One thing we often accuse our museum of—or at least, Italian museums—is that they rarely seem up to date with our modern tastes and, in some cases, they even keep that XIX century aura that it’s fascinating in its own right, but doesn’t really showcase the beauty of the treasures they guard. That’s especially true for archaeological museums, and quite a few of them still look like Wunderkammer, “Cabinets of Curiosities” stoked with random ancient objects, with little or none inclination to experimentation.
Luckily, that’s not always the case.
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme is one of the four branches of the National Roman Museum in Rome, directed by Dr. Rita Paris. Its opening dates back to 1995, which makes it a young museum, but even so, since 2005, its rooms have been continuously renewed and updated to modern exhibition standards.
This past week, rooms 2, 3 and 4 on the first floor, the ones displaying portraits and statues made under the Nerva-Antonine dynasty (early to mid II century CE), reopened to the public and we were invited to have a sneak preview of them and to meet some of the curators of the new exposition.
Needless to say, we jumped at the occasion, and that’s how we found ourselves wandering through the newly opened rooms, looking up in wonder at the immortal portraits of people who once upon a time ruled the world.
Busts of Pompea Plotina, wife of Trajan, 110-120 and of Vibia Sabina, wife of Hadrian, 136-138
We were also dazzled by the beauty of the representations of the Roman Provinces as young women, originally from the Hadrianeum, the Temple of Adrian, located not far from the museum, and we could see the funeral relief of Apthonetus, a marble pedimental relief with a long epigraphy and Apthonetus’ portrait, displayed for the public for the first time and documented in every detail.
Personifications of the Roman Provinces, from the Temple of Hadrian, built by his adoptive son and successor Antoninus Pius.
We admired the smoothness of their faces, and the details of their clothes and armours and we were surprised by the pleasant effect given by the contrast between the marble of statues and the dark colour of the supports. We enjoyed our visit very much, and as always, we used our smartphones to fixate in tweets and pictures what we were seeing and feeling, that incredible, eternal charm these ancient statues can have on us.
Marble relief with with portrait and epitaph by Quadratilla for her father Apthonetus, from Colle Tasso, near Tivoli, 130-140.
We also had the pleasure to meet with Carolina De Camillis, architect and external consultant of Palazzo Massimo, in charge of the new lighting system of the rooms. She explained how lighting is an essential component of the new display: halogen lamps typically used in museums tend to give the surfaces of the statues an uniformed glaze, to flatten the differences of colour and in texture that are characteristic of the marble Romans used to make their statues.
The new lighting, created with special LED lamps, allows visitors to fully appreciate the traces that Roman artisans left on their works with their instruments, but also the natural veining of the marbles and, sometimes, even the single macro-crystal of the rock.
It is quite clear, then, that the new displays are the result of a common effort of a number of different professionals such as archaeologists, architects, lightening designers, specialised workers, who work behind the scenes to offer visitors new ways to enjoy the fascination of the ancient world.
Original post and pictures by Antonia Falcone (@antoniafalcone) and Paola Romi (@OpusPaulicium)
Translation from Italian and editing by Domenica Pate (@domenica_pate)