So the Data Viking (my best guy friend from High School, who I had not seen in decades until our class reunion last summer; a splendid fellow, who reads SF and sneers at adversity) was wanting to see a touring collection of Roman art at IMA. Sunday, he dropped by from his far-off home, ten-ish, and off we went.
The Viking had mentioned it but I'd breezed past: the museum grounds open early but the museum itself doesn't wake until noon! He likes the grounds and extensive gardens (so do I!) and had planned a nice stroll.
There's a reason for the 'nym I've given him: he's blond, sturdy, innovative, cheerfully bloody-minded and built to conserve heat. I'm not a Viking. I am, oh how difficult to admit, vain: I'd worn a light hoody instead of a bulky coat. It was chilly. (And yes, DV's supremely good at crafting software that sits up and begs, or making other people's software do so, or making it play nice with hardware -- scary hardware, in some instances Reardon-scary if'n y'know what I'm Shruggin' at. That's the "Data" part).
...But clever people are prepared: "I've an Army jacket in my trunk," quoth he, "it'll fit you about twice!". So we spent 90 minutes, me warm as warm, finding the old interurban path through the grounds (impressive river-rock walls and a fine Late-Victorian iron bridge above it), admiring huge elephant-trees, fountains, bravely green and still-growing plants of vast variety, fatly insolent squirrels, the original well house along the canal, vistas from the back terrace of Oldfields and then back up to the old gates leading to the recently envastened Museum Of Art.
Art they've got and in profusion, free for the looking; but the Roman art on loan from the Louvre takes intensive looking-after and costs to see. Someone's got to pay the guards and guides, and it's the people who want to see the stuff who do so. Isn't that how it's supposed to work?
What a sight it is! I'd never been so close to original mosaic floors, the tesserae still vibrant after centuries; looking so new and polished that guards kept having to remind patrons not to touch, please, as all that comes between you and the elevated, angled, cleverly-indicated scenes is your own good sense, which some appeared to have left at home. You may look as closely as you like and I did. Television and photographs don't do justice.
Even more amazing were the statues. As close as you'd stand at a bus stop, they're real: muscles, veins and tendons under the skin, knucklebones of a hand seemingly frozen in mid-movement, the texture of the marble imitating skin and a toga's cloth. I had no real idea of the skill of this work from textbook photographs. Imagine the effect on a late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance artist, seeing work of such quality, as surviving Roman work began to be more closely examined and sought out! It is stunning, with the impact of color television or moving pictures.
With the statuary right out among the audience, it is possible to look the Emperors in the eye and an education to do so. --Augustus looks worried in every depiction, a decent-seeming man deeply bothered by his responsibilities. Caligula, charming at first sight head-on, grows cunning and dissolute as you walk around to see his face in profile. And young Nero is as self-satisfied a little snot as can be imagined! --Most of the Julio-Claudians are a weak-chinned lot, the stamp of idle wealth cruel in their expressions. These were supposed to be flattering portrayals, too. Another bust caught my eye from a distance and I walked towards it, a young man in Egyptian headdress, movie-star handsome, really-seriously handsome, lunchy, just almost too -- Oh. Well of course. Patly of course: Antinous. Hadrian's boyfriend.
The exhibit included sections of trompe-l'œil wall decoration. Photos of this work often look crude and garish. In person, it's another matter. The technique is similar to Impressionism: up close, fuzzy; from six feet away, it looks real as your perception fills in the detail and sharpens the lines.
This exhibit was particularly enjoyable to see with the Data Viking. His eye catches what mine misses, he knows things I've not encountered and is happy to share them. Many men are a bit shy of Art; he's a confident fellow who grasps that knowledge always beats ignorance.
While the touring exhibit is not especially large, it is overwhelming nevertheless. I do not think I had really grasped the height of Rome's achievements until seeing these things with my own eyes. VR, books, visual media, they're good for many things but there's a level of understanding that, at least so far, one only manages though experience in real life.
Sometimes you do have to be there.
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