Tag Archives: Museums

In The Garden of The Beasts (Villa Borghese)

The title of this post is in reference to the statuary of animals both fantastic and natural found on the grounds of the Villa Borghese and its garden park in Rome.

Scipione Borghese was the Cardinal Nephew of Pope Paul V. The Cardinal Nephew (Cardinal Nepotente in Italian, from which the term nepotism is derived) was an official position and title in the church until 1692. In addition to the familial tie it implies, the position brought with it immense opportunities for wealth and power. Scipione Borghese took full advantage of these opportunities, at one point being one of the largest landowners in central Italy. He was a lover of art, and had a passion for gardening, creating famous gardens at both the Palazzo Borghese and the much larger private park of the Villa Borghese. The gardens consist of 148 acres of naturalistic parkland landscaped in the English fashion.

The Villa Borghese itself sits on the edge of the park, and houses the Galleria Borghese, an art museum focused around the collection amassed by Scipione Borghese. The art includes paintings by Caravaggio, Titian, and Raphael, ancient Roman sculpture, and contemporary work by Bernini. The museum operates by timed, limited entry tickets, so unlike some of the larger, more popular museums (think Vatican Museum or the Louvre in Paris), the experience is never crushing as only a fixed number of people are in the museum at any time. You can always see the art without jostling or rushing. The park, on the other hand, is open to the public free of charge. It provides an oasis of greenery and openness amidst the chaos and compactness bordering on claustrophobia that is the city of Rome.

The plaza in front of the Villa is decorated by statuary, fountains, and an Egyptian obelisk or two. On the wall that demarcates the boundary between the plaza and the park, pedestals to support decorative urns are carved with dragons and eagles, elements from the Borghese family coat of arms. The eagles and dragons here are from the pedestals.

Eagle, Villa Borghese
Eagle, Villa Borghese
Dragon, Profile, Villa Borghese
Dragon, Profile, Villa Borghese
Dragon and Eagle, Villa Borghese
Dragon and Eagle, Villa Borghese
Dragon, Villa Borghese
Dragon, Villa Borghese
Snarling Dragon, Villa Borghese
Snarling Dragon, Villa Borghese

The lion devouring the stag is from an ancient Roman marble vessel on the side terrace of the Villa Borghese.

Lion and Stag, Villa Borghese
Lion and Stag, Villa Borghese

The bull’s head is from one of a pair of cornucopia/planters adorning the front steps to the Villa Borghese.

Bulls Head, Profile, Villa Borghese
Bulls Head, Profile, Villa Borghese
Marble Bulls Head, Villa Borghese
Marble Bulls Head, Villa Borghese

For the photo geeks in the house, these were all shot with my Tele-Rolleiflex, many using the 0.35 Rolleinar close-up filter. The 0.35 Rolleinar helps bring the minimum focus down from 8 feet to a much more manageable 4-ish.

Museum Exhibition Catalogs

While I was in Paris, I went to see a major exhibition at the Musee D’Orsay, Masculin/Masculin, a retrospective of the male nude in art from 1800 to the present. It was beautifully presented, almost overwhelming in size and scope, and extremely memorable. At the time, I thought about buying the catalog because it had outstanding reproductions of the work in the exhibit, including many works and artists I was unfamiliar with. I decided not to because of the size and weight of the catalog, especially considering that it was only available hardcover and my bags were already close to the weight limit. After I got home, I was kicking myself for not buying it after all. I got a second chance, however, when a friend who lives in New York told me he would be going in early December, and he offered to bring me back a copy. It arrived today, just in time to be a Christmas present to myself.

This got me thinking about museum exhibition catalogs. I generally try to buy them for exhibits I’ve enjoyed when I have the chance, because it serves as a reminder of the work exhibited, and it goes a long way to helping support the museum mounting the exhibit, especially when the museum (like all the galleries of the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art) does not charge admission. As a result, I thought I’d list the exhibitions I’ve collected catalogs from.

In rough chronological order, descending, they are:

  • Charles Marville, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 2013
  • Masculin/Masculin, Musee D’Orsay, Paris, France 2013
  • Photography and the American Civil War, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2013
  • Faking it: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 2013
  • 40 under 40: Craft Futures, Renwick Gallery, Washington DC, 2012
  • Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010
  • Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, 2010
  • Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, 2010
  • Truth/Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art – 1845-1945, Phillips Gallery, Washington DC, 2009
  • Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, 2009
  • Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice, Boston Museum of Fine Art, Boston, 2009
  • Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 2008
  • All the Mighty World: Photographs of Roger Fenton, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004
  • Segnali di Fumo: L’avventura del West nella Fotograffia, Castello Sforzesco, Milan, Italy 1994
  • Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Columbus, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1992
  • Treasure Houses of Britain, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1985
  • Tutankhamen, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1977
  • The Family of Man, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955*

*obviously I did NOT attend the Family of Man exhibit, as I wasn’t even a fantasy in my grandparents’ minds in 1955. But I do have the exhibition book.

