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Centrale Montemartini

Two weekends ago marked the All Saints (tutti santi) festival, giving the boys some days off of school. Halloween is present here, but not very prevalent; we saw just a few kids dressed in costumes going between cafés and bars, where proprietors handed out small candies, but no one was going house to house (because everyone lives in apartments).

While most of the museums and sites were massively crowded (40-min. wait on Nov. 1 just to get tickets to the Forum Romanum) there is a gem of a museum that does not get the visitors it deserves: Centrale Montemartini. This museum holds significant works of the plastic arts: mostly marble statuary (with a few frescoes, paintings, ivory and metal works) from the Musei Capitolini collection, especially fine examples of Republican-period art. But it is located south of the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius (here’s the Thomas Hardy poem about that Roman-era Egyptianizing tomb) in an industrial area of town near the Tiber River. The complex, which dates to 1912, was the original public thermoelectric utility in Rome. The brilliance of the museum lies in its matching of modernist industrial design and ancient artistic ideals.

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Upper-floor main hall of the museum: the turbine room

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The museum neighborhood

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Location of the Centrale Montemartini Museum (from Google Maps)

Off the main tourist itineraries, it allows one the space and time to examine the aspirations and achievements of artists and their patrons. While there are plenty of images of deities and emperors, perhaps the best thing about this collection is its inventory of Roman faces — portraits from public and funerary contexts which give us glimpses of the people of the past.

Roman portraits are complex productions — not simply a picture ‘of what someone looked like’, but a mixture of physiognomic reality and social ideals. Men often wear the wrinkles of experience and wisdom; women the serene expressions and perfect hairstyles of model wives. As many of these portraits come from gravesites, they display the memorial intentions of the deceased and their families. Styles and ideals change over time as well (especially in imitation of imperial-family fashions), meaning that any single portrait can possess multiple layers of artistic tradition and cultural meaning. If you want to read more about Roman portraiture, the Metropolitan Museum has a basic guide. Here are some visual highlights from the museum.

Three brothers

Three brothers on a funerary relief: APEMANTO • THALERO • FRATRIB • VLIADi… “to the brothers Apemantus, Thalerus, and Uliad[us?]” First decades A.D.

Husband and wife, mid-first century B.C.

Husband and wife, mid-first century B.C. Formal pose and dress, but divergent treatments of face and hairstyle.

Family members on a funerary relief (these two are not married; their spouses are at either side).

Family members on a funerary relief (these two are not married; their spouses are at either side). Early first century A.D.

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The shoemaker Gaius Julius Elius, late first century A.D., proudly displays the lasts around which he shaped his shoes and sandals.

The shoemaker Gaius Julius Helius, late first century A.D., proudly displays the lasts around which he shaped his shoes and sandals. He built his funerary complex, as the inscription states, for himself, his daughter Julia Flaccilla, his freedman Caius Julius Onesimus, and his other servants.

The emperor Caracalla. Famous for his brutish behavior, the murder of his younger brother Geta, and his granting of Roman citizenship to all free persons within the realm in the early third century A.D.

The emperor Caracalla. Famous for his brutish behavior, the murder of his younger brother Geta, and his granting of Roman citizenship to all free persons within the realm in the early third century A.D.

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Mid-third century A.D. portrait resembling a ‘soldier-emperor.’ He looks a lot like Trebonianus Gallus, who ruled from A.D. 251-53, and whose mausoleum might have just been located in Perugia (see this post). There were 22 emperors in 50 years during the middle of a turbulent century. Tough guys for tough times.

Athena

Athena, goddess of wisdom

Jupiter

Jupiter. He’s the boss.

Diana

Diana, the huntress

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A Muse wrapped in a marble mantle, poised against a rock. Roman copy of a Hellenistic original.

Somehow, all these grey machines make the Olympians look even more magnificent.

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Centrale Montemartini was a winner (here with our friends Elizabeth and Alex)!