The Soul of a Museum

Here we are for part #3 of this Capitoline story. We have climbed up the Hill, moving through space and time; we pondered museum space and how to navigate it for meaning and pleasure. Now we can look at some ancient Roman Art. I invite you to bring along what we have considered previously if you like, so we can build a “three-dimensional” sense of place and imagine we are truly there together. Ilaria and I have picked just a few pieces we would like to show you, as an invitation to see more in person when the global situations permits. Ilaria went to the Museums a few mornings ago with her family to take some pictures for this post, grazie Ila!

I have lost my battle for the ideal succinct length of a blog post. Ilaria says that for the Italians 500 words are barely enough to introduce themselves! I still hope it can be read in installments.

The former director of the Uffizi in Florence and the Vatican Museums said that what matters the most about a museum, beyond what it contains, is its soul, its overall message, its reason to exist. The Uffizi might hold the ultimate compendium of Western figurative art, he argues, but its distinctive feature is that it is the Museum of the City of Florence, so intimately present and close through the windows of its galleries. The beauty of the city reflects the beauty of the art in the museum, beauty mirrors beauty.

I love this idea of discovering the identity of museums, almost as if they were people we can get to know, and feel that a parallel can be drawn between the Capitoline Museums and the Uffizi, summing up what we have explored so far. High up on the ancient hill that represented its grandeur, Rome surrounds the museum on each side. Windows and lookouts allow our eyes to roam across its achingly beautiful skyline, all the way to the Vatican and as far as the Colosseum. Unlike other museums elsewhere, even extraordinary ones like the Metropolitan and the Louvre, the ancient art it contains doesn’t come from far away; it comes from out there, from Rome itself. The magnificent sculpture we see in here once graced the ancient city and was then pulled out of its depths during excavations. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius was actually visible, outside, for 1800 years and then moved inside like someone seeking shelter from inclement weather. Even here, the city mirrors the museum and the museum mirrors the city.

We can use this to set the mood for our explorations of the art. We will bring with us the summer sky, the church domes and terracotta roof tiles, the plane trees that accompany the gentle bends of Tiber River nearby, the sound of church bells and motor scooters in the distance.

 Let’s enter, the Emperor Constantine awaits us.

cap cortile

Or, more precisely, parts of him await us.

Ilaria’s kids, Francesco and Livia are our guides!

Constantine is the emperor who made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire after centuries of on and off persecutions, and moved the capital to Constantinople, Istanbul today. He ruled from 306 to 337 AD. He is always recognizable in his portraits: clean shaven, strong chin, “important” nose (naso importante, as we say in Italian), large eyes and helmet-like hair.

Think how common it is for us to see world leaders and celebrities in the newspaper or on TV, and, on the contrary, how rare it must have been for people living in the far reaches of the empire to ever catch a glimpse of their rulers. Art and coins evoked them and informed about them, creating interesting messages and “editing” possibilities. Historical differences aside, the Romans were as obsessed with images as we are today.

Let’s start by just wording what we see (always a good idea): very large fragments of a human figure against the wall of a courtyard.

A closer look reveals that the fragments represent only “extremities” of the body: head, hands, feet. To have an actual experience, we must do two things that require our imagination: reassemble the pieces that are lying in this courtyard, integrate what is gone so as to visualize it intact, and “set it free” by picturing the statue in its original location, where the Romans, whose ruler Constantine was, saw it. This statue represented the emperor in a sitting position and it was about 30 feet tall. No other pieces were found so it might not have all been made of marble but of other, more perishable materials that did not survive. It stood (or sat!) in the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (now included in the area of the Roman Forum), a great, marble-clad- hall that measured 265x 83 feet and was 115 feet high. According to recent scholarship, it was used mostly by the prefect of Rome for administrative purposes.

We understand that one thing is seeing Constantine today, broken up here in this lovely courtyard as modern museumgoers, to see his face rather close up, including the deep carving of his eyes that gives a definite direction to his stare. Another thing would be to see him intact, in his original location, from much further below. His haughty gaze would have appeared to connect with a dimension inaccessible to ordinary citizens who must have felt rather small and with very limited agency in his presence.


Absolute power expressed through Art. It must have been obvious and instantaneous back then, but it can still affect us today if we look with informed eyes and imaginations. Context is everything (I would like this printed on another t-shirt!).

