Saturday, July 1, 2017

Centrale Montemartini

It is often said of museums in Rome that the setting of the exhibits is every bit as interesting as the exhibits themselves. Several museums, for example are housed in magnificent Renaissance palaces, but there is only one museum in the Eternal City, and probably in the entire world, which displays ancient Roman sculptures in an early 20th century electric power plant!

The name of this unique museum is the Centrale Montemartini, named after Giovanni Montemartini who founded the first electrical power plant in Rome. It was officially inaugurated in a solemn ceremony on June 30, 1912. The plant operated continuously, even throughout World War II, providing electricity to much of the city of Rome until 1963. In 1990 it was decided to use the plant, with its massive machinery intact, as an exhibition space.

Some 400 ancient statues and fragments were transferred here from the Capitoline Museums in 1997 and now share space with machinery in areas such as the engine room and the boiler room. Although it may seem like an impossible pairing of ancient sculpture with 20th century industrial architecture, the combination succeeds beautifully.

The museum is located on the old Via Ostiense about half way between the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The items in the museum are well marked with labels which give a short explanation of them in Italian and English. What follows are a few photos and short explanations of just a handful of its exhibits, maybe enough to whet your appetite for a visit.

Photo 1: Headless statue of Aphrodite

This is a Roman copy of a fourth-century B.C. Greek original. Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love and beauty whose Roman equivalent is Venus. The statue was discovered in Rome in the forum of Julius Caesar where there was also a temple of Venus. No surprise that Caesar would have a statue of Aphrodite and a temple of Venus in his forum because he considered himself a direct descendant of Venus.

Photo 2: Togaed Barberini

This first-century B.C. sculpture, one of the museum's most famous pieces, depicts a man wearing a toga, the symbol of Roman citizenship. The toga was imposed by Augustus as a kind of uniform to be worn at the theater and on other formal occasions. The figure is shown holding in his hands sculpted heads meant to represent his father and his grandfather. This pose indicates the continuation of his family's high social status. The head of the statue is not original; it was added during a restoration sponsored by the Barberini family in the seventeenth century. The toga and the Barberini connection account for the name of the piece: Barberini togato (in Italian).

Photo 3: Colossal statue

These fragments of a colossal statue were discovered in 1925 in Largo Argentina, the area in the center of Rome where four Roman temples were unearthed, and which today is home to dozens of stray cats. It is estimated that, judging from the dimensions of the head and arm, the statue must have been about eight meters high. These colossal fragments, along with other pieces, were removed from the excavation site and placed in museums for safekeeping. (For more about this interesting archaeologidcal site, see my book: The Sights of Rome, Chapter 13, Largo Argentina).

Photo 4: Bearded Dionysus

Once again, we have a Roman copy of a Greek original of the fourth century B.C. The Romans associated Dionysus with their wine-god, Bacchus. Dionysus is often represented as a somewhat effeminate-looking youth with luxuriant hair, so it is a bit unusual to see him here as bearded. Notice in the background of the photo some of the machinery from the old electric plant.

Photo 5: Apollo and Marsyas

In Greek mythology Marsyas was a satyr (spirit of the woods and hills) who became a proficient flute player. He was so proud of his musical skill that he dared to challenge Apollo, god of music, to a contest. The two agreed that the winner could treat the loser in any way he wished. Marsyas, of course, lost his challenge and Apollo, to discourage other possible challengers, tied him to a tree and flayed him alive. In this carving, Apollo is on the left with his lyre and Marsyas next to him with his flute.

Photo 6: View from the third level

In the museum you have the opportunity to climb to the third level from where you have this interesting view of a part of the electric plant machinery with various ancient statues placed in an around it. It is truly a feature unique to this museum.

Photo 7: The train of Pius IX

Pius IX (1846-1878) fully realized the great potential of the railway system. He had rail lines built connecting Rome with other areas of the Papal State. A train was constructed specifically for him, consisting of three cars, including one with a private chapel, and one with a small apartment and private bath for the pontiff. As this photo shows, another of the three cars was open on both sides so that the Pope could impart his blessing to the crowds. The papal train was used for the first time by Pius in 1859 when he traveled from Rome's Porta Maggiore train station to Albano, a small town near the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

Photo 8: Coat of Arms of Pius IX

This colorful representation of Pius IX's coat of arms stands out prominently on one of the coaches of the train.

Photo 9: Funeral relief of three brothers

This funeral relief which shows portraits of three brothers indicates the importance of family to the Romans. It is possible to make out the names of the brothers, along with the Latin word fratrib(us) (to the brothers). It has been dated to the early first century A.D.

Photo 10: Hygeia

The statue of Hygiea stands in front of the control panel of the diesel engine. Hygiea, from whose name we get the English word "hygiene", was the daughter of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing whose temple in Rome was built on the Tiber Island. (For the fascinating story of Aesculapius and his association with the island, see my book: Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, pp. 19-20). 


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