“A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.” — Albert Camus
A fitting quote for a place where so much art is roped to the raft of religion. We visited two important art galleries today: the Capitoline Museum atop the Capitoline Hill, and Modern master Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI National Museum of 21st Century Arts. Two drastically different kinds of gallery spaces. Two drastically different kinds of art. Two different spatial contexts.They are excellent summaries of the principles of old and new Rome that I have been investigating the past ten days.
Capitoline – Papal antiquity
Museo Capitolini is situated at the top of one of Rome’s seven hills, backing onto the ancient forums and fronted by Piazza del Campidoglio. The site is famous for it’s straightening of facades and fitting of the piazza into geometrical star-shaped symmetry by Michelangelo. In the centre of the square (circle?) stands a statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback in a pose mimicked in all of western Europe by every political figure on a horse. The collections are also Papal, so similar to what we saw in the Vatican Museums. A stunning array of marble sculptures of people with more mythical scenes and evidence of Rome’s pagan past, including a reconstruction of what the Temple to Isis in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva would have looked like using actual artifacts. It offers breathtaking views of the ruins in the Forum, as well as of Rome herself from atop the rooftop cafe terrace. The approach is extremely traditional: a sloped, strampy type of structure called a Cordonata.
Interestingly, we were not allowed to sketch in this museum, but were allowed to take as many photos as we liked. The plan had no logical flow, at least that I could tell, and we wandered through halls back and forth back and forth, the sculptures all blending into one amorphous white, eyeless head. Another testament to it’s plan: our group split up after the main courtyard and remained scattered for the entire visit. Such is the case with other older buildings restored to have second, third, and tenth purposes.
MAXXI – Contemporary speed
If I had to use one word to describe Zaha Hadid’s contribution to Roman art, it would be speed. The entire building felt like a grey futurist painting with a streak of red smeared across. MAXXI is sited in the nearest northern suburb of Rome near where the rail tram turns around, so it looks almost like a train station. The approach is through colourful flags, afternoon glow, children running in the plaza shared with a daycare. All approaches are diagonal and unsloped: there is no clear way to say, this is the entrance to the building and you should walk here. The most direct route, which at this point, we were extremely accustomed to looking for and having laid out for us, was across plantings of trees, gaps in concrete slabs, and dangerously trip-hazard low fencing. Oh, and the wooly mammoth leg. It gained more architectural relevance to us when we found out it was actually supposed to be reminiscent of Brazilian huts, and I actually enjoyed the sound it made in the breeze. Still a wooly mammoth leg though. And still ugly. The building itself felt cold and inhuman, but not in an imposing way like the Vatican or the EUR. In a curious, futuristic way that encouraged you to reach out to touch it. There was so much negative space, especially compared to the wall to wall bust adornments of the Capitoline Museums. We carried out 15 minute sketching exercises in each room but were not allowed to take photos. MAXXI reminded me most of the VAG out of ever gallery I visited in Europe, because it was filled with unknown international artists, temporary installations curated on six different coalescing themes, was extremely air conditioned, and had a ridiculously capital A Art bookstore.