns out that what we call “Roman” numerals actually originated with the Etruscans. It was the Etruscans who invented the basic number symbols we are so familiar with: I, V, X and C. The Romans adopted the system, invented new symbols for larger numbers, and propagated the use of these numbers throughout the Empire.
Just outside the town is the necropolis of Monterozzi. The necropolis has 6000 tombs, the oldest dating from the 8th C BC. About 200 of the tombs have frescoes painted on the walls. Some of the tombs have fallen prey to grave robbers, and in consequence over the years a number of paintings and artifacts have been moved to museum
In the early 1960s, the Italian government decided to create an archeological park where about two dozen of the most beautiful and best preserved tombs can be viewed by the public. Each tomb can be accessed by an interior staircase, and a small chalet protects the opening from the elements. The tombs are visible through a special viewing window. Even though the pictures are a bit fuzzy, you can still feel the exuberance of the depictions.
I’ll leave you now with some more photos of Rome, a city that I love to visit and which I can’t seem to get enough of.
These are from the Aventino Hill, near our hotel.
These are near the Porta Ottaviano, near the ancient Jewish Ghetto.
And here we are on an evening walk, on a terrace overlooking the ancient Forum.
Until next time!