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A New Museum at Rome by T. A. T.

1876

A new museum of sculpture at Rome! One would have thought that it could hardly be needed. Besides three vast collections—that of the Lateran, that of the Capitol, and that wondrous world of antique sculpture at the Vatican, itself, in fact, three museums, and each of the three alone matchless in the world—we have the work of the hands that lived and worked here a couple of thousands of years ago in every villa, in every garden, almost at every corner. And yet we need, and have just established, another museum of ancient sculpture. We are now cutting new lines of streets—not, as you are doing, on the surface of a soil that has never been moved save by the forces of Nature since first the Creator divided the sea from the dry land, but—among the débris of the successive civilizations of more than three thousand years. The laying of our gas- and water-pipes breaks the painting on the walls of banquet-halls whose last revel was disturbed by the irruption of the barbarian. Our "main drainage" lies among the temples of gods whose godlike forms are found mutilated and prostrate among the fallen columns and tumbled architraves and cornices of their shrines.

But if no awe of the mighty past prevents the speculator and contractor of our day from marching his army of excavators in an undeviating and unyielding line impartially athwart the temples, the palaces, the theatres, the baths of the perished world beneath their feet, yet in these days of ours the work is done reverently, at least so far as not only to respect, but to gather up with the most scrupulous care, every available fragment of the art, and even of the common life, of those vanished generations. If the day shall come when some future people shall yet once again build their city on this same eternal site, and some future social cataclysm shall have overwhelmed the works and civilization of the present time, those future builders will not find walls constructed in great part of the fragments of statues and the richly-carved friezes of yet older builders and artists, as we have found. The Romans of the present day are, it must be admitted, fully alive to the inappreciable value of the wondrous heritage they possess in this kind; and every fragment of it is carefully and jealously gathered and stored. And hence is the need of a new museum, and hence will be the need of other new museums—who shall say how many? For truly this Roman soil seems inexhaustible in buried treasures. There seems no likelihood that the vein should be exhausted or die out. Every now and then the excavators come upon "a fault," as the miners say, but the vein is soon struck again.

And so the new museum at the Capitol has been rendered necessary. It was inaugurated on the 25th of February in this year. It consists of twelve rooms or galleries, part of which occupy the site of the apartments which used to contain the archives, now moved to other quarters, and part, including a large octagonal hall, the principal feature of the new museum, have been newly constructed on ground which used to be the garden of the Conservatori, the ancient municipal officers of the city, so called. The entrance is by the main staircase of the palazzo of the Conservatori, which is the building that forms the side of the square of the Capitol to the right hand of the visitor as he ascends the magnificent flight of steps from the Via di Ara Coeli. The steep sides of the Capitoline Hill on either side of these steps has been recently turned into a very well-kept and pretty garden, among the lawns and shrubberies of which the attention of the stranger, as he ascends, may be attracted by a neatly-painted iron cage in front of the mouth of a little cavern in the rock, which is inhabited by a she-wolf in memorial of the earliest traditions of the place. Memorials, indeed, are not wanting at every step, and from the first window of the staircase as the visitor ascends to the museum on the first floor he may look down on the Tarpeian Rock.

The public functionaries of all sorts here do so much of their work in a manner which gives rise to much discontentment among the Romans, and would by the people of better-ruled countries be deemed wholly intolerable, that it is a pleasure to be able to say that upon this occasion the municipality has done what it had to do thoroughly well. The galleries and rooms of the new establishment are decorated in admirably good taste in the Pompeian style, the walls being colored in panels and borders of blue and red on a buff ground. They are excellently well lighted, and the visitor is not hunted round the rooms by an attendant anxious only to get his tedious task over, but is allowed to wander about among the treasures around him at his own discretion, and to spend the whole day there, or as much of it as lies between 10 A.M. and 3 P.M., if he pleases. A sufficient catalogue, accompanied by a map of the place, is purchasable at the doors for a couple of francs, and the visitor is required to pay half a franc for his entrance. This last regulation is in accordance with a law recently passed by the legislature establishing an entrance-fee at the doors of all public galleries and museums throughout Italy. Heretofore the entrance to all such places was entirely free. But, seeing that the country really needs the assistance to be obtained from this source, it cannot be said to be acting otherwise than reasonably in making such a charge; and probably no one of the thousands who come to Italy to profit by her artistic treasures will ever grudge the payment of the small fee demanded; the only question being whether the measure is on the whole a profitable one financially, of which I do not feel quite sure.

