…and their heritage in museums.
Marcus Aurelius may seem esoteric to many Americans, but this late 2nd c. CE Roman emperor was a philosopher, and some scholars today consider his Meditations to be one of the most important texts from the ancient world.
Yes…this is interesting and important! But will it bring people to a museum?
The Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, one of Rome’s museums of ancient art, is located in one of the busiest sections of the city…right next to Rome’s main railroad station. Posters showing objects from the museum’s collection together with passages from Hadrian’s writings inform passersby what treasures lie within. Keep in mind…these are not ads but posters with objects from the museum’s collection and philosophical passages about life from Marcus Aurelius’s writings.
Do you think these are inviting? Do you think they bring visitors into the museum? Do you think the goal is to attract visitors, teach the public, something else?
Yesterday we visited the Colosseum in Rome. Yes…it’s amazing! What’s also amazing is that one of the top floors has been set up with “exhibition rooms” or small galleries to present different aspects of the history of the Colosseum. But this area is completely open! To pigeons…seagulls…wind…rain…snow (it can snow in Rome)…and extreme heat. So how and why is it done?
Below you see two views of introductory panels that have reproductions of views of the Colosseum from the 15th to the 19th cs.
Above are two views of “gallery spaces” that have been built to hold large-scale models of the Colosseum, various ancient sculptures and architectural pieces found in the excavations of the Colosseum, 18th- and 19th-c. paintings, micromosaics, drawings, and contemporary sculptures and videos. You can see the arches of the Colosseum are used as both supports as well as “walls” within the new “gallery spaces.”
Above is one of the displays in the new “gallery space.” You wouldn’t know you were in the Colosseum…and completely outside! You see a painting (a landscape), a glass case with four micromosaics, and a detail of one of the micromosaics depicting the Colosseum. (Micromosaics are just that…mosaics made of tiny tiny tiny tesserae [the different colored pieces of stone]. These were very popular in the 18th and 19th cs. Here is a link to some information about micromosaics.)
What are the curators’ concerns here? Why exhibit these materials here (sculptures, architectural pieces, paintings, decorative arts, reproductions of prints and paintings)? What value do they add to a visitors’ experience of the Colosseum? What problems do curators and registrars face when exhibiting precious objects in the open?
The popes have been collecting art for centuries, and from at least the 16th c. visitors to Rome made a special point of stopping at the Vatican to see the collections of ancient and contemporary art. One important area of collecting has been ancient Roman and Etruscan art, including jewelry.
Why would the center of the Roman Catholic world have such a focus on these areas? In part because 1) this is Rome, 2) the papacy is in Rome, and 3) Early Christian art developed in the Late Antique period, from around 200 to around 400 CE. Jesus was born sometime around the year 1 BCE/CE, but there was no “Christian art” to speak of until Christians gained a political presence in the major cities of the Roman empire, including Rome. Christian artists and patrons relied on established symbols and iconography when creating “Christian” art. For example, you will see many winged figures in ancient Roman art; these are sometimes cupids, sometimes a genius (spirit) figure that Christians developed into angels.
So why would the popes be so interested in collecting objects from ancient Rome? And from the even more ancient Etruscan civilization? (The Etruscans were a powerful people who lived in the center of the Italian peninsula between ca. 800 and 100 BCE, and co-existed with the Romans once the Romans conquered Etruscan cities after the sixth century BCE.)
Collecting Roman and Etruscan objects is one way Renaissance popes demonstrated their sincere interests in understanding Christian history. It was also a way to demonstrate that Christianity conquered Rome, as Rome had conquered the Etruscans.
The Etruscans were among the finest goldsmiths in the ancient world. Indeed, their exquisite gold jewelry has seldom been equaled. The Vatican Museum is fortunate in having some of the most important Etruscan objects in stone, bronze, and gold. Here, you can see how they exhibit gold earrings next to what survives from a stone sculpture of a woman’s face…the woman is wearing the type of earring in the collection. All of these objects were found in tombs.
I’ll have a second post on the Vatican’s Etruscan collection. I’d like for you to think about how these objects can be exhibited.
How do we exhibit objects from an ancient culture that demonstrates both respect for that culture and teaches the public about that culture?
What do you do when you discover an ancient Roman villa under your home? This is a question many Italians face today. If it isn’t a villa, it could be an amphitheatre or rooms from an ancient bath. This happened in 1934 in Minori, Italy, a very small town on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. In the 19th c. it was thought that some spaces below modern buildings belonged to ancient Roman baths — hypocaust systems (how the Romans heated water to make floors and interior spaces warm). Then in 1934 and again in 1954 the town suffered disastrous floods that revealed what this area really was….an impressive personal villa that could hold its own in a contest with Imperial villas. What was Minori to do?
This doesn’t just happen in Italy. Just a few weeks ago in Fredericksburg native American objects were found in the soil near were a new urban city park along the river.
Issues to consider: What if the land is private? What if the objects found are part of your national and personal identity?
Consider the above two issues and create a solution that will both for all parties: owners, a city.state/nation, future generations, your “humanist ideals.”
Above and below are images of the Roman Villa. You can see just how far below the ruins are located below the level of the city…and all of the houses and shops that have grown up over the ancient site.