NY Museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

NY Museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


In a city full of famous art museums, the Metropolitan is undoubtedly the queen. The institution is a behemoth. With a collection containing millions of objects—objects which come from every corner of the world, from ancient times to the present day—the museum has nary a rival in the world for range. And the objects comprising this encyclopedic collection are, inevitably, of the finest quality that money can buy. By now I have seen enough of the great European museums to say confidently that the Met can compete with any of them.

The museum was conceived as a kind of sister institution to the American Museum of Natural History. It was an age when the rich and educated sought to “civilize” the less privileged. Both museums are located near Central Park, a place which itself was designed as a civilizing project—a kind of pastoral refuge from the ills of city life, where the people could learn to appreciate more refined recreational activities: Sunday strolls, picnics, birdwatching, and so on. The Museum of Natural History would bring the light of knowledge to the uneducated, while the Met would show the unsophisticated the value of high art.

The museum’s founders were embarking on a pathbreaking project. There were already plenty of examples of great European museums to learn from. But what would an American art museum be like? When the museum opened in 1872, its collection was modest. Indeed, many of the works it displayed were either prints or reproductions of famous European works. Yet this quickly changed. New York was emerging as the financial capital of the world. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan were among the city’s residents. Since Europe was still considered the cultural epicenter of the West, these newly-minted super-rich naturally spent their piles of gold in buying up as much European artwork as they could.

The Metropolitan benefited immensely from this confluence of money and ostentatious display. Not only did the museum itself have the budget to purchase high-quality works, but it also increased its collection from gifts and bequests. After all, donating beautiful art to a public museum is a good way to demonstrate wealth and civic-mindedness at once. We ought not to criticize, however. There are times when the vanities of the world manage to produce genuine treasures. And the Met is certainly such a treasure.

At present, the museum’s holdings are so vast and varied that no single person, however knowledgeable, could hope to do justice to it all. It would take a team of professional art historians working for years on end to complete even a basic catalogue of the museum’s works, much less an appreciation along aesthetic grounds. And I am no art historian. So in this post I hope only to give you a superficial tour through this enormous institution. (Much of the information and many of the images come from the Met’s website, which is quite well-made. The people at the museum have done the world a service by publishing high-quality public domain images of their collection.)

We begin at the entrance on Fifth Avenue. The museum is difficult to miss. The building stretches out along several city blocks. Fountains shoot and sprinkle outside, and the sidewalk is always thick with crowds. The building is neoclassical in form, its façade a kind of pale white decorated in a pseudo-Roman style. The steps leading up to the main entrance, lined with imposing double columns, are one of the most iconic spots in New York. There are always food stands parked right below these steps, and usually a street performer—a dancing saxophonist, perhaps—plays for the amusement of those sitting on the steps. 

We enter the building, and are faced with a choice: right or left. There are ticket stands on either side. To the left there is a graceful Greek statue of woman, and to the right a stiff Egyptian man seated on a throne. These statues are informative, since the respective galleries for these cultures are located in these directions. For the purpose of getting a ticket, the choice is immaterial: the lines on either side are normally about the same, and usually move pretty quickly.

Now, there was recently a significant change in the museum’s admissions policy. For the past few decades, visitors could pay any amount they liked. Just last year, however, the museum changed its recommended prices to mandatory payments—for everyone except residents of New York State, that is. (Lucky for me, I am still a resident.) Another change, by the way, was the switch from using metal clips to using stickers to identify visitors. I am sure that the Metropolitan has increased its budget by making these changes. But I admit I miss the old, pay-as-you-wish, metal clip Metropolitan. A man from China could pay a dollar, and leave with a nice little keepsake from his visit. I still have some of the old clips in my room. 

Anyways, let us now enter the museum proper. I like to begin with the Egyptian section, not just because it is near the entrance, but also because it represents the chronological beginning of the museum’s collection. Here we can ground ourselves in one of the world’s oldest civilizations before we examine anything else.

The Egyptian section is massive and labyrinthine. Unlike the other departments of the museum, the Egyptian department displays everything in its collection—almost 30,000 objects. To make room for all of this, the halls double around one another, making it sometimes confusing to navigate the collection. But it is a worthwhile use of one’s time to get lost in the art. If you proceed carefully through the department, you can take a very satisfying chronological journey: beginning near the entrance, in prehistoric Egypt, and ending up in the same spot, having gone through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, and finishing in the Roman era. 

Now, I love this department, because it has everything. Walking through it, the visitor gets a very complete picture of life in this ancient civilization. Of course there are sarcophagi and mummies, along with amulets, jewelry, and ceramics. Among the most famous of the smaller pieces in the museum is William the Hippopotamus, a beautiful figurine made of faience, which is a ceramic type specific to Egypt. It has a radiant blue color that is delightful to look at.

The museum also has a wealth of larger statues, ranging from the size of a child to the size of a giant. For me, the most beautiful of these is a statue of the pharaoh Hatshepsut. As you may know, Hatshepsut was the only woman to officially become the pharaoh. This presented a challenge for Egyptian artists. The art of Ancient Egypt is distinguished for its astonishing conservatism, preserving the same stylistic features through centuries. A single glance is all we need to know that something is Egyptian. But portraying a woman required innovation, and the artists rose to the challenge. Rather than making her appear masculine, as they did in other works, in this seated statue Hatshepsut appears both feminine and even feline. There is a smooth grace and delicacy to the sculpture which is rare in the usually rigid forms of Egyptian art, and I find it enchanting.

Though not, perhaps, especially beautiful, some of the most illuminating artifacts on displays are sets of models. Made around 1900 BCE, the models were found in the 1930s in a tomb in the Memphite region of Egypt. They show us rare scenes of daily life in Egypt. We can see several boats travelling along the Nile, one of them transporting a mummy, another for hunting. There are also models of more cotidian scenes: a granary, a garden, a house. These models are wonderful little things, since it is as if they were made by the Egyptians for a museum exhibit about Egypt. It is difficult to identify with the people who sculpted enormous statues of god kings, but very easy to see oneself gardening.

The centerpiece of the collection is the Temple of Dendur. The Met actually has large sections of several temples in its collection, from different periods of Egypt’s history, but this is the only complete, free-standing temple in the museum. It is in the center of a large room, surrounded by a little water moat where visitors like to throw coins. Statues of crocodiles and lion-headed gods surround the space. The temple itself is of a fairly modest size, and is from the end of Egyptian civilization. It was built after the conquest of Egypt by the Romans, and commissioned by Augustus himself. While the temple is a lovely work of architecture, what most stuck in my memory were the many graffiti carved into the walls.

When you complete your circuit through the Egyptian section, you will be where you began, right by the entrance. From there, I like to go across the hall and then into the section on Ancient Greece. This part of the museum looks very different. Whereas the Egyptian section is twisting and jam-packed, the Greek section is open and clear. The visitor enters a large hall with a vaulted roof. Free-standing statues are scattered through the space, while friezes line the walls. For any lovers of classical art—with its flowing robes, idealized forms, and restrained emotion—there are dozens of works to admire. While I greatly enjoy the statues, I find myself even more interested in the friezes. Some of these come from Athenian tombs, such as a touching portrayal of a little girl cradling a dove.

The collection contains many excellent examples of art from Classical Athens—art that we readily identify as quintessentially Greek. Besides the statues and freizes, there are many examples of Greek vase art. But the collection also contains works that do not fit this description. Among these are the many sculptures from pre-Classical Greece, which to our eyes can seem more Egyptian than anything. The museum has an excellent example of one of these kouroi: A young man, standing with one foot extended forward. I like the work, since it is an interesting example of a midpoint between Egyptian stylization and Greek realism. The young man is manifestly unreal, and yet the musculature in his limbs and torso is well done. An even older work—from around 750 BCE—is a terracotta vase. Its decoration is very much unlike the red, white, and black images of gods and heroes we normally associate with Greece. Rather, it is covered in a thick pattern of geometrical shapes and tiny like stick-like figures. I quite like it.

The collection of Roman art is perhaps even better than that devoted to Greece. There are several excellent busts of Roman Emperors. I have a long, personal attachment to a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the collection, which to me is the perfect image of a philosopher—calm, wise, detached. I use it as my own symbol now. A much more amusing work is a statue of Trebonianus Gallus. It is a rare example in the Met of art gone wrong. Clearly, whoever made it was not a master. The whole figure is awkward, with a bulging stomach and a head that is manifestly too small. Maybe Rome was not doing so well in the year 250 CE, when it was made.

Statues, being made of metal or rock, naturally preserve very well. But painting is another story. Even though the Greeks had a developed tradition of painting, nothing has survived the ravages of time. That is not the case for Rome, from which we have many well-preserved wall paintings. The Met has an entire room, the bedroom of P. Fannius Synistor, which was buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The art on the walls is really wonderful, showing several architectural and natural scenes. It shows us how the Romans gave a realistic impression of space without using the technique of perspective. Having seen my fair share of Roman wall frescoes and mosaic floors, I must say that they had wonderful taste in interior decoration.

