by Roderick Conway Morris

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Marcus Aurelius and the Pensive Muse

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 22 April 2006
Capitoline Museums, Rome
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, 176 AD



Seldom can ignorance have played such a vital part in saving a great work of art. The magnificent, larger-than-life- size gilded bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius would almost unquestionably have been melted down during the wholesale destruction of pagan art in the centuries after the triumph of Christianity had it not been mistaken for an image of Constantine, the ruler who made the new faith the official religion of the empire and was subsequently sanctified.

Probably cast in A.D. 176 to celebrate Marcus Aurelius's victory over the German tribes, or after his death in A.D. 180, the statue was one of at least 22 equestrian monuments that once dotted the city, and the only one of its kind to come down to us. It was very likely first located in the Forum, but later transferred to the papal Lateran palace.

In 1538, Pope Paul III had it moved to the Capitoline Hill, and the municipal government summoned Michelangelo to redesign the square in front of the Senate to provide a worthy setting for this miraculous survival of ancient sculpture. There it remained until 1981, when it was realized that pollution was taking a terrible toll and the statue was removed to undergo a painstaking program of conservation. Deemed too delicate to be exposed again in the open air, it was temporarily housed in 1990 under a glassed-in archway off a courtyard of one of the Capitoline Museum's buildings. Meanwhile, a dark chocolate-colored copy, totally lacking, alas, the wonderful green and gold patina of the original, was placed on Michelangelo's plinth at the center of the square.

The ancient statue has finally found a suitable home protected from the elements and atmospheric corrosion in a lofty, light- filled hall that forms part of a major extension of the museum. The new wing, designed by Carlo Aymonino, was built at a cost of €5 million, or about $6.16 million, and opened at the end of last year. The horse and rider are now theatrically placed on a projecting ramp over the sunken arenalike floor of the hall, enhancing the illusion that the emperor is majestically moving forward, his arm raised to greet us, the spectators.

Also to dramatic effect, one side of the new hall is made up of the massive foundation walls of the Temple of Jove, revealed to the public for the first time. Begun in the late sixth century B.C. by Rome's last king, Tarquin II, it was completed during the early years of the Republic. Covering an area of around 3,000 square meters, it was about a third larger than the Parthenon. In later periods it was systematically despoiled for its columns and marbles, and countless edifices in Rome contain parts of it. But even this surviving section of its foundations gives an idea of what a gigantic, looming presence over the city the temple must once have been.

The Capitoline Museum is the oldest institution of its kind in the post- Classical world. It was inaugurated in 1471 by the donation by Sixtus IV of a group of ancient bronzes, at a time when the Romans were dreaming once again of reviving the city's antique glory. In 1484 the museum made its first purchase: a gilded bronze Hercules.

Since then the museum has been given and has acquired thousands of pieces. And the new wing has provided urgently needed additional space to display the museum's many masterpieces, which include the bronze Hercules, the head and fragments of a colossal statue of Constantine and the so-called Esquiline Venus, to name but a few.

Our word 'museum' derives from the ancient Greek institution, the 'mouseion,' where the arts inspired by the Muses were cultivated. The first museum is thought to have been created in the fourth century B.C. on the slopes of Mount Helicon. The sanctuary had statues of these inspirational goddesses, practitioners of the arts, their benefactors and a poetry library. But most renowned of all ancient museums was, of course, the one at Alexandria, founded along with the library by Ptolemy I.

A museum rather than the Colosseum would surely have been a more appropriate venue for 'The Pensive Muse: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity,' on display until Aug. 20. Few visitors to this mass tourist attraction will take the time to study this exhibition, which is about a fairly complex subject that is better presented in the catalogue, while the more intellectually curious will be deterred by the absence of a separate ticket for the temporary exhibition and having to wait in line with the huge numbers interested in seeing only the Colosseum.

The concept of the Muse was originally primarily associated with poetry, and Calliope, who came to be identified specifically with epic poetry, remained the most august and senior figure in her sorority. As time went on, their number increased as they took on roles presiding over other arts, philosophy and the full gamut of intellectual activity. But their identities and particular responsibilities were ambiguous - as befitted the mystique of their divine status.Moreover, while stimulating the impulse to write poetry, for example, they disdained concerns such as form and technique, banausic matters of detail best left to mere mortals, and for the most part, mere men.

During the Hellenistic era a basic canon of nine muses was established: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Eurterpe (flute playing), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Polyhymnia (hymns, and later, pantomime) and Urania (astronomy). But even when represented in a lineup, as on the second-century A.D. sarcophagus that opens the exhibition, their individual identities can be a matter for debate.

Polyhymnia, the pensive muse of the show's title, presents an intriguing case. She is the only one never shown with an attribute, such as a scroll, pipes, lyre, theatrical mask and so on, being by tradition merely wrapped in thought and her cloak. In this pose, she came to preside over any form of introspection, creative thought, intellectual activity and, ultimately, melancholy.

She also came to embody silence. In an ancient anthology where the other Muses announce themselves, Polyhymnia does not even give her name. In Rome the local love affair with Polyhymnia resulted in a new offspring: Tacita. The Romans, notionally at least, admired reserve, stolidness and 'taciturnity,' though history suggests that this was an ideal that Romans found difficult to live up to.

In theory, according to Roman 'mores,' ostentatious luxury was to be avoided as much as loquacity, but the competitive homemakers of imperial Rome overlooked this precept too as they no doubt chattered about their latest acquisitions.

Excavations for the construction of a ramp to an underground car park below the Janiculum Hill unearthed the remains of a substantial Roman house containing a treasure of rich and rare marble objects. An emergency dig was staged, and the rescued objects have now been put on display at the section of the National Museum of Rome at Palazzo Altemps. The exhibition, 'The Colors of Opulence: The Janiculum House and its Marbles,' continues until May 14.

The walls of the part of the house so far excavated, which dates to the first century B.C. or A.D. and may have been the residence of members of the imperial family, were frescoed with white plaster, only sparsely decorated with almost Japanese restraint with birds, masks and delicate architectural motifs - presumably to maximize the brightness of the rooms. But also discovered were sumptuous heaps of around 500 finely carved capitol pillars and bases, cornices and decorative features in precious colored marbles, slabs of alabaster and other costly fittings.

One hypothesis is that the horde comes from another grand building that had been stripped of its adornments and that the pieces were in store awaiting re-use. But the overwhelming impression of this show is that one has walked into an upmarket imperial Roman interior design shop.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023