Also note that I’ve listed where I saw the exhibit, not necessarily who published the catalog.

Perhaps the oddest is the Segnali di Fumo catalog, purely on account of the incongruity of going all the way to Milan, Italy to see photographs of the American West (well, I didn’t GO to Milan to see the exhibit, but happened upon it as I was leaving the Castello Sforzesco), with a significant body from the Amon Carter museum in Texas. Which I haven’t been to yet, but really ought to. It would also help close the loop on my France trip, for it is there that the first known photograph ever is held – Niepce’s first known heliograph of the view out his studio window at his estate near Chalon-sur-Saone (that I couldn’t visit because it was closed for the season). I’m sure I’m missing one or two from my collection, and my collection of catalogs is a pale shadow of the total number of exhibits I’ve been to either because no catalog was produced (producing an exhibition catalog is a major undertaking and not done casually or cheaply) or because I couldn’t afford it at the time.

Another day I’ll put together a catalog of my photography monographs, as I know this is of interest to some. It’s not a huge collection, especially in light of my overall library size, but it is a work in progress.

Light Sculpture at the National Gallery

National Gallery Light Sculpture

Here’s my first video post- I went to the National Gallery of Art today and shot this little video clip of the light sculpture between the underground cafe and the East Wing of the National Gallery. This is one of the pleasures and benefits of living in Washington DC – virtually all museums are free admission, and open 7 days a week. I’d be hard pressed to move elsewhere and give up this perk. Do note that the National Gallery of Art is NOT part of the Smithsonian, although it is co-located with the other Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. I actually made it a three museum day – I started off with the African-American Civil War Museum, which is located in my neighborhood. For a small, privately funded museum without the visibility or the location of the big name museums downtown, they did an impressive job of displaying and interpreting the storyline and the supporting artifacts in their collection.

African American Civil War Museum

I knew they were there, but in more than a decade of living near them, I had never made it in. Today I decided to stop by and see, since they were open (a past problem due to their former facilities). I’m very glad I did. Because I’m a civil war nut, there wasn’t a LOT new to me, but there was enough to make it worthwhile. They do a great job contextualizing the African-American experience from the beginnings of European colonization in the Americas through the Civil War, and beyond to the Civil Rights era. I highly recommend the visit.

To bracket the experience, I stopped in the National Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art (which IS part of the Smithsonian, and has awesome opening hours, from 11 am to 7 pm every day except Christmas). This is one of the very best museums in DC, in my opinion, not only because they’re in a beautiful Greek Revival building originally designed to house the US Patent Office (which I have a personal connection to the building – an ancestor of mine was a US Senator from Maine who commissioned the construction of the building), but they also have some of the very best photography (and non-photographic art) exhibits. They have some daring younger curators putting together brilliant exhibits that include painting, photography, prints, and sculpture, keeping the underlying theme of the American experience to unify sometimes very disparate artworks and objects. Today I saw “The Civil War and American Art“, rather a contrast to the African-American museum because it was filled with big-ticket paintings and original photographs. At least it was not neglectful of the African-American experience, including multiple paintings on the question of slavery and its impact on the American psyche and the Civil War.

Then it was on to the National Gallery of Art. Yes, I know, whirlwind day. The NGA had a photography show in their basement gallery on the subject of “Serial Portraiture”. Serial Portraiture is defined as works of portraiture that span an extended period of time and/or depict multiple aspects of a person’s character or moods. The exhibit featured works by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan, Emmet Gowin, Milton Rogovin, and a handful of contemporary photographers like Francesca Woodman and Ann Hamilton. The show itself is interesting, depicting classic as well as contemporary takes on the serial portrait and its use to explore contemporary concerns with identity and expression. The exhibition catalog (available as a PDF) is a failure, as it excludes more than half the material in the show. This is where the NGA is a consistent disappointment – they mount some potentially interesting exhibits of photography, but they hide them away in the basement, and then if they produce an exhibition catalog at all, they produce some half-hearted flimsy pamphlet. The Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum, on the other hand, when they produce a catalog, like the Civil War Art exhibit, they go all out with a hardcover volume with supplemental materials beyond what is presented in the exhibit.

To cleanse the palate after that, I stopped by the Michelangelo “David-Apollo” display upstairs. This is the kind of thing the NGA does get right (although they wouldn’t allow photos!!! BOO HISS) – classical art by dead white men. I really wish a piece like this was on display when I was taking my stone carving classes, as studying photos of Michelangelo’s carving technique is radically insufficient. If you have the opportunity, please come and see the piece while it is here – it returns to Italy at the end of March, 2013.