doing art history at night

 It was a dark night, but it was definitely not a nightmare, seeing all these dying barbarians and writhing bodies before my mind's eye, quite the contrary. 

With a surge of happiness I welcomed the unsolicited apparition of images of the Palazzo Altemps, a Roman museum. It were images from such a long time ago, happy images from an all but forgotten visit.   And yet, how astonishingly clear the memory was – strolling around as a tourist on a languorous September Sunday afternoon in Rome.

I had walked by the piazza with the undulating Borromini façade,  then into the stern street with the unobtrusive entry into an imposingly classical courtyard.   
The sheer marvel of this palace, with the many rooms full of silent statues, redolent with bygone Roman glory and  gravitas,  the fading frescoes on the walls, the cool interior with its filtered light contrasting with the windows opening into glaring Roman light and noise. 

How come these luminous memories had popped up, uninvited but so very welcome, nearly 15 years later during a dark restless night?

Lying awake at night,  I had been pondering again last weekend’s visit of the  De Bruyckere exhibition , with its sculptures of vulnerable flesh, its visions of frayed flayed waxen bodies in tormented postures. Some of the poses had vaguely reminded me of an ancient Roman statue - a warrior prostrated on the ground, bleeding from a wound, trying to get up. 
 A dying barbarian, a dying slave? I tried to visualise the association more clearly, but the precise image escaped me.  Then, slipping into a slumber, my mind came up with a marble statue, a "Dying Gaul", and treated me at the same time to a visit of the Palazzo Altemps where it seemed to have its abode. (1)

Now, fully awake at my computer, I further ponder art history’s visualisations of tormented bodies.
From the hardness of Roman marble (2) to the impressible vulnerability of contemporay wax.   
They’re both statues of lone suffering beings, though the Dying Gaul is far more publicly and heroically struggling than these inwardly turning waxen creatures.

And how about that long pictorial tradition of descents from the cross , how about all those depositions and  burials   of Christ? The sheer sinister lividness of those dead bodies, with the grisly streaks of blood - not unlike the tortured texture of that frayed wax.  But at least  those descents, depositions and burials were communal events, Christ’s body taken down by faithful followers – the images brimming with empathy and devotion. 

De Bruyckere’s creatures are quite alone, faceless even, without an individual identity – what could be worse: a lone suffering body – with only the spectator possibly offering redemption. Or rather, with each spectator facing recognition –  le dernier acte sera sanglant”.

historical corrections

  1.  My sleepy memory was playing tricks on me – an old museum guide and the internet indisputably confirm that there is no Dying Gaul at the Palazzo Altemps. The Dying_Gaul  is in the Musei Capitolini. The Palazzo Altemps however does have a cousin, the Suicide Galatian.  So far for  the accuracy of my subconscious art historical referencing system ...
  2. Late Roman marble copies of earlier Hellenistic bronze originals 

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