As you can see from this example and the Egyptian temple, the Met is big on re-creating interiors. This is a theme throughout the whole institution. I think this is one of the greatest things that set the museum apart from its rivals. The visitor is allowed to walk into history.

Before moving on to the next department, I want to mention the wonderful collection of Etruscan art (from Italy before the Roman period) on the balcony above the Roman section. One of the most outstanding pieces in this section is a bronze chariot from around 550 BCE. Having a preserved chariot is quite rare, so it is a treat to be able to see one so exquisitely decorated.

The Greek and Roman section leads direction to the collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Of course, one can tell at a glance that this grouping is a kind of mishmash of art from non-Western cultures, which in previous days was called “primitive.” In reality the arts of these three continents have nothing to do with each other; and, of course, the amount of geographical space supposedly represented in these galleries is incomparably more vast than that of Greco-Roman or Egyptian art. That being said, at least the Metropolitan has a fine collection of art from these parts of the world, which are too often ignored.

For my part, it is a great refreshment to go from the world of Greece and Rome to this gallery. Our culture has so internalized those classical forms that they charm us more for their “perfections” than for any surprises they contain. Thus it is a pleasure to sample some of the other great visual cultures from around the world, which really do contain surprises for Western eyes.

The grand hall of the collection (gallery 354) is one of the most spectacular in the museum. From the ceiling hangs an enormous collection of shields from Oceania, arranged into a kind of meta-shield formation. I am always reminded, incongruously, of a spaceship. Large sculptures fill the space below the shields. There are some slit gongs from the island of Vanuatu, which double as huge musical instruments and works of visual art. There are funerary sculptures from Papua New Guinea; called malaga carvings, they are beautiful and highly intricate wooden carvings meant to be used only temporarily to celebrate the dead, and then disposed of. (This certainly goes against the grain of Western thinking, wherein we want our art to be eternal.) The bis poles of the Asmata people, another culture in New Guinea, are used for a similar purpose, and are also beautifully carved and then disposed of.

The adjacent section on African art is equally captivating. During my last visit I was particularly attracted to a small wooden carving of a man, called a Power Figure, made by the Kongo peoples. Bent forward slightly, standing with arms akimbo, the statue has a real intensity when seen in person—the exaggerated form only magnified by the many steel nails emanating from the man’s body. More famous is the Benin ivory mask, a real masterpiece, made by the Edo people of Nigeria—one of the great pre-colonial states in sub-saharan Africa. The mask, which represents a powerful queen mother, is clearly the work of experts working within a vibrant tradition. The mask has an elegance and a graceful polish that make it very satisfying on the eye: each detail is finely crafted, and yet they all work together to make a perfect form.

During my last visit, I was especially interested in the section on pre-colonial American art, since I had just finished listening to an audio course on the peoples of North America. I was delighted to find beautiful examples of geometric pottery from the Ancestral Pueblo culture (fascinating to compare to the geometrical designs from pre-Classical Greece). Among the many sculptures on display, one of the most iconic is a ceramic baby from the Olmec culture, made around 1,000 BCE. It is a wonderful piece, surprisingly lifelike despite its stylized face. The folds of fat and the hand placed idly in the mouth serve to make this sculpture a far more realistic depiction of babyhood than the many portraits of the infant Jesus made over 2,000 years later in medieval Europe. 

Moving on in our rapid tour, we come next to the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary art. The very fact that the Met has this department is a testament to its uniqueness. I can think of no other museum in the world that has significant holdings of ancient and non-Western art as well as “modern” art. But the Met is devoted to a vision of total universality—the art world’s equivalent of the Museum of Natural History—and so has it all.

The collection as the Met is almost as impressive as that in the MoMA—and that is saying a lot. Though there are so many great works on display, I will restrict myself to mentioning my favorite painting, which is also perhaps the most famous painting in the whole collection: Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

It is an extraordinary portrait, arguably the greatest of the previous century. The painting is revolutionary. Gertrude Stein sits in a kind of abstract, unfinished space. She is not surrounded by her papers and books, but instead sits alone. While previous portraits in European art showed us the heroic and cultured male, handsome and lithe, Stein is hunched-over, short, and tick. Yet her body—mostly concealed under her heavy clothes—has a kind of elemental power on the canvass, even a monumental grandeur. But her face is what attracts the most attention. Rather than faithfully reproducing Stein, Picasso turns her face into a kind of mask. Thus her eyes and nose do not obey the normal rules of perspective and anatomy. Ironically, though this technique necessarily makes Stein’s face blank and inexpressive, the result is a convincing representation of the writer’s presence, of her indomitable energy. There is a charming story that, when told that Stein did not look anything like this portrait, Picasso responded “She will.” He was right: this portrait has helped to define Stein’s image far more than photographs of her. 

I will also mention the largest work on display in this Department: America Today, a mural by Thomas Hart Benton. It consists of ten canvasses, and shows in visual form the America of the 1930s. The work was commissioned by the New School of Social Research—a kind of progressive think tank. I quite like the mural, as I do much of the public art created during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Looking at this work, one feels that we modern Americans were successfully creating our own visual language with which to decorate our public monuments—much like the Egyptians and the Greeks. The inclusion of this large mural is also keeping with the Met’s proclivity for immersive artistic experiences.

Next we come to the massive Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Once again, the Met excels when it comes to the re-creation of historical spaces. One of the most beautiful rooms in the Met is an entire patio taken from a Renaissance Spanish villa—the Castle of Veléz Blanco. Not only are the carvings on the arches and columns beautiful, but the space is filled with quite lovely statues of mythical, historical, and religious figures. Just as astounding is a study from the Ducal Palace of Gubbio. Every surface is covered in images made using the technique of wood inlay (intarsia, or marquestry), which consists of piecing together little bits of colored wood in order to make a complex image. The amount of time it must have taken to assemble a whole room this way is frankly stupefying. The result is an extraordinary work of immersive art, whose walls symbolize different areas of human activity. I am sure the room itself is a greater accomplishment than whatever happened inside it.

These two rooms only scratch the surface of the department’s holdings of decorative arts. There is everything one would expect to find in the homes of aristocrats and royalty, from elaborate coffee pots to ornate globes. I admit that, however fine these products are, they are generally less interesting to me than the sculptures.

Some of the museum’s best sculptures can be found in gallery 548, which takes the form of a large atrium. On one side of the space, you can even see the brick façade of the museum’s original building (which is mostly buried in the later constructions). There are two outstanding statues in this space. The first is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova. It is an extremely fine work of Neoclassicism, achieving the idealized grace of the Greeks and Romans. Simply as a composition, the statue works marvelously, with the gruesome head balanced by the peculiarly barbed sword, making a strong diagonal. The other great statue (in my opinion) is Ugolino and his Sons, by Jean-Baptise Carpeux. This depicts a story taken out of Dante of an Italian count who—along with his sons and grandsons—was imprisoned and starved to death. We see the count, driven almost to insanity through starvation and despair, surrounded by the tortured forms of his progeny.

Continuing on through the museum, the visitor will next reach the museum’s section of Medieval Art. Now, I feel justified in mostly passing over this department, since the bulk of the museum’s medieval art resides in the Cloisters Museum, uptown (an enchanting branch of the Met). Even so, it must be said that the central room of the Medieval Department is a beautiful space, with a high ceiling and high windows, like a cathedral. An ornate grill (from the Valladolid Cathedral, in Spain) stretches most of the way to the ceiling, and charming examples of sculptures, tapestries, and stained glass give the space a properly church-like atmosphere. This last time around I was particularly impressed with the museum’s small collection of Byzantine art.

From here it is appropriate to go straight to the Department of Arms and Armor. As you can imagine, this was my favorite section to visit when I was a young kid, and did much to fuel my youthful obsession with swords and guns. Even now, I admit I find this section extremely impressive, and I have never seen any collection of historical weapons even half as good. The presentation is excellent. The visitor enters a large hall, where medieval flags are hanging from the ceiling. A group of mounted knights ride through the center, while other armored knights stand guard all around the periphery. One feels that one has entered a jousting tournament.

The suits of armor are fascinating and, often, strangely beautiful. They are like abstract sculptures of human forms, or a kind of proto-machine with moving parts. Though you naturally would think that a metal suit would be extremely cumbersome, you can see innumerable little joints made into the armor, giving the wearers a surprising range of movement. The most beautiful of these many suits on display is that made for Emperor Ferdinand I (brother of Charles V). Every piece of metal is covered in ornate designs. Just as wonderful are the Japanese suits of armor on display. Rather than turning their wearers into metallic turtles, this armor is clearly designed for a different sort of fighting—one requiring more lightness and flexibility. The monstrous grimaces on the helmets would be genuinely terrifying if someone was coming at you wearing this.

Right next to this department is the American Wing. This is one of the areas where the Met is really untouchable. Other museums may have finer paintings or sculptures or what have you, but I do not think any museum has such a complete and rich collection of American art. Indeed, the American Wing could be cut off and moved to a different spot, and it would still be one of the finest museums in the country. Its collection is vast, and it is so wonderfully presented. The visitor enters an enormous courtyard full of benches and statues. The glass wall and roof flood the space with light, making the department a welcome relief from the dark medieval section. Bright, colorful stained glass, and an equally colorful fountain, line the walls; and a beautiful bronze statue of Diana, lightly resting on one foot, occupies the center.

