What’s not to like about the Prado?

Crossing_the_River_Styx

Crossing of the River Styx by Joachim Charon, Wikimedia Commons, or, me navigating the halls of the Prado last October.

Aside from the lack of pillows on the benches and readily available masseuses (which is possibly asking a bit much of a museum), nothing really.

Having been warned by a bloke at the tourist office in Madrid (in the pleasingly symmetrical plaza Major) that queues start early at the Prado, I arrived 15 minutes before the doors opened, and fitted myself into the serpentine queue of similarly eager visitors.

I only had two days in Madrid, so I’d planned nothing else for the day, and in fact I emerged with the twilight settling onto the wet surfaces of the park surrounding the Prado, at 6pm.

I left with a list of favourites which I saved as a draft in my Gmail as I walked along. It might be lacking some of my most favouritest because I was too in awe to think of writing things down… I’m sure there were some lady artists I’d noted which are clearly missing here.

Isabel II, veiled

Isabel II, veiled by Camillo Torreggiani,
©Museo Nacional del Prado, or, Me waking up with a hangover.

Here it is anyway, in the order in which I saw the works and jotted down notes:

  • I couldn’t resist the medieval revivalism of Los amantes de Teruel by the nineteenth-century Valencian Antonio Muñez Degrain.
  • The veiled bust of Isabel II by the Italian Camillo Torreggiani.
  • Joaquin Sorolla’s ¡Aún dicen que el pescado es caro! – for the title, of course, but also for the very strange and eerie scene it portrays.
  • Lorenzo Valles’ Demencia de Doña Juana  – the madness of Joan of Castile. This story is so compelling, and the painting is in this beautiful narrative style.
  • Such cute little devils in the Maestro de Zafra’s Saint Michael Archangel.
  • I enjoyed the very detailed account of Saints Cosmos and Damian by Fernando del Rincon, with the static effects of architectural depth contrasting with the movement in the medical scene in the foreground.
  • This painting of a stately dwarf by Juan van der Hamen y Leon (and his flower stills as well).
  • This weirdly erotic portrait of Saint John the Baptist by Fray Juan Bautista Maino.
  • I’m always a fan of Saint John‘s beheaded head. This one by Ströbel El Joven is fun (as were many other things by him).
  • Van Dyck’s portrayal of his one-armed colleague Martin Ryckaert, which resided in the Real Alcazar for a time.
  • Anton Rafael Mengs’ self portrait, which reminded me of Zach Braff.
  • The miniaturistic Paso de la laguna Estigia by Joachim Patinir Charon, with the mesmerising aquamarine blue.

I also have Mayken Verhulst written down, but not sure what struck me of his precisely…

Do you have any favourites?

A quick reflection on Berlin: the Bode Museum

While I puppy-sat with Freddie and worked on a writing commission, Berlin’s vibrant cultural scene provided the break I needed from over-eating and not walking enough in Puglia.

The Museuminsel

A good deal of Berlin’s museums are neatly concentrated on the Museum Island, which seems to be typical of Austro-Prussian imperial designs (I visited the Museum Quarter in Vienna in August, for example, similar in layout if not in concept or design).

The effect of the layout and proportions of the architecture on Museum Island is as awe-inspiring as no doubt was intended, and there is an overwhelming sense of reverence towards the material culture of the past even before entering the monumental doors of the museums.

It was hard not to connect this decadent imperial austerity to Berlin’s glaring twentieth-century past, etched as it is into the fabric of the buildings housing the artefacts, and into the narratives of collection and display.

‘Beyond Compare’ at the Bode

The Bode Museum was hosting the fantastic temporary exhibition ‘Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum’. Objects from Africa were placed somehow in physical juxtaposition to the more familiar, most often Christian, European objects which make up the Bode collection.

This occurred seemingly at random throughout the entire museum, so that the visitor is suddenly confronted with this unusual pairing, and invited to reflect on differences and similarities, connections and common themes in the cultures which had produced each object.

Themes like beauty, race, power, devotion, protection, life and death were evoked, for example, through a fourth-century marble head of a Roman emperor from Turkey, placed next to a seventeenth-century commemorative wooden head of a king from the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria.

 

These two figures in particular both challenge our modern concepts of gender, as the beautifully chiselled and carved features of the emperor and king stare ahead with an androgynous quality: I, for one, had mistaken both for female figures as I approached them. At the same time we are confronted with the gentle, easy grace of the Roman emperor, versus the stern pride of the Nigerian king, two different approaches to lordship, power, and protection.

The curators explain:

The implicit process of comparing, separating, and assigning objects to different collections was a fundamental step in the foundation of the Berlin museums and the definition of their respective missions. In the process many objects from Africa were defined as ethnological artefacts, while other objects of comparable artistry from European ritual contexts remained in art museums.

The act of comparing and identifying is therefore not neutral, but charged with socially defined prejudices, conventions, and constructions of history. It [is] also governed by the experiences of the individuals who draw the comparisons. Defining two things as similar or different is often related to power. The process of comparison is thus closely tied to questions of collection history, aesthetics, colonialism, and gender.