The first landing-place of the vast staircase and the ante-room at the top of it are lined with the more interesting and perfect of the pagan inscriptions which the recent movements of the soil have brought to light. Of course, the majority of these present no specialties distinguishing them from the thousands of similar inscriptions with which the world has long since been familiar. But there are some among them which contribute useful fragments of knowledge to the attempts of our antiquaries to construct a satisfactory plan of the ancient city—dedications of statues, showing what god or goddess inhabited such or such a shrine, and the like. The letters of these inscriptions have been rendered more easily legible by restoring the scarlet coloring of them, as has been done in the case of those at the Vatican.

The visitor next enters a very long corridor or gallery giving access to the various halls and rooms, and adorned with a series of modern busts of the men of whom Italy has most reason to be proud. Some among them are of much merit.

Then comes the gallery of the bronzes. In this department the late finds have been very numerous and extremely interesting. Among the objects which will immediately attract the visitor's eye as he enters the principal room are a litter and a biga or chariot. In both cases of course only fragments of the bronze remain, but they are sufficient to have enabled skilled antiquaries to reconstruct the entire litter and the entire chariot. The latter is very specially interesting. The plates of embossed and chiseled bronze which encased the body of the chariot are figured with admirably-worked subjects in basso-rilievo, many of them relating to the "wondrous tale of Troy." This invaluable specimen was the gift to the museum of that eminent and liberal archæologist, Signor A. Castellani, of whose matchless collection of Etruscan jewelry I wrote in a former number of this Magazine. The remaining portions of the bronze- and iron-work of the litter, with its arrangement of poles for carrying it, somewhat after the fashion of a sedan-chair, though the whole of the apparatus is much lighter, are more fragmentary, but yet sufficient for the reconstruction of a specimen illustrative to the classical reader of many a passage in the ancient writers. Under No. 10 the visitor will find the small statue of an hermaphrodite in bronze, fashioned as the bearer of a lamp—a statue of very great delicacy and beauty.

The next room is that of the medals and coins, the number of which will probably surprise the visitor not a little. The gold coins and the better-preserved and more interesting specimens are shown single under cleverly-arranged glass cases. The more ordinary results of the finds which are almost daily being made have been consigned in promiscuous heaps to huge glass vases, whose tops, however, are carefully sealed down. The large collections of the æs rude signatum of the consular and of the imperial families, in bronze, in silver and in gold, together with some mediæval specimens, are ranged around the walls.

Then we come to the sculpture, the main scope of the new museum, which is distributed in a large vestibule, in a noble octagonal central hall and in a long gallery. It was an excellent idea, adding much to the interest which every stranger in Rome will take in the museum, to place on each specimen a placard specifying the locality in which it was discovered and the date of the finding. And this information is admirably supplemented by a map hung against the wall showing in detail the relative positions of all the places which have yielded up these long-buried treasures. The number of specimens of sculpture is in all one hundred and thirty-three; and it is impossible, without letting this notice run to an immoderate length, to attempt to give an adequate account of the various objects, or even of the principal among them. There is a richly-ornamented and very characteristic head of Commodus, which really looks as if it might have come from the sculptor's hands yesterday. A colossal bust of Mæcenas, also the gift of Signor Castellani, a bust of Tiberius, a small statue of the child Hercules, a Venus Anadyomene, may be, and many others might be, mentioned. The last-named is a very lovely statue of a young girl entirely nude. The archæologists have chosen to call it a Venus, but it is to my thinking clear that it never was intended for the laughter-loving goddess. The expression of the face is perfectly and beautifully chaste, and indeed a little sad. I should say that it must have been a nymph coming from the bath, and just about to clothe herself with the drapery thrown over a broken column at her knee as soon as she shall have completed the arrangement of her tresses, with which her hands are (or, alas! were, for the arms are wanting) engaged.

Room No. 10 contains a very extensive and most interesting collection of ancient pottery. There are many of the painted vases with which the world has become so well acquainted, and which, as being the more showy objects, will on his first entrance attract the eye of the visitor. But if he will with loving patience examine the vast numbers of utensils of every sort which have been with the utmost care sifted, one might almost say, from out of the mass of débris which the recent excavations have thrown up, he will find an amount of suggestive illustration of the old pagan life of two thousand years ago which cannot fail to interest and instruct him.

T.A.T.