The visitor enters the main collection through a kind of pseudo-façade, as if this is an entirely different building. And, indeed, the visitor suddenly finds herself thrown into a richly-furnished home. In keeping with the museum’s penchant for interior spaces, there are a great many recreations of American interiors from different points in the country’s history. Surely, we have not invented anything as close to time travel as this. Proceeding onward, the visitor next finds a strange sort of room. It is in the shape of a large oval, and on the walls there is an enormous painting of the palace and the gardens of Versaille. When standing in the center of the room, the curving panoramic does create a satisfying illusion of actually standing in France. Just as the study in the Ducal Palace of Gubbio, this painting (by John Vanderlyn) must have taken a nauseating amount of time.

I walked up the stairs, and then found myself in what is called “open storage.” These are the chairs, tables, paintings, lamps, and everything else that the museum has but did not have the space to use. So they hang here, in transparent cases. I recommend a visit to this, if only because it gives you an idea of the enormous amount of material any major museum must be holding in storage.

Proceeding onward, we come to the painting gallery. There are far too many excellent works to name. I was particularly happy to see a portrait of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington—both of which used to hang in Hamilton’s home, up in Harlem. More conspicuously, there is the iconic painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware—almost ludicrously heroic. I was also happy to find Frederic Edwin Church’s painting, In the Heart of the Andes. Church was inspired by the naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, and included as much scientific detail as he could in this painting. Just as famous is John Singer Sargeant’s painting, Madame X, an intentionally risque (at the time) portrait of a society beauty (her real name was Madame Pierre Gautreau).

I was most delighted to learn that the museum has an entire room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I am no expert in the design of houses or in interior decoration, but I must say that it is both a welcoming and an animating space. It is easy to imagine myself reading a good novel within, while watching the snow fall out the windows. 

This completes our long circuit around the museum’s massive ground floor. If we continue on, we reach the Egyptian section again. So now let us return once again to the Great Hall, and then ascend the grand staircase to the museum’s first floor (or second floor, in America). 

Finally we come to the museum’s collection of European Paintings. Now, I must be careful here to avoid getting pulled into an endless catalogue of the museum’s excellent works. Like the American Wing, the Met’s Department of European Paintings could be a self-standing museum, and still be one of the best in the nation. Whether you like Dutch, Italian, French, or Spanish art, you will not leave the gallery disappointed (though German painting is fairly absent).

As you might expect, I am most interested in the Spanish paintings on display. The Met has excellent examples of the three great Spanish masters: Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya. The outstanding work of Velázquez is a portrait of Juan de Pareja, an enslaved man of African descent, which the artist executed in Italy. You will be pleased to hear that the great painter freed Juan de Pareja, who went on to become a skilled painter himself (there is a work of his hanging in the Prado). In any case, when you look at this painting, you do not see a man in bondage. To the contrary, Juan de Pareja appears almost regal with dignity. The painting is beautiful and startlingly realistic. To depict a man of African descent in such a way was a radical gesture on Velazquez’s part. 

Goya’s contribution is a portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, a very young aristocrat. As usual with Goya, the figure has an odd stiffness, and the face is inexpressive. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the scene at the boy’s feet, where two cats hungrily eye a magpie on a leash. This is a strangely morbid scene for a portrait of a youth, and it becomes all the more eerie when one considers that the boy died only a few years later, at the age of eight. El Greco’s outstanding work is his View of Toledo, the best of the artist’s few landscape paintings. As always, the artist’s signature style is immediately apparent: deep, rich colors combined with a dramatic verticality. This style is perfect for the city of Toledo—which is built on a hill overlooking a river, and filled with sharp towers. El Greco manages to imbue this wholly secular and inanimate scene with a burning spiritual intensity.

The number of excellent French painters in attendance dwarfs the representatives of any other nation. My personal favorite is Jacques Louis David. There is a charming portrait of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was executed during the French Revolution under false accusations. This is quite a historic loss, considering that Lavoisier is normally considered to be the father of modern chemistry. David’s more famous painting is his The Death of Socrates, a historical scene showing the great philosopher’s final moments. Socrates, who was very ugly and was quite old at the time, is shown as a partially nude Greek hero—with a muscular torso to boot. While I am not sure the painting captures the spirit of Plato’s dialogues, it is a brilliantly theatrical image.

On the subject of French painters, I must also mention The Love Letter, by Jean Honoré Fregonard, a delightfully coquettish image of a young woman receiving a note from her secret admirer. (I use this image in my blog’s newsletter.) I would love to keep going—since paintings speak to use in a modern language, easy for us to appreciate—but I will content myself with a short list of the artists in attendance: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Ingres, Canaletto, Tiepollo, Turner, Klimt, Monet, Manet, Guaguin, Cézanne, Dürer, Memling, Rubens… Really even the list gets too long. The museum’s holdings of 19th century European paintings is so big, in fact, that the collection is held in a different section of the building.

To get there, you must pass a little hallway devoted to drawings, prints, and photographs. Now, you may be surprised to learn that, counted by individual works, this department is by far the biggest in the museum. But only a fraction of the drawings and prints in the museum’s holdings are on display at any given time. Sometimes they are taken out for special exhibitions, such as one on Michelangelo a few years ago. There, I got to see some of Michelangelo’s schematic drawings for fortresses, when he was briefly hired as a military engineer. Besides being innovative designs, the drawings themselves are beautiful works of abstract art.

Continuing on through the paintings of 19th and early 20th century Europe—where you can admire the great impressionists and post-impressionists—you get to the Department of Islamic Art. During my time in Spain I have come to admire Islamic art for its intricate designs, its geometrical sophistication, and its sense of divine calm. Wonderfully creative patterns decorate everything from tiles, to carpets, to pages of the Qur’an. As an example of the last, there is a stunning illuminated Qur’an from Turkey, whose decoration is just as intricate as the Book of Kells in Dublin.

Representational art is relatively uncommon in the Islamic world, as it is explicitly forbidden by the religion, but there are still some examples in the gallery. A particularly beautiful one is a tile panel from Iran, executed in a style that looks to my ignorant eye as if it could be Indian. A seductively posed woman is being courted by a man wearing a European hat. I wonder who made object, for whom, and where it would be placed, since it seems to so flagrantly flout the strictures of Islamic religion.

In keeping with the museum’s love of historical spaces, this section has the Damascus Room. This is a winter reception room from a palace in Damascus, Syria, made around the year 1700. It is a beautiful space. Shelves display ornate ceramics and the gilded covers of Qur’ans. Panels of lovely calligraphy (bearing messages from the Qur’an) and floral designs decorate the walls, and the floor is covered with geometrical tiles. The ceiling is perhaps the most stunning of all, composed of elaborate woodwork. It is such a sophisticated, elegant space; it must certainly have set the tone for any conversations which took place within. 

Next we come to the museum’s relatively small section on the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia). For the most part these halls are filled with wonderful little objects from long ago, like cylinder seals, jewelry, incense burners, and small-scale statues. Among this last category is a small statue of Gudea, made around 2,000 BCE. It is a work of skilled craftsmanship, showing us a Sumerian king in a rather humble pose. His robe bears an inscription in cuneiform about his accomplishments (typical propaganda). What is striking is the thoughtfulness and even the humility of the king’s gaze and pose. He strikes us as more of a monk than a fearsome ruler. Another outstanding work is the bronze head of an unknown ruler, made between 2300 and 2000 BCE. Though not exactly realistic, I think this work is remarkable for the degree of individualization in the ruler’s features. We are not looking at a generic, stylized male head, but a particular man from 3,000 years ago.

But the real stars of this department are the lamassu: colossal sculptures of human-headed winged lions that flank the hallways. These were made in Assyria, around 850 BCE. Walking through this hallway, flanked by these mythical figures, feels like walking into the past. One detail I particularly like is that the creatures have five legs, as a result of a bit of illusionism. The front two legs are parallel, as if the creature is standing still; yet from the side, an extra leg is added (invisible from the front) to make it look as though the creature is mid-stride when seen from the side. The walls surrounding these stone guardians are covered with friezes in low relief, depicting other mythological scenes. For me, this Assyrian art is as lovely anything in the Egyptian section. 

You emerge from ancient times onto the balcony overlooking the Great Hall. Here you can walk across and enter into the Department of Asian Art. This is one of my favorite areas of the museum, partly because of the art itself, and partly for the way that this department is laid out. Clever planning makes the department seem much bigger than it actually is, and walking through it the first time feels like exploring an old palace or temple.

The viewer enters the department by walking into a grand gallery, filled with enormous works of Chinese Buddhist art. There are large stele, bearing inscriptions and carvings, and a huge sculpture of a Bodhisattva. This may, in fact, be the biggest statue in the museum. It is 13’9’’ tall (over 4 m) and must weigh thousands of pounds. It is also quite beautiful, with richly decorated robes. On the wall is an even bigger paintings of the Buddha of Medicine, seated among a large retinue. It is a magnificent way to enter Asia.

