The Vatican museum
The next stage was to find the famous museum – but this proved a problem. The trouble is that it is vast, and the entrance is at the far end, so one has to walk about a mile along a very grim defensive wall. About half way along the queues begin and at the corner the queues still continued for a further quarter mile walk. Luckily I had already bought my ticket over the web, and eventually, exhausted, I reached the entrance and was waved through without difficulty. I then set out to explore.
I knew that the thing to do was to visit the Sistine chapel, so I thought I would get that over and done with first and then get down to the serious work of looking at their Greek and Roman statues. This proved to be a big mistake as the Sistine Chapel is at the far end, which meant walking at least half a mile back, moving slowly in a mass queue, through interminable galleries of tapestries and maps: but I suppose that the Sistine chapel is the one thing everyone wants to do.
By the time I arrived, I was completely lost. I asked a friendly guard ‘Where is the Sistine chapel?’ and he said ‘It is here; you are in it!’ It was somehow much bigger than I expected; I expected something rather intimate, but this was a huge room, dominated at the f ar end by t he huge painting of the Last Judgement, painted by Michelangelo in his old age, thirty years after he painted the ceiling. ‘
But where is the famous painting of the creation’, I asked. I thought it would be somewhere in the centre, the dominating feature.The guard kindly pointed it out to me, and there it was. It is only a small part of a vast and overcrowded ceiling. But here it is, one of the most famous pictures of all time, Man, all freshly minted being created by a rather elderly God.”I am no painter”, said Michelangelo, who much preferred sculpture. But for a non-painter, working in very cramped conditions, this is a fine effort.
But it is in the middle of a huge composition – one has to look quite hard to find it. I gather that it took Michelangelo three years to paint it all – and it took eight restorers nine years to restore the painting recently. It all looks bright and new – perhaps a little over-restored?
But I must confess, I am rather lost doing art galleries without my wife, who knows art rather better than I do.
And then I sought out my friendly guide again and asked him where are the Greek and Roman statues. He looked at me, pityingly, and said they are in the Pio Clementino gallery, the other end of the museum, by the entrance. Another long, long walk back, but it was worth it. It was full of famous statures many of which I have seen in photos before, but I was now seeing for real for the first time.
The most famous statue in the collection is this statue of Laocoon and his children being devoured by serpents. This was excavated in 1506 when it caused great excitement. Michelangelo hurried down to see it, and it was rapidly acquired by the Vatican where it has been ever since. It is apparently thought to be the very statue described by Pliny the Elder as having been carved by three Greek sculptors from Rhodes, and it is thought to have been carved either in the late first century BC or early in the first century A.D.
It shows Laocoon, who was a priest in Troy, who advise the Trojans not to admit the Trojan horse, but serpents came up and destroyed him and his children, and the Trojans thereupon decided to admit the horse. . The story had a particularly resonance for Rome because had Laocoon not been destroyed by the serpents, and had he been believed, then Troy would not have fallen and Aeneas would not have fled from Troy to found Rome, so in a perverse sort of way Laocoon’s death was responsible for the founding of Rome.
Another very famous statue is a statue of Apollo, originally displayed in the Belvedere, shown having just shot an arrow from the bow held in his left hand. The statue was much admired by the great German scholar Wincklemann, the papal librarian who championed Greek art and established the importance of the Vatican’s art collections. He admired the statue for its ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’, but its reputation has since declined: should we follow Wincklemann?
A work that particularly pleased me, was this bust of Pericles. Pericles was the great Athenian statesman of the glory days of Athens in the fifth century BC and a famous statue of him by Kresilas was placed on the Acropolis. This is one of four known copies – there is a very similar one in the British Museum, though less well displayed.
This statue is known from the inscription on its base as being the Venus Felix statue dedicated by Sallustia to Venus Felix. It shows Venus accompanied by her son Eros, who is reaching up to hand her something, perhaps a mirror.
The hairstyle is similar to that of Faustina the Younger (AD 130 to 175) the wife of Marcus Aurelius, so presumably the statue was carved in the latter half of the second century A.D. Does it follow some Greek original?
Museo Nazionale Romana
The next day I was due to fly home, but my flight was not until six in the evening so I decided to spend the morning doing yet another great museum, the Palazzo Massimo, which is the main part of the National Roman Museum. This is just across the Termini railway station piazza, so very convenient.
I began on the 2nd floor where there were wall paintings. The centrepiece was a garden room reconstructed from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta. This was all in green – just a little eerie – but it gave a good impression of what a Roman room looked like. There were also a couple of smaller rooms which they called bedrooms which were all in red and highly decorated – it would have given me nightmares to sleep there.
Then down to the first floor, and a multitude of well-known statues. What I really liked was the display; they had considered the background, particularly I suspect with reference to taking photographs and they did their best to display them against a dark reddish brown colour which made the smooth marble of the statues stand out beautifully. I took a lot of photos. My favourites however were on the ground floor which concentrated on statues of Emperors, which I am very keen on. My favourite was a full-length oversize statue of Augustus dressed as a priest with elaborate headgear which was one of the best statues of Augustus I have seen. And with that, my visit to Rome concluded, and I hurried to the airport. It had been a good trip.
On to the Museo Nazionale Romana