Out and About in Rome
I know it is bad form to praise an exhibition that is just about to close, so that no reader can actually go and see it, but that is what I am about to do. Because yesterday, I allowed myself to go out and about in Rome for the first time since I arrived. The truth is, as I have already said, I have been so happy in the library that I haven’t wanted much to step out…. But it was the weekend and there were things to see, and the daughter is also in town.
First stop was the Universal Museum exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale (closes today). I wanted to see this because I have long been interested in Napoleon’s confiscations of art from Italy to fill his new Louvre Museum, and a while ago did a bit of work on the fate (and feting) of such sculptures as the Laocoon and Apollo Belvedere in their temporary French home. What this new exhibition did was look at the other end of the story: that is how the Italian works came home from Italy, and what the effects were.
It was a great exhibition for some of the individual pieces on show that had made the enforced trip to Paris and had then been brought back (Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X, for example, or Perugino’s extraordinary Imago Pietatis). But there were two big interrelated points that were (almost) being made (I could have done with a bit more explicitation). First was about the return of cultural property, and its effects. What is clear is that the return resulted in tremendous changes in the display of art in Italy, because many of the works of art did not go to the places (often churches) they had been nicked from. But – to the chagrin of many of the erstwhile ‘owners’ – they formed the basis of new civic or national museums. (This isn’t unusual, as the daughter pointed out, contemporary repatriations often raise sharply the question of: to whom the objects in question actually being returned?)
Second, was the claim that I think was the big underlying point of the exhibition: namely, that the idea of Italy as cultural and eventually political unity was kickstarted by expropriations and then return of these objects. The last room featured Canova’s ‘Venus Italica’ (crucial epithet, and you see her above) and the series early nineteenth busts of great Italian artists that Canova had sponsored. Risorgimento this way.
As there was time to spare, we then hoofed it to an exhibition that is still running until early May at the Museo di Rome: on Artemisia Gentileschi. This was more crowded in every sense than the Scuderie show (more visitors and more pictures quite close together on the walls). And to be honest I wasn’t quite as capable of concentrating as earlier in the afternoon. But AG’s extraordinary and repeated images of female victimhood and violence were really striking (don’t go to this show if you don’t fancy severed heads, as you see at the very top).
But actually the image that left the strongest impression on me was one of the comparanda, and not by AG herself, sadly. It was Manfredi’s roughly contemporary “Apollo and Marsyas”. I first caught sight of it from across the room, and didn’t instantly see what was going on. It was the look between the two that attracted me, the young god staring into the eyes of the almost naked, bound Marsyas. It was only when I got close that I saw he had just made the first sado-dispassionate surgical cut into Marsyas’ flesh. Ugh.
The other version: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/out-and-about-in-rome/