From this large hall, one can either further explore Chinese art, on the left, or enter the arts of India, on the right. For the sake of consistency, we can begin with China. The Met’s collection of Chinese Buddhist sculpture is the largest outside of Asia, and more examples can be seen in Gallery 208. There are so many lovely sculptures. One I particularly like is a ceramic sculpture of an Arhat (or a Luohan, as they are known in China), which is a person who has achieved an advanced state of enlightenment. The sculpture is lifesize; and the man’s tired and worn expression is extremely compelling. His robes are still brightly colored, even though this was made over 1,000 years ago. 

The Met also has a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings, calligraphy, pottery, and much else. But the most stunning room is the so-called Astor Court: a recreation of a Ming Dynasty-era courtyard. This is just another example of the stunning interiors from around the world collected at the Met. Finished in 1981, this installation was built by hand, using traditional methods; and besides being a beautiful work of art, it represented a landmark in cultural exchange between communist China and the United States. You enter through a round doorway guarded by two stone beasts (one is reminded of the lamassu in the Ancient Near East). Immediately you find yourself in a different world. A sheltered walkway surrounds a garden filled with oddly shaped rocks. These are called Taihu stones; they are formed via water erosion at the foot of a particular mountain in China (Dongting), and they are abstract sculptures in their own right.

At the end of the garden is a large room, designed to be used as a study, I believe. Unlike the great European interiors of the Met, this room does not appear at all ostentatious. Rather it is spare, restrained, and tasteful. As in the Damascus Room, it is impossible not to be awed by the high degree of sophistication and elegance of the room and the adjoining garden. I cannot but help imagining myself as a Ming Dynasty scholar, sitting in the garden and contemplating some intellectual puzzle. The space seems to invite contemplation.

Next we shall enter India and Southeast Asia. But before that, I ought to mention the Met’s small but delightful collection of Korean art. It is all in one room, Gallery 233, and I quite like the space. All of the objects are diminutive, and many have a kind of geometrical simplicity and elegance which gives the space its own distinct aesthetic. But we have no time to stop and savor. We walk from China, through Korea, and into India. 

For me, the standout objects in these galleries are the many small figurines of gods. Indian sculpture enchants me for the kind of whimsical energy it often possesses. Though magnificent, the many gods do not seem remote or beyond reach, but rather quite approachable and inviting. These galleries are arranged chronologically, so we begin at around 2,000 BCE—about as old as anything in the Egyptian or the Ancient Near East sections—and move towards the present. To pick just a few of my favorite examples, there is an Avalokiteshvara Padmapani from the 7th century, a Bodhisattva who seems to be coyly beckoning. Or there is a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance, wherein the god is shown mid-stride, dancing within a fiery circle.

Another favorite is Yashoda with the Infant Krisha, who is suckling the young diety at her breast. This sculpture is especially resonant for Westerners, since we also have a tradition of representing the sacred mother suckling the divine child. But the style is here so very different. Whereas Mary is de-sexualized as much as possible, Yashoda is nearly naked and her breasts are almost comically large (of course, I am looking at this sculpture as a Westerner). Indian art is, after all, famous for its erotic content. An excellent example of this is a sculpture of a loving couple in a passionate embrace, made in the 13th century. You may be surprised to learn that this was part of the decoration of a temple. Certainly you would never see anything similar on a gothic cathedral!

The last work I will mention is a statue of Ganesha from the 12th century. This elephant-headed god is the bestower of good fortune, and it is customary to make an offering before doing anything important. When I visited a few years ago, I was delighted to find that this practice extended into the museum: there were coins left at the base of the statue. 

We still have Japan to cover, but first we must take a little detour. Standing near the end of the section on India and Southern Asia is a beautiful wooden ceiling. This comes from a Jain temple built in the late 16th century. The staircase underneath this roof leads up to a small gallery on the floor above, this one devoted to the arts of Tibet and Nepal. For my part, this is some of the coolest art that I have ever seen. Though thematically related to art in both the Chinese and the Indian sections, the art here has a peculiar intensity not found anywhere else. An example of this is the painting of Walse Ngampa, a wrathful deity of Tibetan Buddhism. The figure has an electrifying intensity, with two arms wrapped around a terrified victim about to be devoured, while its many other arms are outstretched, holding symbolic objects.

When we descend, we can finally make our way to the section of Japanese art. Here, too, we can find some excellent statues. I particularly like the wooden guardian figures, which flank a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai, or the Cosmic Buddha. These guardian figures are formidable. I am always drawn to their fearsome grimaces. Even more wonderful is Ogata Korin’s ink drawing of waves on a folding panel. Here we can see a non-Western tradition of drawing that is intensely sophisticated. The waves do not occupy any kind of realistic space, but instead seem to emerge from nowhere and engulf everything. The lines of the waves are nothing like the blurry colors of Turner’s seascapes, which gives these waves a disturbing sense of solidity; the leading edge of the water appears sharp and even claw-like. It is a wonderful image.

We have already spent hours and hours in this museum, and yet there is still more to see. From the Japanese Department we can move on to the Department of Musical Instruments. This is housed in two galleries overlooking the section of Arms and Armor. I have never seen a collection of musical instrument that even comes close to the Met’s collection. There are superb examples of instruments from around the world: Italian harpsichords, Chinese pipas (similar to a lute), Native American rattles, Congolese horns, and Japanese drums. Seeing them in this context reminds us that instruments can be very beautiful simply as objects. To pick just one extravagant example, there is an Indian taus (a bowed lute) in the form of a peacock. And, of course, we must not neglect to mention the Stradivarius violins.

This gallery also has paintings with musical subjects hanging on the walls. My favorite is Dancing in Columbia, by Fernando Botero, if only because a copy of it has been hanging in my mother’s living room as far back as I can remember. Two balconies connect the two halves of the instrument department. On one of these is a charming old organ, and on the other is a fantastic assortment of wind instruments, arranged as if they are exploding from a central point. It is an evocative representation of a fanfare. 

By now we have made our way through most of the major sections of the museum. There is only one place left on our tour: the Robert Lehman Collection.

Robert Lehman was a banker who owned one of the biggest and best private art collections in history. Active for a long time on the Metropolitan Board of Directors, he bequeathed his extraordinary collection to the Met, but on the condition that it not be mixed in with the other departments. Thus, the Met built a special space, attached at the back of the building, almost like a spaceship taking off from the main building. The rooms of the department are furnished to vaguely evoke a private home. Personally, I do not like having this department separate, since I do not see any good reason to do so other than vanity. If Lehman wanted his collection separate, he could have done what Frick or Morgan did, and established his own museum. But, in any case, there are some extraordinary works of art to be found, so it cannot be missed.

Robert Lehman seems to have been most interested in European paintings, and that is what we find in abundance. One of my favorites is The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo. I love the color pallette of the paintings, filled with rich dark hues. But I am most drawn to the representation of the creation of the world: with God holding a series of concentric circles surrounding an image of Eden. Most famous, perhaps, is a portrait by Ingres of the Princesse de Broglie. Ingres’s technique is masterful, brilliantly capturing the rich fabric of her dress and furniture. It is also psychologically subtle, as it shows us a woman poised between shy reserve and self-assuredness.

There are dozens of other great paintings in this collection, and thousands upon thousands of great works in the museum, but this is where our tour must end. I have already written far too much. But the Met is endless—or, at least, it might as well be.

Confronted with such an enormous mass of culture and beauty from all around the world, it is difficult to know how to react. Part of me wonders whether all of these objects really should be here. With the financial resources that the Met possesses, the museum has been able to get nearly anything. But should they? And were all of the objects collected in ways that we would now approve of? Admittedly, the museum is trying to address this last question with their Provenance Project, paying particular attention to works that may have been looted by the Nazis and not restituted to their rightful owners. Personally I wonder about many of the objects in the Department of Oceanic, African, and American arts. 

On the other hand, I think it is important that we do have spaces where we can see the human experience as one enormous tapestry. Traveling from Egypt, to China, to Turkey, to Senegal—in short, to nearly every inhabited corner of the world—and seeing these different traditions unfold through centuries of time: one would hope that this might lead to some insight into our human condition. There are some very obvious lessons, the most obvious one being that humans really like to make art. Other common themes are the relationships between art and power, or art and religion. It is all too much to really digest everything. But I hope every visit provides just a little bit more to chew on.

To conclude rather lamely, the Met is a uniquely excellent museum. Not only does it have vast and high-quality collections, but the museum is unique in many respects. As often mentioned, there is the museum’s emphasis on interior decoration and the arts of daily life. More important is the museum’s attempt to be all-inclusive: incorporating art from all over the world, and from every historical period. The Met’s view of art is expansive, incorporating not only paintings and sculptures, but swords, helmets, harpsichords, photographs, and dresses (the Costume Institute is downstairs). It is a kind of universal storehouse of human activity. I will surely keep going as long as my legs will take me.

Ancient Cities: Athens

Ancient Cities: Athens

The plane landed late; and by the time the metro took us to the city, it was midnight. Though the Airbnb was not far from the metro stop, we were so tired that we elected to take a taxi. The driver grimaced when he saw the address.

“How much you pay to stay there?” he asked.