We will stay with context but leave the public display of imperial power behind, and transition to a much more private dimension. Let’s time travel and imagine walking across the ancient city to dine with the fabulously wealthy Maecenas, counselor and friend of the emperor Augustus, such a great protector of culture that his very name has come to be mean patron of the arts in Italian, mecenate. We walk through the gardens of his residence on Esquiline Hill (one of the most impressive of the Horti we mentioned last time) to admire his collection of sculpture. The sound of music and fountains accompanies us. We stop by the statue of Marsyas, now soberly displayed in this room of the Capitoline Museums according to the scientific criterion,  which means surrounded by works from the same location.

cap marsia 1

We need the story our host Maecenas and our fellow guests from 2000 years ago all knew the way we know movie plots today. Marsyas was a satyr, a nature spirit in Greek and Roman mythology, represented as a male figure with goat or horse ears, tail and sometimes hooves. He excelled at playing the double flute and dared to challenge Apollo, the god of music himself, to a contest. Apollo won of course – not altogether honestly! – and punished Marsyas with horrific cruelty by having him tied to a tree and flayed, skinned alive.

Now that we have the context and the story, we can actually look at the statue, a Roman copy of a Greek original. In its original location it may have been part of a group that included the figure of the “executioner” kneeling and sharpening his knife and a seated Apollo presiding over the scene.

What do we notice about Marsyas ?

1) The very dramatic expression of agony on his face; 2) a strange combination of purplish marble (quarried from Turkey, called pavonazzetto from the Italian word for peacock) and a lighter, matte material. The statue was found in fragments: the purple parts are original; the cement parts are modern integrations. In modern Italy, restored sections must be clearly distinguishable from the original ones, so tend to be made of materials that differ in color or texture. Here the contrast works very well and gives us interesting information we can use elsewhere.

But why are the original parts purple? Sculpture in the ancient Greek and Roman world was mostly colored.  We see white marble statues; back then, people saw them painted and vividly realistic and expressive. An alternative to applying paint (we don’t see it anymore because the natural pigments faded over time) was using varieties of colored marble. Marsyas was skinned so the purplish marble was chosen to hyper-realistically represent his flayed flesh. So, so different from what we imagined ancient art was all about!

One question still requires an answer: why would someone want a representation of such atrocious suffering in their home? Let’s go back to Maecenas’ garden, to that stroll with our host and fellow guests. We would stop to look at Marsyas and use it as a conversation piece. The Romans integrated art in their homes with fascinating cultural and social purposes. Busts of philosophers adorned libraries, and statues of Venus, who came out of the sea at her birth, were placed in bathing areas. Marsyas placed in the garden offered the occasion for philosophical conversations on hubris and the dangers of challenging Fate and the gods.

The statue and the conversations it generated showed off the wealth and social status but also the culture and sophistication of the host. Today, celebrities acquire cars and watches to show off, in the past they acquired Art and had lofty conversations…..

We take leave of Maecenas and his guests, and continue walking through the rooms of the Capitoline Museums.

After considering an intimidating emperor and the punishment of a talented, if arrogant, musician by an equally arrogant god, it is time to conclude. I would like to do so with a gallery of ancient Roman faces and my favorite Roman theme.

Portraits were everywhere in ancient Rome, thousands of them, in different materials, in public and private spaces: squares, temples, theaters, baths, homes and tombs, even in military camps. Public spaces became so full of statues that every now and then some were removed to make space for new ones, which always makes me think of green areas being pruned and weeded to continue growing.  Disproportionately male and adult as a reflection of gender roles in their society (and not just theirs), why so many?

Of all the things I have learned about the ancient Romans over the years, the one that means the most to me, that I can admire and love without reservations or careful intellectual constructs, is the importance they assigned to MEMORY as their only conceivable form of Eternity. Honor and glory were sought after to gain power of course, but also to be remembered.  The great families kept wax masks of their ancestors and relatives in a special cupboard in their homes that would be taken out and worn by actors during funerary processions so every generation could be present at the reading of the eulogy. They had their life stories inscribed on their tombs, they built monuments in stone confiding in its resilience to carry their name into the future after they were gone – the very word comes from the Latin monumentum– memory.

I remember talking about this with a friend who was helping her daughter with her Latin homework and she quoted this marvelous sentence to me:

Terra tenet corpus nomen lapis atque animam aer 

The earth holds the body, stone (holds) the name, and the air the soul.

I look at these faces but don’t feel like dwelling on technical aspects, on the origin and meaning of the realism of some of them, the smooth, timeless idealism of others. I just think of the people who lived 2000 years ago and renew my commitment to remember them and the loved ones I myself have lost, to think of them alive and not dead, present alongside me in the city that was theirs and is now ours.

As I walked home after my morning with Ilaria and as I finish writing this post in Seattle, at a time in history when the present feels so oppressive and the future uncertain, I think we can look at Art to feel less locked down to the now and more securely, tightly connected to a very long story of falls and renaissances, and do our part to emerge stronger and wiser.




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