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Travel through time in an exhibition in Paderborn

Rome. The focus of dreams, the goal of pilgrims, the inspiration of philosophers, writers, and artists. Defying time and change, the magnetism of the Eternal City has endured undiminished for millennia. A major exhibition in Paderborn’s Diocesan Museum, The Wonders of Rome from a Northern Perspective – From Antiquity to the Present (31 March to 13 August 2017), invites visitors to explore the immortal legend of the eternal, holy city. The exhibition takes its visitors on a unique journey through time, following in the footsteps of famous historical personages who travelled to Rome.

Why have millions of pilgrims converged on the Holy City every year for almost two millennia? Why did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stress that “I can say that only in Rome have I felt what it is to be human”? And why did the famous psychoanalyst C. G. Jung swoon at the very thought of this “glowing hearth of ancient civilisations”? To explore these questions, the exhibition presents ancient masterpieces and ecclesiastical treasures from the inventories of the Vatican and Capitoline Museums. Alongside these charismatic witnesses to millennia of Roman civilisation, precious medieval manuscripts, treasury art, and fragments of architecture will be on display along with sketches, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographs by significant artists from northern Europe, on loan from famous museums and libraries all over Europe.

Holy places and “whispering ruins”

The exhibition begins from the perspective of a medieval traveller to Rome. In those days the city was predominantly a pilgrimage site, thanks to its numerous holy places and martyrs’ graves. Increasingly, however, people came to Rome to admire the ancient monuments. What they found was a city in ruins. During the migration period, barbarian hordes had plundered the former caput mundi and what had once been a metropolis of a million residents had dwindled to the size of a village. Palaces, baths, the Senate House, temples, and sculptures were given over to decay. But the crumbling fragments of former greatness exercised their own peculiar attraction on the visitors to Rome.

Ancient grandeur and early graffiti

One of these fascinating relics is the monumental marble hand of Constantine the Great, originally part of a colossal seated statue of the emperor dating from the early fourth century. This hand, which has never before been on display in Germany, is impressive for its size alone, measuring 1.70 metres in height.
The monumental marble hand of Constantine the Great, ca. 315, Rom, Musei Capitolini, Palazzo dei Conservatori, Cortile – Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Capitolini, Foto: Zeno Colantoni

venerable object that bears witness both to the enduring grandeur of the ancient city and to the holy places of Christian Rome is the bronze orb that once crowned the obelisk which today stands in the centre of St Peter’s Square. As “St Peter’s Needle”, the obelisk was a destination for countless pilgrims from the Middle Ages onwards. Learned travellers to Rome reported that Julius Caesar had been warned of his imminent death in this exact spot and that the orb contained the dictator’s ashes – although this claim was later debunked.

The most precious exhibits include exquisite reliquaries from the Sancta Sanctorum, the Papal Chapel on the Lateran. Also on display will be medieval pilgrim’s guide books, remnants of graffiti which pious travellers left on the walls of the martyrs’ tombs, and reliquary pendants in which they took home mementoes of the saints of Rome.

Artistic model and idealisation

Ever since the Renaissance and the Baroque era, the antiquities were considered the epitome of artistic perfection. Ancient art exerted an intense attraction on the artists of the North and long dominated the curricula of northern European art academies. These tendencies are impressively illustrated in the exhibition by the works of famous painters like Maarten van Heemskerk, Hendrick Goltzius, and Peter Paul Rubens. Rome was also the preferred location for the nascent discipline of ancient studies, as early scholarly compendia and documentations of ancient monuments show.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the ancient relics increasingly became idealised in the artists’ imaginations, as can be seen in works by Angelica Kauffman, William Turner, and Hubert Robert. A small separate section of the exhibition documents how the publication of ground-breaking works such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art in the eighteenth century brought the ancient world into the focus of historical and archaeological studies.

In Goethe’s Italian Journey, of which the first edition is on display, the author praises the splendid artworks of the Eternal City. The German poet fell head-over-heels in love with a statue of an ancient nymph which he was devastated to be unable to acquire for his own. Wistfully he visited the graceful figure in the Vatican Museums. Known as the Ballerina di Goethe, the statue will also be on display in Paderborn.

Realism, photography, and interpretation

With the rise of Realism in the nineteenth century, the antiquities began to be regarded in a less emotional light and ultimately became the subject of artistic deconstruction. Documentary photography made a crucial contribution to these changes in perception, as is illustrated in the exhibition by the memorable works of pioneering photographers like James Anderson and Robert Turnbull Macpherson. The last exhibition section is devoted to the works of Munich-based photo and video artist Christoph Brech, which were the Diocesan Museum’s source of inspiration for engaging with the “Wonders of Rome”. In a grandiose series of images created in 2015, Brech reinterprets the Vatican collections through the medium of his own art. Almost as though by chance, these pictures capture things that do not belong together and thereby offer a new look not only at the antiquities themselves, but also at the exhibition spaces of the Vatican.

A wide range of educational activities as well as a lavishly illustrated catalogue will help to communicate the theme of the exhibition to a wider audience.

The Wonders of Rome follows in the footsteps of Credo and Caritas as the latest in a series of special exhibitions in the Diocesan Museum featuring significant exhibits, many of which have never before been on display in Germany, from famous international museums and art collections.

The exhibition is under the patronage of Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Monika Grütters, German Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

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