Palazzo Massimo

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This 19th-century Neo-Renaissance palace near Termini Station houses one of the world’s most important collections of ancient art. Sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, coins and goldsmith’s work record the development of Roman artistic culture.

So says the brochure of the Museo National Romano, of which Palazzo Massimo is one of four locations within easy walking distance in Centro Storico – yet another reason why I need at least ten more visits. Mary and I spent a rainy morning walking from room to room and floor to floor being blown away and didn’t even cover all of Palazzo Massimo. 

Let’s work into one, one of the dozens of mosaics on display here. It’s one of those area rug things, hung on a wall now, probably eight feet on a side. Ready? We’ll start with one little detail and back up from there:

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I mean, just stop it.

Let me back up further and start on the two floors of sculptures. As you probably know, it was quite a statement of status to have your likeness carved in stone, and there are many impressive examples.

I have told you about Janet Stephens before. She re-creates ancient hair styles using tools the hairdresser slaves would have employed. It was fun to see that a number of the sculptures came with written descriptions of their hair styles. Watch a few of Stephens’s videos and you too could sport a Greco-Roman hairstyle at your next social event. I ran a Google looking for Sappho’s specific do, but didn’t find a video at first glance.

Maybe you can parse it yourself:

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Or maybe this one?

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There are of course many statues of gods and goddesses doing things like pulling arrows out of their own bodies.

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One bronze statue of a wrestler came with a lengthy description of how such pieces were created. Next time my beloved welder spouse tells me, Draw it and I’ll make it for you, maybe I’ll hit him up for something like this.

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Isn’t Floyd lucky I couldn’t draw something like that in twelve trillion years?

How about a little table for your foyer?

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Or a nice tub for soaking in after a long day at the forum? (Mary for scale)

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Or just a lovely decorative piece because it’s lovely?

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Of course I have almost no memory of who and what all the statues commemorate. Gods, mortals, heroes, poets, philosophers, beautiful matrons and beautiful daughters; fertility, power, war, loss, death – all the aspects of life are captured here in stone. Luminous stone. Metals.

Let’s all go. Tomorrow.

But those mosaics, tho. Two more room-sized examples and their close-ups and then I’ll be almost done, I promise.

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Close up?

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Or this one (I know I am crooked):

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Ok, I’ll stop now. Well, except for the house.

Palazzo Massimo houses a number of frescoes from ancient villas, including that one that seems to have been abandoned because of repeated flooding. As you know, Mary and I saw a whole lot of churches on this trip, but homes have always been fascinating to me.

In psychology of course we consider a home to be a self-representation, which sounds kind of obvious. When you consider a collection of homes, you are seeing more than individuals, more than families or even whole communities. You’re seeing a display of what a culture values, how social status is regarded and conveyed, the intersection of residential, commercial, and political lives. It’s like an encyclopedia of people. I like that.

One room at the Palazzo Massimo – is entirely decorated, all four walls, with the “Painted Garden of Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta.” It gives you some idea of the kind of decoration many high-class houses boasted. I almost posted these photos all in one little collage, but that wouldn’t do them justice.

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The theme of nature’s beauty is inescapable, and a prevailing notion among all the romantics I can think of at the moment. Even many gardens had gardens painted on their walls – partly to make the house’s garden space look larger, especially for morning passers-by who might drop in and promise to vote for the homeowner; but also I think merely for beauty’s sake.

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Between Pompeii, Ostia Antica, and Erculano, we could see many examples of black walls. Black was expensive, elegant, and highly desirable. The wealthy then, just as now, were great followers of trends: this year it’s everything Greek, this year it’s everything African. They kept their interior decorators busy. (I wonder if any of them left any written records. More homework! Or maybe I’ll just go to AskHistorians on reddit.)

Imagine this next space were your bedchamber (that’s a corner of its mosaic floor in there):

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Of course there are several R- and X-rated paintings within the painted-on picture frames. And imagine gazing up at a ceiling like this:

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Restful, or too busy? And how the heck did they DO that on a curved ceiling?

So much to look up.

I wonder if I’d have paid as much attention if I hadn’t been on a specific scouting mission for motifs to use on my garden posts. My way with museums is often to power through and get out before the headache gets too bad (except for that time the Impressionist exhibit was at the National Gallery nearly 40 years ago: it was my first experience of seeing them and I was so blown away I almost had to be carried out of the museum).

I don’t usually leave with a burning desire to go back, but here I am and there it is.

 

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