The emperor's new clothes
After the Louvre Pyramid and the British Museum Great Court, now the Capitoline Exedra. The wondrous gallery of art and sculpture housed in Michelangelo’s palazzo on the Capitoline Hill in Rome is the latest to snatch more display space by reclaiming some dead ground and to cover it with elegant, post-modern glass.
In this case, Italian architect Carlo Aymonino has transformed what was a garden between two parts of the building into a stunning combination of archaeological site and museum gallery.
It opened just a few months ago. Last Sunday afternoon, even the locals who wandered in seemed surprised at the new building and what they found in it.
Part of the surprise comes from the vast walls of rough stone blocks that loom on one side of the new gallery, some 20 feet or so in height. These turn out to be the foundations of the very first temple of Jupiter Capitolinus – built in the sixth century BC by the royal dynasty of the Tarquins (or so the story goes) and the most emblematic symbol of Rome throughout its pagan history.
The remains on show were uncovered in the process of clearing the ground for the new extension, and they’ve ended up cleverly incorporated into the design. Until now it has been hard to see more than a few unimpressive fragments of this greatest of all Roman temples. At last we can get some sense of it. Originally some 60 by 50 metres, it’s a temple which speaks dramatically to the power of Rome – even in its very earliest days, when it was still just a small village on the Tiber.
The friends who persuaded me to go and take a look compared the impact to seeing the pyramids for the first time. A bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one.
But the intended star of the new show is not a wall, but the famous bronze statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback. We have no idea where this originally stood in the ancient city. But by the tenth century it had fetched up at the Lateran church – then to be moved to the Capitoline where it became the centrepiece of Michelangelo’s new piazza.
By the late 1970s it was rather the worse for wear. It was suffering, as the English information panels in the new gallery explain, from “an alarming static problem due to some fissures in the legs” (in other words, it was about to collapse). So it was conserved, judged to be too fragile to be in the open air and lodged first in some sheltered housing off a downstairs courtyard of the museum. Now it’s come to this wonderful permanent new stable – the curved “exedra” shape carefully echoing the pavement of Michelangelo’s piazza outside.
It looks so good here -- with all that gilding said (believe it if you will) to have been applied by Michelangelo himself – that you can only wish that it could go back in the piazza where it used to belong. And boot out the nasty chocolate brown replica that now does duty in its place.
Of course, there are problems with the new gallery. Frankly it is a rather extravagant place to display just one sculpture (the couple of other pieces on show are completely dwarfed by it and don’t even get given a label). The English information panels are written, as my quote hints, in a scarcely comprehensible form of pidgin (why on earth don’t Italian museums get a native speaker to check their translations?) And smart as it is, it doesn’t quite match the architectural excitement of the Museum’s own overspill depot a few miles away in a converted power-station down the Via Ostiense, past the Piramide metro station. (That is one of the most extraordinary museum spaces of any that I know, certainly capping the Musée d’Orsay for a briliantly reused industrial space – and woefully under-sold in all tourist literature.)
But those quibbles apart, even old hands at the Capitoline Museum should try to take a look at the new exedra, and prepare – like the locals -- to be surprised.