Can’t see the wood for the trees? (Musei Vaticani Pt I)

In 1969 the BBC broadcast a six part series called Civilisation which celebrated the development of western art and culture. Though originally envisaged purely as a means to demonstrate the capabilities of newly introduced colour TV, the series had a major impact for many. I was only 10 years old at the time, but still possess the book that accompanied the series and though Sir Kenneth Clark’s erudite views may have gone over my head, I now find myself 50 years later visiting and enjoying many of the great works that he selected to be featured, despite taking no interest in art whatsoever whilst at school.

Belvedere Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of 130–14...
Belvedere Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of 130–140 CE after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. Found in the 16th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The series has attracted criticism in the intervening decades for its fixation on the art of Western Europe after the middle ages, something that the BBC is trying to address in the new series Civilisations which both delves back to the earliest evidence of human creativity and has expanded into Asia, Africa and the Americas in its scope.  Nevertheless I was fascinated by Mary Beard’s episode about the way we depict ourselves in art and her reference to the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman statue based on a Greek bronze that is displayed in the Vatican, and was once help up to be the epitome of the classical aesthetic, an ideal that continues to influence us to this day.

Watching the programme I was sure that I had recognised the Apollo’s quality and captured it on my recent visit, but a quick scan through my Vatican imagery proved otherwise.  It was not in the Sala Rotonda as I had thought but now languishes in a corner of the Octagonal Court.  I may well have missed it altogether.
And that is the problem with the Vatican Museums.

In their 50+ rooms and literally miles of corridors there are some 20,000 works on display, and of course as the collections of the successive heads of the Catholic church they are of great quality.  But how many of the millions who pass along those corridors each year miss a masterpiece (like me) in their haste to reach the Sistine Chapel (unlike me).

The Sala Rotonda features a number of colossal classical statues dominated by an enormous bronze Hercules around which most of the visitors crowd for pictures, drawn by the size and colour of the work, but have they noticed the room itself (designed to replicate Rome’s Pantheon), or the quality of the other works which are nearly 2000 years old?  What about the enormous porphyry basin at the centre?  It has become little more than a roundabout to guide the human traffic but is also from Ancient Rome, as are the mosaics on the floor which were moved from their original site to this room in the 18th century.  Even in such a magnificent setting so much becomes invisible, so heaven help Apollo in his plainer open courtyard.
Back in 1969, Sir Kenneth Clark described its fate:

…For four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.

Which is perhaps why I shot The Braschi Antinous instead.

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Cultural osmosis

Last week when I met the reluctant Mrs Postlethwaite, I was inspired to do some research into this very English sounding name.  I already suspected it wasn’t as “home grown” as it might seem, since way back in the mists of time I had a primary school teacher (Bernard Thwaites) who told me that thwait was a viking word for a clearing or a farmstead.

It turns out that Postlethwaite means Possel’s Farm or Apostle’s Farm, and historically refers to the location where the name’s bearer originates.  In the latter case Apostle’s Farm would detail a farm owned by one who had played an apostle in some medieval entertainment, rather than indicating an immigrant from the holy land.  Possel however is an Old English name.  Sounds OK on the face of it, however the language that we refer to as Old English was largely in use on the other side of the North Sea as Old Frisian, and is Germanic in origin.

Those people who rail against multiculturalism talk about it diluting our way of life, but what is “our way” if not an amalgam of words, customs and behaviours that have come to these shores through invasion, immigration and imperial expansion?  Consequently defending a culture or way of life is as meaningless as trying to preserve a specific section of water in a flowing river.  We can guide and influence the flow, but little more than that.

I was interested to hear Mary Beard speaking about culture in her new television series about the Romans.  Mortality rates in the city were high (malaria was common) so a constant influx of immigrants to the city was needed or it would cease to function.  Consequently the citizenry of Rome was far more than Italian (by which I mean born in places that we now consider to be Italy since there was no country of that name), it was Greek, Egyptian, Spanish, Germanic for example.  They spoke predominantly Latin or Greek, worshipped Roman gods (that had been assimilated from other cultures) and resented newer immigrants who didn’t do things the way they did!

It seems there is nothing new in human nature.

the Globe theatre
the Globe theatre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There has been a lot of publicity in recent days about a project being run as part of the World Shakespeare Festival (itself part of the 2012 Olympic and Diamond Jubilee celebrations).  The project is called Globe to Globe, and naturally enough is being performed at the Globe Theatre where over 6 weeks, 37 Shakespearean plays are being performed in 37 different languages.

This isn’t just a stunt – each play is being performed by a theatre group who already perform that work, so for example Arpana are performing “All’s Well That Ends Well” in their native Gujerati, and there are other companies performing in Swahili, Mandarin, Italian and Turkish to name but a few.  There’s even a Maori group who have incorporated a Haka.

One of the organisers of the event said that in her view we don’t own Shakespeare any more, he belongs to the world.  Isn’t that how culture should be?

Li Nan is a student at Sunderland University, where along with thousands of other overseas visitors she shares her cultural influences and absorbs those of others.  I’m not sure where her eye-wear idea originated though.  There are no lenses in those frames!