“Not much,” I said truthfully.

“You should pay nothing!”

He dropped us off in front of a long, dark alley.

“Stay on that side,” he told us, before driving off.

“I guess this is it,” I said, and we hesitatingly began to walk into the darkness.

Just as we approached the door, a noise startled us. Two homeless people were crouched right beside the door, talking. In truth I had no reason to think that they posed any kind of threat. But the taxi driver’s words had put me on edge. I fumbled with the lockbox on the door, reading the relevant digits from my phone and tugging. The thing popped open and revealed our keys.

We took the elevator to the top floor. There, I read in the instructions that I was to use the blue key for this one. My friend Becca tried to open it, but to no avail.

“Are you sure it’s this one?” she said.

“Yes, it says the blue key for the blue door.”

She tried again.

“It’s not working,” she said. “Want to try?”

I pocketed my phone and grabbed the key. But as soon as I turned it I felt a snap—the key had broken off in the lock. I was horrified. It was one o’clock in the morning and I had just jammed the lock of our apartment. There was nothing to do but to call the host, who I hoped lived close by. Luckily he picked up quickly.

“You what?” he said.

“The key broke off in the lock.”

He grumbled.

“How hard is it to open a door?” he said. 

“I’m sorry…”

“You know ten people are staying there?”

“Yes, I know it’s…”

“Just wait there.”

I assumed that he would have to call the locksmith, which on a Friday night at one in the morning could easily take hours and cost hundreds of euros. But, to my immense relief, within five minutes he appeared carrying a box of tools. The key shard was extracted and, with some more scolding, we were ushered inside. He then opened a lockbox inside the apartment and gave us a replacement key. The charge was five euros.

“Thank you!” I said, marvelling at the efficiency of the process. Guests must break keys in the door all the time, if he had it down to such a science.

Anyways, the ordeal was over: we had arrived in Athens. From the balcony of our Airbnb we could see it: the Parthenon, high up on its hill, gleamingly lit with floodlights. I looked at the ancient temple, relaxed, and felt that strange wondrous feeling of finally seeing something with your eyes which you have seen a thousand times in photographs.

I was finally here, in Athens, the honorary birthplace of Western culture. I was in the city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; of Thucydides and Pericles and Solon. For worshippers of history, no ground is more sacred. And yet my first experience in this city of philosophy and art was being frightened by a taxi driver and then criticized by a disgruntled landlord.


Our first stop was the National Archaeology Museum. As one might expect from an archaeology museum in one of the greatest of ancient cities, this one of the city’s cultural jewels. It is located right in the heart of Athens, in an impressive neoclassical building that evokes the grandiose history it hopes to document. When we went, the line was short and the price was entirely reasonable.

The collection begins with a set of artifacts which cannot be properly called ‘Greek.’ Some of these are Cycladic art, from the Cyclades, a collection of small, rocky islands off the Greek coast. The art is remarkable, both for its high quality and for its extreme contrast to what we normally think of as ‘Greek’ art. There is no hint of realism in these works. To the contrary, the sculptures of faces and bodies are heavily stylized, leaving a characteristically angular and abstract form which would fit in well in any modern art gallery. One of my favorite works from this section is the representation of a harp player, whose instrument seems to emanate from his leg.

Another civilization which flourished before the ancient Greeks were the Mycenaeans, whose culture covered much of modern-day Greek, the Peloponesus, and the islands. The archaic culture takes its name from the greatest city of its era, Mycenae. One of the artistic masterpieces from this period is the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. This is a funerary mask made of pounded gold around 1500 BCE. The mask owes its name to its discoverer, Heinrich Schilemann, who believed it to belong to the legendary king of the Trojan War. Nowadays this link seems extremely unlikely, if not fanciful. The mask is beautiful, nonetheless. Its highly stylized features evoke an individual—noble, powerful, and tranquil in the repose of death. 

What I stumbled upon next astonished me: the Antikythera mechanism. This is one of the most remarkable artefacts in history, one which I had heard about several times from documentaries and television. But I had no idea it was here. The Antikythera mechanism is a highly sophisticated device used to compute the positions of celestial objects and to calculate eclipses. In essence it is an ancient computer. It was discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, in 1901, and was made some time around 100 BCE. Badly corroded by its centuries under the sea, and broken into several fragments, the pale green chunks of metal hardly do justice to the triumph that such an object represents. 

In technical sophistication it would be over a thousand years until Europeans created anything comparable. The mechanism contained over 30 gears whose turnings could model the irregular movements of the sun, moon, and planets. It would be wound with a little crank, and it was originally covered with inscriptions of the months and days (Egyptian names written in Greek script) and the intercalandary days used to correct the Egyptian 360-day year. The level of knowledge needed to create such a device is extraordinary. Merely developing the mathematics needed to accurately calculate the moon’s orbit, for example, took generations of work. And to be able to build such a delicate device that embodies these mathematical relationships in a usable form—that is true sophistication.

Near the fragments of the original device are several modern reconstructions of what it may have looked like. All of these agree that it was a medium-sized box with a metallic face that displayed several rotating rings. The device is not exactly beautiful to look at; but in what it means for our species—the ability to chart and predict the movement of celestial bodies with mathematical precision—it is an artifact more moving than even the finest sculpture.

The museum’s sculpture collection allows the visitor to see the evolution of Greek technique. The archaic period was characterized by a notable influence of Egyptian art upon the Greeks. One can see this clearly in the Knoisos Kouros, a large statue of a young man made around 500 BCE to mark a grave. The figure is stiff, with his arms straight at his sides; his hair is braided behind him; and his mouth wears that characteristic ‘archaic smile,’ a sort of otherworldly grin typical of this period. Nearby is a statue of a sphinx—with a smiling human head, an eagle’s wings, and a lion’s body. Clearly these early Greeks were admirers of their ancient counterparts in the Nile Valley.

Compare this statue with one made about 100 years later: the Poseidon of Cape Artemision. This is a bronze statue depicting a bearded god, his arm raised in a gesture of smiting, found in a shipwreck. (It is unclear whether it is Poseidon or Zeus, since the object in the god’s arm—a trident or a thunderbolt—has been lost.) Here the body is far from stiff, but poised to strike, its right foot lifting up in preparation. The face, too, is far more expressive. Gone is the archaic smile. The bearded god is magnificent, foreboding, and regal.

Found in that same shipwreck is the Jockey of Artemision, a bronze statue that was made even later, at around 150 BCE. Here realism has advanced considerably. We see a young boy riding a horse. The horse is frozen mid-stride, while the impossibly small boy is seated bareback. To my eyes the work has a decidedly morbid air: the horse looks sickly while the boy looks frightened. But it is a masterful work of art, with every muscle of the horse’s body modeled beautifully, and its face wonderfully lifelike. Again, we must marvel at the technical sophistication needed to create such a well-balanced, realistic sculpture out of bronze. 

The Golden Age of Greek art is, however, normally considered to lie between the stiffness of the archaic period and the realism of the Hellenistic period. During this properly classical age, idealized form met technical sophistication, creating those wonderful heroic figures who are both believable and yet beyond human. Among these we might class the Aphrodite of Knidos or the Capitoline Venus, iconic statues of the idealized female body, both of which can be found at the museum—or, at least, Roman-era copies. 

One of the museum’s great male nudes is the Antikythera Ephebe, a bronze statue found in the same shipwreck that yielded up the above-mentioned mechanism. As with the case of the Poseidon statue mentioned above, the identity of the young man is unclear, since we do not know what he held in his hand. Nevertheless it is an extraordinary representation of the perfect human form—very far-removed in conception and execution from the Egyptian-influenced statues created just two centuries before. 

The museum has many masterpieces; but one cannot do justice to its collection by focusing on these pieces alone. There are superb examples of ancient coins and pottery, and sculptures ranging from 1,000 BCE to the Roman era. The Greek vase-painting alone deserves and rewards close study. But, for me, the most moving galleries were those which contained ancient funerary markers. These are like tombstones, most often decorated with statues in high relief, that show us intimate and often touching representations of the departed. In one we see a father holding a baby, whose little hand is outstretched towards his deceased mother. It is wonderful art; but, more importantly, it is so wonderfully human.

This was our first morning. As visiting museums is tough work, we emerged tired and hungry. But the weather was lovely beyond belief. It was mid-March, and Madrid was still feeling the winter chill. Athens, meanwhile, was sunny and perfectly warm, and the sky had nary a cloud. We were also fortunate when it came to food. Greek food is justly famous; and Athens, of course, has no shortage of it. We ate lunch in a place called O Kostas, ordering two lamb gyros and fries with feta cheese. It was delicious. For dessert, we headed to a spot called Lukumades, which serves a type of pastry called, appropriately, Loukoumades. These are essentially like doughnut holes—fried balls of dough—but they are especially sumptuous, soft on the inside and slightly tough on the outside. Traditionally they are served with honey, which is what I ordered. It was a voluptuary experience.

