Saturday, March 17, 2018

Do Look Now: In the National Archeological Museum of Venice

A 16th-century bust of a sober man in the classical style is haunted by a Hellenistic sculpture of the dionysian figure Silenius from the 3rd century BCE

The National Archeological Museum is part of the Museo Correr (though it hasn't always been: I remember it having its own entrance and ticket when I first visited in 1991). The core of the collection dates back to the 16th century, and to what was originally the private collection of two Grimanis: Cardinal Domenico Grimani, patriarch of Aquilea in the first half of the century, and Giovanni, who in 1587 donated the whole thing to the Venetian Republic in the interest of insuring that its citizens would forever have the “memoria delle cose antiche.

By 1596 the collection was installed in the very room where the images of this post were taken: in the grand antechamber of the even grander Biblioteca Marciana. It was one of the first public museums in history, and though there is no record of exactly how the works were initially displayed, in the 1730s Anton Maria Zanetti il Giovane made a very detailed and illustrated inventory of the collection as it existed at that time--with a very precise illustration of the works' arrangement in the antechamber.

After the fall of the Republic in 1797, the collection was moved more than once from its original location. But in the 20th century it was returned to its original home in the antechamber and, having grown through other significant donations, was expanded into rooms of the Procuratie Nuove, which it still occupies.

All of it is worth a long look. But on the day I took these images I mostly limited myself to the antechamber which, with the exception of a very few sculptures now displayed in the rooms of the Procuratie Nuove, appears just as it did in Zanetti's illustrations of the space from over 250 years ago.

I imagine some might say that the identification of these works is not quite up to contemporary museum standards. Though each work is in fact identified, they aren't arranged according to any obvious categories such as historical period.

But it's precisely the absence of the contemporary categories to which we're accustomed that makes the experience of looking around this antechamber so interesting. All around you are the kinds of classical works from which the Renaissance took its inspiration and ideas; all around you is the literal embodiment of a certain period's ideas about what could or should be done with antiquity, how it should be thought about and looked at and arranged, how it could be used (or, as Nietzsche pointed out, abused). And though we can draw a line from the 18th century notions of history and scholarship on display in this room to those of our own time, it may not be as straight or as simple a line as we are prone to imagine it. It may not be a single line at all. It may split off into any number of directions. It may dead end.

In this room I'm struck, as I so often am in Venice, by juxtapositions--and the imaginative (and perhaps idiosyncratic and useless) play that they can inspire.

Of course, as one's visit to the Correr usually starts all the way at the distant other end of the Procuratie Nuove, by the time you make your way through everything else there is to see in the museum to the Biblioteca Marciana you may be too mentally exhausted to take in much of anything else. I find that I often am. And for this reason I suspect a fair number of visitors may not even make it all the way to the grand room of the Biblioteca, one of the city's exemplary spaces, with its paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese, et al.

For this reason, there may be something to be said for walking the whole length of the Procuratie Nuove to start your visit with the Biblioteca Marciana. Especially if you're visiting in the morning or noon hours, when the marbles in particular benefit from the fugitive sunlight coming through the windows.

And when you're done admiring the sculptures in the antechamber of the Biblioteca Marciana, don't neglect to look up above you at Titian's painting Sapienza, which really deserves a post all its own--the next one. 

A Greek statue of Demeter from the end of the 5th century BCE stands before a Roman grotesque

A large Roman candelabrum base from the last quarter of the 1st century CE

This ancient Greek head from one of the rooms in the Procuratie Nuove seems best seen in sunlight


  1. Your advice is excellent, Steven: it is a sound suggestion to begin visiting the Museo Correr by the end if the visitors want to fully enjoy the rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana and the archeological collections. This museum is now so big, with so different items and atmospheres that most of the visitors have eyes tired and are, as you write, mentally exhausted at the end of the visit. Before the reorganisation and the enlargement of the Correr, I went several times in Venice without visiting the museum and the old library: it was always a planned visit, but finally the only visit cancelled, with regret for me: it is sometimes a bit difficult to successfully praise a visit of an archeological museum to kids or teenagers – even to adults – after several days spent visiting Venice, even at slow pace. I visited the “New Correr” for the first time two years ago. There was an exhibition of drawings or books (I no more remember: exhaustion!) in the last rooms and the antechamber with a very low level of light to respect the documents. It was really difficult to enjoy the whole set of statues and the paintings in the antechamber. Most of people crossed the room without looking at anything. Probably there is no archeological masterpiece, but the collection is worth being seen carefully. The accumulation of statues and the richness and quality of the decoration are typical of the late Renaissance, and make probably this room unique in Venice. In my opinion, it is quite different from other museums and palazzi (quite different from the Palazzo Ducale for example), with the exception of the Palazzo Grimani, closed to the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, where was initially the private archeological collection of the Grimanis. I discovered this palazzo a few years ago and it has been a wonderful moment. When I visited Venice the first times, it was not possible to visit this palace. It was closed and all the external walls and the main entrance were black and dirty. Now it is a wonderful restored palazzo. Have you already visited it? I suppose the antechamber of the Marciana also influenced the building and decoration of the main halls of several big castles of the English nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries, as many other buildings of Venice and the Veneto. Another line, not straight, in our world, another echo from antiquity, a continuity to be build outside of the touristic frenzy. Thank you for your text and your photos (from Auvraisien)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Auraisien, and for reminding me that I've still never been to the Palazzo Grimani, somehow. It's something I have to do in the next couple of weeks (along with hitting the Ruskin show at Palazzo Ducale and the small Bellini/Mantegna show at the Querini Stampalia). Happy spring to you.