This direct attempt at deconstructing and decolonising the museum’s collection through the simplest of solutions is an important initiative which serves to challenge the collection’s traditional objectives and engage the visitor in a thought-provoking exercise.

Public Engagement

One small criticism I am tempted to make is that while the exhibition asks these important questions, any subsequent questions or answers the visitor might have sort of fizzle away into nothingness, as there is no obvious space or tool to continue to engage meaningfully in that conversation.

Visiting the website, I learned that the exhibition is complemented by a series of themed guided tours and a round table discussion which involves curators from Berlin, New York, Cleveland, and Cape Town. These would certainly all be very interesting to attend, but unfortunately I did not stick around long enough.

My recently Berlinified friend Sophie and I agreed that it  would be great to see this as a travelling exhibition, perhaps applied to other traditional collections, as it really breathes new life among dusty old walls!

A three-day pass (€29, otherwise around €12 per entrance) allowed me to pick a few of Berlin’s museums to visit: the Bode, the Pergamon, and the Neue. My favourite by far was the temporary exhibition at the Bode.

Palazzo Baldassarre: Portale Uomo di Altamura, Rete Museale

I’m happy to dedicate my first post to my hometown, Altamura, in Puglia, Southern Italy.

For a town of 70k inhabitants, rich in traditions and history, and fiercely proud of both, I’ve always felt that the cultural offering was somewhat lacking here.

While the largest and richest museum, the National Archaeological Museum, is filled with stunning pieces which leave you wondering whether it is safe to walk anywhere without destroying precious ancient artefacts, its grey and lackluster presentation, teamed with the sleepy entrance foyer, cold halls, and eerie echoes bouncing off the white-lit artefact cases as you read the dry labels under your breath to feel less alone, make this one of my least favourite museums in the world. I confess I was surprised to find that it was a candidate for the 2018 Council of Europe Museum Prize! (The prize went instead to the brand new War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, opened by young entrepreneurs who have lived through civil war in their own childhoods – I highly recommend taking a look at the project).

The little museum of Palazzo Baldassarre is therefore a welcome recent addition to the heritage management scene of Altamura. The museum is dedicated to the ‘Man of Altamura’, affectionately known locally as ‘Ciccillo’, a complete skeleton of a homo Neanderthal found in 1993 in a cave by two members of the local speleological society while out on one of their weekend rambles.

The building

Immediately the museum gains points and esteem among locals for inhabiting, and thus finally reviving the beautiful Baldassarre Palace, an important landmark within the walls of the medieval centre. The building, erected between the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries by the Baldassarre family, who were in fact masons and building contractors, had been left already in a bad state of disrepair by the last of the Baldassarre heirs in the 1950s. Several initial efforts were made to repurpose and redevelop the property, but to no avail.

I remember as a small child clambering over wooden planks fixed to the ground-level windows in a feeble attempt to discourage trespassers, to explore dark and humid rooms, ostensibly now waste collection chambers and hideouts for junkies.

The building now houses a small display of mostly plaster replicas of artefacts accompanied by large panels explaining Paleolithic history, and showcasing the Altamura find within the context of other similar important archaeological material.

My visit

The guided visit begins in a multimedia hall downstairs where visitors are invited to don 3D glasses to watch a video reconstruction of the descent into the cave of Lamalunga, where the skeleton was found. The guide gives as much or as little input as she senses is wanted. She was silent when I was in awe, she spoke when I seemed perplexed, and she answered questions willingly and extensively.

The visit then proceeds upstairs where the guide constructs a succint narration of the essence of the collection and displays. To conclude, the visitor is able to relive the discovery of the humanoid by inspecting a 3D printed life-size replica of the site of the discovery, including Ciccillo himself.

My visit lasted about 45 minutes, and as it had been a spur-of-the-moment late-afternoon affair, the guide informed me that unfortunately we could not visit the upstairs terrace to take in the views of the town, as it was already dark. She did invite me to return the following day though, free of charge.

Analysis

For such a small museum with a very specific scope, I thought the Palazzo Baldassarre packed a fair punch. The hospitality and kindness of the guide and her colleague at the ticket office (who was an Archaeologist) made an immediate impression on me, as did the space, which has incredible potential for community engagement and interaction (the media room, the piazza outside, the rooftop terrace). Perhaps due to the sparse attendance, the staff are able to dedicate more time and attention to individual visits, and this is in a way a definite advantage which makes the experience more involving, and I think it is something the museum should seek to preserve when attendance increases.

The educational material is pivotal for the local community, particularly for school kids to learn about their own heritage, and the human element of the museum’s theme would lend itself well to any number of different events and initiatives. With the right proposals from curators, local art and culture groups, and even activist groups and societies, and of course with some funding, the potential for this museum to be a real educational and cultural hub, and a community binder is, I think, much greater than the sum of its parts.

Some facts and figures

Entry ticket: €4, or €5 for a combined ticket to visit the Visitor Centre of Lamalunga on the same day (though the nice ladies at reception called their colleagues on the phone to ask them to accept me during the week on my combined ticket).

Opening hours: closes for lunch time (as do most things in this neck of the woods), with longer opening hours in the summer.

Recommended time for visit: 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Website: https://uomodialtamura.it/