After we ate, we headed to a tour that Becca had booked before we arrived. We wanted to see at least some of the country outside of Athens. A trip to Delphi or, better still, one of the Greek islands would have been ideal; but since we had limited time, we settled on a short trip to the Temple of Poseidon. The tour met at a hotel, where we boarded a large tour bus. I was rather impressed at the driver’s ability to maneuver the blimp-like vehicle through the narrow Athenian streets. Our guide gave us a running narration of the sites we were passing, through the bus’s PA system, as well as giving us some background as to the history and the mythology associated with the temple.

Apart from its major monuments, the city of Athens is itself not especially attractive—a clutter of unremarkably buildings—but the landscape surrounding the city partakes in all that fabled beauty of the Greek countryside. The bright blue Mediterranean, the gentle hills and small islands sparsely covered with green, and the little towns nestled among these elevations—the whole scene brought my thoughts back to the country’s ancient past. 

Many times I have heard it said that the particular geography of Greece was the key to its cultural development: that the hills and mountains made overland travel difficult, while the many islands and harbors made sea travel, and thus international trade, far more profitable. Thus, the Greeks became excellent sailors and developed independent city-states, whose merchants sailed far and wide, coming into contact with other cultures and bringing back ideas, arts, and technologies from afar. I have even heard it said that the particular clarity of the Meditteranean sun in Greece shaped their logical philosophy and their classical art. Theories such as these should always be handled with caution. Still, as I looked at this dramatic and yet harmonious landscape, I could not help but feel inspired myself.

Finally we reached the temple. It stands on a bluff overlooking the sea, a commanding position for the house of a god. The guide led us from the parking lot to the site, gave us a little speech, and then let us roam free. Built during the Golden Age of Athens, under Pericles (c. 440 BCE), the temple itself is now in a ruined state, with less than half of the original columns standing and nothing of the roof or internal structures to speak of. Even so, the temple has been a tourist destination for many years, as attested by the many graffiti carved into the rock, including the name of Lord Byron. The ruined temple is perhaps all the more charming to modern visitors because of its ruin. As it stands now, the columns open up towards the viewer, and the temple itself becomes a kind of lens or frame for the landscape around it.

Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who idolized the Greeks, was horrified by most of what he actually saw on his trip to Greece. This temple was one of the few sites that inspired him, which he recorded in his influential essays on aesthetics:

Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the obscurity of that rock’s bulky yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, first brings to radiance the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night.

My response to the structure was, however, muted compared with my response to the landscape surrounding the temple. Nevertheless, it was special to see my first true Ancient Greek temple, in situ. It is a work of art that perfectly complements nature.

We arrived back around dinnertime, ate, and then went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.


We awoke in our pitch-dark room early. It was time to visit the Acropolis. Breakfast was easy. The streets were full of vendors selling sesame bread rings—which taste like thin, crunchy bagels.

The walk to the base of the hill was short, and it was not long before we began to encounter ruins. First was Hadrian’s Library, built during the reign of that Roman Emperor to house some of the cultural treasures of Athens. (Educated Romans were acutely aware of the cultural debt they owed to Greece.) Little of this structure remains, just a few walls and free-standing columns in a grassy field. Nearby is the Roman agora (an agora is an open space used for assemblies). Athens’ original agora was apparently swallowed up by surrounding buildings, making a new one necessary during the Roman era. The most famous structure in this area is the Tower of the Winds, possibly the first weather station in history, equipped with a wind vane, multiple sundials, and a water clock.

Our path then took us past the iconic Theater of Dionysus. Built into the side of the hill, the theater will be familiar to anyone who has seen later Roman theaters, partially because the Romans refurbished it, and partially because this is the prototype of all theaters that came later—possibly history’s first theater. Semicircular rows of seats descend to the stage, which is framed by a grandiose stone backdrop. It was amazing to see the venue where, in all probability, the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were performed. It may be difficult for us to appreciate this nowadays, when theater and all its offspring (television, movies) so dominate our entertainment and art. But at one point theater was an entirely new, cutting-edge artistic medium. The Greeks not only gave birth to this artform, but quickly produced masterpieces, still powerful after more than 2,000 years. 

The theater of Dionysus

The path took us on a gradual ascent up the hill of the Acropolis. Soon we came to the entrance to the site. Though there were lots of tourists mulling about, I was surprised that we did not have to wait on a long line to get inside. It was not at all like visiting the Colosseum in Rome: we paid and walked right inside. A little more walking, and we were standing before the ancient entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaea. This consists of a marble colonnade, with wings on either side, which sits grandly atop the stairs leading up to the Acropolis. At the time this was a sacred space, and so the Propylaea served as a gate, and was used to control access to the city’s temples, barring the way of any undesirables. 

The Propylaea

We climbed the stairs, passed under the Propylaea—and there it was, the Parthenon. 

Seeing any iconic site evokes a peculiar feeling: a quick succession of awe, disappointment, boredom, excitement, curiosity, wonder, and awe again. First you think, “That’s it!” Then you think, “Well, I guess that’s it.” And then you start to really look at it, in a way you never could in photos or in videos. Now you can sense the building’s proportions, and see it in the proper situation—the strong Mediteranean sun bearing down, the bear rock of the hill underfoot, and the expansive view on every side.

The Parthenon was built at the height of Athenian power, at around 450 BCE. Athens had just emerged victorious from a war with Persia, the very war recorded by Herodotus in his Histories. During that conflict, the Persians had ransacked the city of Athens and had burned several sacred sites, including an older temple. Nevertheless, Athens emerged from the war stronger than ever before, the de facto leader of the Delian League—a loose federation of Greek city-states. Indeed, the league dues paid to Athens by the other members helped to fund the new temple, something that the other cities did not appreciate. The high-handed leadership of Athens eventually resulted in the Peloponnesian War, recorded by Thucydides, which ended with the defeat of Athens by Sparta and its allies, and the end of the Athenian Golden Age.

The author in front of the Parthenon. Photo by Becca Kantor.

The construction of the Parthenon, then, coincides exactly with Athens’ most glorious moment. On the surface the building is simplicity itself: rows of columns (69 in all, originally) holding up a roof. But the beauties are in the subtleties. First, the columns themselves swell slightly in the middle, in order to counteract the optical illusion that perfectly straight columns are narrower in the middle. The whole foundation itself is slightly bowed, or bent, which helped rain flow off the roof as well as made the building stronger—not to mention lessening the stiffness of the building’s profile.

Then there is the artwork. Very little of the original sculptures remain, much of it having been carted off to England by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin (more on that later). As extraordinary as much of this artwork is, it was not meant to be the main focus on the structure. In fact, it was placed so high above that it is unclear how it could have been properly seen. The Ancient Greek traveller, Pausanias, does not even mention the friezes that are now considered touchstones in the history of art. Instead, the main focus of the building was an enormous statue of Athena, holding the winged form of Nike (or vistory), now lost to time.

We do have a good idea of what this statue would have looked like, though, from several reproductions and representations, as well as from written descriptions. Ironically, as the classicist Mary Beard points out, we in the present would likely not have found this statue particularly beautiful. Certainly the full-scale reproduction in Nashville is not inspiring. The gargantuan figure was not meant to be a work of art, after all, but a cult image—indeed, the goddess herself made incarnate. And the temple was not a place of services or worship, such as a church or a mosque, but a place to house the offerings to this physical goddess.

Nowadays, we are not apt to see the ruined temple as the house of a goddess, or even as primarily a religious structure. Rather, we cannot help seeing the Parthenon as a kind of visual representation of the culture that gave us philosophy, art, and democracy. We see the ancient structure, and we think of Pericles, the great leader of Athens, and his ironic funeral oration:

If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences…if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes…

But the Parthenon has been affected by far more history than merely Classical Athens. The building served as a church for much longer than it ever was the home of Athena. The pagan temple was first consecrated under the Byzantines as a Greek Orthodox church; and then, during the crusades, the Parthenon fell under the control of several different Western European states, becoming a Roman Catholic church controlled by the French, the Italians, and the Catalans in turn. Finally the Ottoman Turks seized control, and the Parthenon became a mosque. In 1687, during a war with Venice, the Ottomans unwisely decided to use the Parthenon as a refuge for civilians, as well as a storage depot for gunpowder. A stray Venetian shell ignited the powder, killing dozens and seriously damaging the building’s structure.

Thus, what we see now is merely a shadow of what the building would have originally looked like. In fact, the Parthenon has already been partially reconstructed; at the beginning of the previous century, not even the building’s outline remained standing. Even so, what would have been the dark internal chamber is now nothing but empty space (where a large crane was parked when I visited). What stands, in other words, is only the outer rim of the building—as if a house had been gutted, leaving only its external walls. What is more, almost all of the sculpture has been destroyed or removed; and, importantly, the bright paint that would have originally decorated the Parthenon has long ago been washed away.

The building we celebrate, then, is very different from what the Athenians actually built. And as in the case of the Temple of Poseidon, I suspect that we cherish the Parthenon because the passing years have turned it into a noble ruin. Rather than a colorful exterior containing a dark internal chamber, we now find a skeleton made of pure white marble, filled with nothing but sunlight and air. What we see, in other words, is only the mathematically clean and elegant outline of the original structure—giving us a rather false idea of what life in Ancient Greek was actually like.

Still, it is beguiling to behold. The temple has a mesmerizing power, its irregularities so subtle as to be unnoticeable and yet intriguing. What could have been a stiff and rather lifeless building instead appears supple, graceful, and dynamic.

It is worth momentarily pulling your gaze from the Parthenon to examine some of the other temples on the Acropolis. The most notable of these is the Erechtheion, a somewhat smaller temple dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena. According to the founding myth of the city, those two gods had a contest in order to which one of them would become the city’s patron deity. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and caused a well to gush forth. Unfortunately, however, it the water was salty. Athena responded by causing an olive tree to grow. As olives are fundamental to the Mediterranean diet, the Greeks wisely chose Athena. This temple marks the spot where the contest supposedly took place, and was built around the two miraculous gifts—the marks of Poseidon’s trident and the sacred olive tree.

The Porch of the Maidens, in the Erechtheion

The profile of the Erechtheion is somewhat odd, since it was perforce built over uneven ground, to which the architects had to adapt. Its most famous feature is the Porch of the Maidens, a porch held up by the statues of six young women, called Caryatids. Now the statues in the porch are all replicas. One of them was carted off by the infamous Lord Elgin, and now stands in the British Museum. The other five have been moved to the Parthenon Museum (more later).

The Temple of Athena Nike

The last temple on the hill is the Temple of Athena Nike. It is a small temple situated near the entrance, which was decorated with friezes of the highest quality, some of which are now in the British Museum, and others which have remained in Athens. Besides these other structures, it is worth mentioning the view from the hill of the Acropolis. Athens spreads out in all directions, an endless sea of mostly white buildings hemmed in by distant green mountains. From here I could see the Temple of Hephaestus, a remarkably well-preserved temple that does not receive a fraction of the attention from tourists as do the ruined temples in the city—which supports my earlier point, that we are attracted to these buildings precisely because they are ruins. Near the temple is the Church of the Holy Apostles, a 10th century Orthodox Church.

Athens, with Mount Lycabettus in the distance

I could also see the famous Areopagus, a rocky outcropping said to be where the gods held Ares on trial (thus the name), and, according to Aeschylus, where the gods held Orestes on trial for the murder of his mother. The ancient Athenians used this hill for their own trials, and St. Paul was said to have made a speech to the Athenians in this spot. John Milton referenced this classical past in the title of his iconic defense of a free press, the Areopagitica. Looking in another direction I saw the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, at one time the largest temple in Greece, but now only a collection of free-standing columns in a grassy field. Most striking of all was Mount Lycabettus, a hill whose rocky peak is taller even than the Acropolis.

I descended from the Acropolis feeling a mixture of triumph and deflation. The big moment was over: I had seen the Parthenon. Was I any the better for it? But we still had a great deal more to see, much of it found in the Acropolis Museum, located right down the hill from the Acropolis itself.

The Acropolis Museum is the second great museum in the city of Athens. Compared with the Archaeology Museum, this one is a much younger institution, having been opened in 2009 after many false starts. The museum, thus, projects a sleek, modern aspect to the visitor. Even the building itself is interesting and innovative. Designed by the Swiss, Parisian, New Yorker Bernard Tschumi, the entire structure is lifted above an ancient archaeological site, leaving the ruins below both visible to visitors and accessible to researchers. 

Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in most of the museum, so I must rely on my hazy memory. The first exhibit was housed in a large hall. Shards of broken pottery and other small archaeological remains were housed in glass cases along the walls, while free-standing statues and structures were scattered throughout the space. This is the gallery containing artifacts from the slopes of the Acropolis—consisting of a mishmash of domestic items and the remains of various small sanctuaries. The floor has several glass panels, allowing the visitor to look down at the ancient site below (called the “Makrygianni plot”). As the museum’s website explains, the upwards slope of this hall intentionally recalls the slope of the Acropolis hill itself: quite a nice touch.

After climbing some stairs, the visitor then finds herself in a sort of enormous warehouse, with concrete grey pillars holding up the high ceiling, and large windows letting in the bright Greek sun. The space is full of statues and fragments of buildings, many of them visibly archaic. These are the remains of the pre-Golden Age Acropolis, the temple complex which was largely destroyed by the invading Persians. Only broken fragments of the decorations remain, but they are beautifully suggestive. Particularly noteworthy are the pediments from the Hekatompedon, the so-called Ur-Parthenon that stood on the site of the current temple. We see a lion killing a calf, the curling body of a snake, and a man with three bodies (each of them wearing the above-mentioned archaic smile). For me, the statues of the animals are especially lovely. The Golden-Age Greeks seldom depicted animals in their visual art, preferring to focus instead on ideal human form.

Moving on through this floor, the visitor then comes to a special balcony, where she will find five familiar friends: the Caryatids who hold up the Porch of the Maidens in the Erechtheion. They are exhibited, appropriately, on a balcony within the museum. These are the originals—at least, those that have remained in Athens. Besides taking one back to England, Lord Elgin badly damaged another of the Caryatids in his attempt to remove the sculpture. The authories in the museum have done their best to piece her back together again, but the difference is stark. The mythological significance of these Caryatids is, as it happens, uncertain. According to the museum’s website, the most plausible theory is that they represent choephoroi (mourners, or “libation bearers”) of Cecrops I, the king of Athens who was supposedly buried there.

Photo by Marysas; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5;
taken from Wikimedia commons

Nearby are the friezes taken from the Temple of Athena Nike. Among these is a justly famous sculpture of a goddess adjusting her sandal. For me, it is a wonderful piece. The way that the thin cloak drapes over the goddess’s body is masterful, both revealing the countours of her body and creating a fascinating geometrical pattern. Indeed, the lightness and daintiness of this image reminds me of nothing else so much as Degas’ many paintings of ballerinas.

So far, we have already had much to see: but the museum’s main raison d’être is still unmentioned. On the top floor is a space especially constructed to house the friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon. It is an enormous space, flooded with light, made to be the exact same dimensions of the original building, and even oriented the same way. In the original building, the friezes would have been far above the visitor, with most of their beautiful details impossible to see. Here, the friezes are dispalyed above the viewer, but close enough for pleasurable viewing. At either end are the remains of the pediments—fragmentary sculptures of gods and heroes.

In my opinion, it is a brilliant design, doing justice to the original setting of the works while allowing for added visibility. The Greek authorities had good reason for investing in such a cutting-edge design, you see. Remember that the vast majority of the original friezes are not in Greece at all, but in Athens, thanks to the aforementioned Lord Elgin. The Louvre has some other pieces, and a few other fragments are scattered here and there. As one might expect, Greece has been trying to get back these originals for decades, arguing that they were taken under improper settings. One of the main arguments against returning the works was that they are impossible to see in the original setting. But the construction of this gallery had made that argument a moot point. Now, Athens has arguably a better space for displaying the artwork than London or Paris. 

The British Museum and its counterparts have, unsurprisingly, been less than forthcoming in these demands to return the originals. For one, losing the Parthenon freize would mean losing one of the British Museum’s prized posessions. What is more, giving back the artwork would set a precedent that could potentially unravel the British Museum completely, considering how many of the British Museum’s prized works have been taken from other parts of the world, often under less than scrictly legal circumstances. Greece is just one of many countries demanding repatriation.

For my part, I would be deeply sad to see the British Museum come apart. But after seeing the frankly amazing gallery in Athens, I cannot help but think that this is where the Parthenon freize belongs—lit up by the Mediterranean sun, with the Parthenon itself visible through the wide windows. Seen here, amid so much other classical art, the work is just more meaningful than in foggy London.

So what is in the gallery, if the originals are in London and Paris? Well, mostly plaster casts. Certainly they lack the quality and luster of the original marble, but it is better than the proverbial nothing.

The sculptures and friezes of the Parthenon are virtually the definition of classical perfection for us moderns. In the pediments (under the slanted roof) we see the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus on one end, and the competition between Athena and Poseidon for the loyalty of the citizens on the other—though these are so badly damaged that only fragments of heads and bodies remain. Somewhat better preserved are the metopes. These are panels of friezes in high relief that went around the outside of the building. There were, originally, 92 of these; but time, deliberate destruction (by Christians who thought them graven images), and accidental tragedies (such as the powder explosion) have destroyed most of them beyond recognition. The best ones are mostly in the British Museum, while some of the most ruined panels are still in place on the building, all by invisible to the visitor.

The metopes were divided into four themes, one per side: the gigantomachy (the fight between the gods and the giants); the Amazonomachy (the fight between Greeks and Amazon warriors); the fall of Troy; and the fight between the Lapiths and the centaurs. The theme is clear: war. Each of the panels depicts two figures, embroiled in conflict. These four mythical wars encapsulate the worldview of Periclean Athens quite well: the supriority of the divine over earthly force, the superiority of men over women (and the Athenians were patriarchal even by ancient standards), the superiority of Greeks over non-Greeks (xenophobia is nothing new), and the superiority of humans over the beasts. It is easy to see these articles of faith as a response to the Persian invasion—an assertion of the superiority of Greece over everyone else.

As works of art, the panels of the fight between the Lapiths (legendary Greeks) and the centaurs are perhaps the finest from the Parthenon. Some of them must certainly be ranked among the finest sculptures in Western history. However, as Mary Beard points out in her guide, several of these panels are manifestly inferior—stiff, awkward, misproportioned. It seems that the Greeks hired mediocre workmen in order to get the building finished. After all, the entire building was finished in less than ten years. Compare that to the decades, and even centuries, it took to build the great cathedrals!

The metopes

The last major sculptural work is the frieze, which went around the naos in a continuous panel. Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon consisted of two major parts: the peristyle, which are the columns that wrap around the perimeter, and the naos, or inner chamber. The Parthenon as we know it today consists exclusively of the peristyle, which contained the pediments and the metopes. As a result, imagining how the frieze would have originally looked is somewhat more difficult for us.

The frieze, sculpted in rather low relief, depicts an enormous procession, with men, women, and children, animals of various sorts, and people on horseback, bearing all sorts of goods and objects. It is an amazing work of art, containing immense variety within a coherent narrative structure, in a style that has come to be synonymous with Classical Athens. Ironically, however, scholars are still unsure what this iconic work of art is supposed to represent. The work is virtually unique for being a representation of daily life—something otherwise absent in Greek artwork. Most would accept that it is some sort of religious procession, but which one is yet to be determined. The museum’s website asserts that it is the Panathenaia—the most important ritual in honor of Athena—but, according to Mary Beard, this is far from clear. So, as it happens, we do not know what one of the most influential works of Western art is about.

The frieze

After our busy morning on the Acropolis and several hours in the museum, we had ingested all of the art and architecture we would digest for one day. Our next stop was quite a bit different. Becca wanted to visit a famous sandal shop, which used to be owned and run by Stavros Melissinos, known as the poet sandalmaker. The shop is well-known; and it counts many celebrities as past customers, including John Lennon (after whom there is now a sandal named). Now, I must admit that I am not an expert sandal connosoire. I have been wearing Birkenstocks for most of my life, and they suit me just fine. But other people seem pretty pleased with the shop’s products.

We spent the rest of our time just wandering and eating. Virtually everything we tasted was excellent. Before long, it was time to brave the dark alley once more, and go to sleep in our little bunk-beds. The next morning we walked over to Syntagma square—the central plaza of Athens—and then took the metro back to the airport. It had been quite a journey. Surely, we had missed a great deal of what Athens has to offer. But what we had seen was enough to make Athens one of my favorite trips in Europe. I will return one day.

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NY Museums: The American Museum of Natural History

NY Museums: The American Museum of Natural History

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


There is no place in New York City to which I have a more intimate connection than the American Museum of Natural History. I practically grew up inside its walls. For a nerdy boy on the Upper West Side, it was the perfect place for a weekend outing. My mom recalls taking me there and letting me run around in the big Hall of Ocean Life, while she enjoyed a beer at the refreshment stand. (They do not sell beer anymore.) My dad took me plenty of times, too, and then followed up the visit with a meatball subway sandwich.

Kids still love the museum. The natural world, after all, is far more accessible than the highfalutin world of art. A child who is still figuring out the basics of the world around her has no need of elaborate images to reconnect her to her senses. And it is fortunate for our society that the museum is so accessible to children. Judging from the case of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or Neil deGrasse Tyson (as well as myself) the fascination exerted on youthful visitors to the museum often matures into a fascination for the natural world and a respect for the power of human reason. And you do not need to be a child to feel this twin amazement at world without and the intelligence within. I feel it every time I visit.

You can enter the museum from several spots. The grandest is, without a doubt, through the Roosevelt Rotunda on Central Park West. When walking up the stairs, the visitor will notice the heroic equestrian statue of President Theodore Roosevelt. It is worth pausing to continue this statue, for it encapsulates much of the controversial history of the institution. The mustachioed man is flanked by a Native American and an African man, both on foot, and both looking rather dejected to my eyes. The racial message is clear: the white man sits atop the lesser races. To its credit, the AMNH is acknowledging this imagery with a special exhibit, “Addressing the Statue.” I think this strategy is far preferable to the idea of simply removing it, since now the statue provides an opportunity for learning.

Theodore Roosevelt holds a special place in the history of the museum. His father was one of the museum’s founders, when it was still housed in the Arsenal Building of Central Park. The younger Roosevelt was himself an ardent naturalist, and we have him to thank for many of our country’s most beautiful national parks. But being a nationalist in those days did not mean what it means today. Roosevelt did an awful lot of hunting on behalf of the museum, providing some of the exotic animals that were later stuffed and mounted in the amazing displays. Our views on hunting big game and on racial differences have both, fortunately, evolved since then.

To thank the President for his support, the museum is studded with acknowledgements. The most extravagant of these is the massive mural painted by William Andrew Mackay, covering three tall walls of the Roosevelt Rotunda, where the visitor enters. These depict the eventful life of the naturalist president, turning him into a kind of secular saint on the walls of the cavernous room. But of course most people’s attention is absorbed by what is happening in the middle: the dramatic encounter between a brontosaurus protecting its calf, and the hungry allosaurus prowling for prey. Both the baby and the predator are dwarfed by the gargantuan form of the brontosaurus, whose already significant height is bolstered by standing on its hind legs. Personally I doubt that such a massive animal could perform such a maneuver without breaking its legs. Indeed, replica fossils had to be used, since the real fossils (made of stone, after all) are too heavy to mount in such a way.

Much as I would like to move on to the museum’s exhibits, there is one more relic from the museum’s past that deserves comment. Downstairs from the glorious Roosevelt Rotunda is the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which includes four small exhibitions about the varied activities of the president: his interest in nature; his love of exploration; his time as a statesman; and his life as a writer. What draws most attention, however, is a diorama showing a meeting between Peter Stuyvesant—the Dutch leader of what later became NYC—and the indigenous Lenape people. Made in 1939, this diorama contains several omissions and inaccuracies that work in the Europeans’ favor, such as showing the Lenape almost nude. Again, to its credit, the AMNH has included annotations on the glass, pointing out several of these problems; and their website includes lesson plans to help visiting teachers use the diorama.

I am dwelling on these examples of the museum’s less noble past, not to portray the institution in a negative light, but to show that the museum is working to improve itself without burying its past. It is a model to imitate. And the museum has a long history. This year, 2019, marks the 150th anniversary of the institution. This makes the AMNH one year older than the Metropolitan, which was founded in 1870.

Now it is finally time to enter the museum. Luckily, the entrance fee is still a suggested donation for all visitors, so you need not break the bank. What should we see first? There is a great deal to choose from. In fact, the AMNH is the largest natural history museum in the world, with millions upon millions of specimens of animals, fossils, minerals, artifacts… It would be virtually impossible to see the entire thing in one day. For my part, it has taken me dozens of visits to fully wrap my mind around the museum; and even a lifetime would not suffice to learn all it has to teach.

Let us go on straight ahead from the Roosevelt Rotunda into the Hall of African Mammals. Simply as a work of art, this is one of the high points of the museum. In the center a herd of eight African elephants—bulls, cows, and calves—huddle together. Arranged around this heard, in little niches in the walls, are other exotic animals: lions, zebras, giraffes. The visitor would be forgiven for thinking that all of these were merely plastic replicas; but they are real taxidermied specimens of animals (one of the elephants was shot by Theodore Roosevelt himself). This gives the dioramas a kind of macabre air, which is combined with melancholy when examining endangered species such as the rhinos and the gorillas. 

Yet art intervenes to uplift this collection of exotic bodies into a thrilling exhibit. Every diorama is masterfully done: the animals stand in dramatic, lifelike poses amid an environment so scrupulously recreated as to be totally convincing. Added to this are the paintings on the curved surfaces enclosing the dioramas. These hand-painted backgrounds are worthy works of art in their own right: adapting perspective to the wall’s curvature in order to create a nearly seamless continuation with the scene in the foreground. The result is a strange blend of natural beauty and human invention, which is at turns convincingly lifelike and technically astounding. As I walked along from diorama to diorama, I felt like pilgrim visiting a church, walking around from chapel to chapel.

The lion’s share of the credit for this work goes to Carl Akeley, who participated in both collecting and mounting these specimens. Though this business of big-game taxidermy can seem to us in the present day as grim and barbaric, I think that Akeley deserves to be viewed as an artist of high ability. Creating compelling nature dioramas is no easy matter. It requires a naturalist’s eye for fact and a sculpture’s eye for form. To construct a compelling design that is, at the same time, true to nature, requires a special knack. Akeley was a master of it.

A kind of sister to this gallery is the Hall of Asian Mammals, also accessible through the Roosevelt Rotunda. This is a decidedly smaller space; and as the plaque on the wall informs us, the animals here are owed to a “Mr. Ferney” and a “Colonel Faunthorpe,” who made six expeditions into Asia to hunt these animals. Two Asian Elephants stand in the center of this gallery, slightly smaller than their African counterparts. This gallery originally contained a specimen of a giant panda and a Siberian tiger, but the subsequent history of those species led the museum to place these in the Hall of Biodiversity as examples of endangered species (more later). On my latest trip, I learned that there is a type of Asian Lion with a rangy mane, which lives in a small sliver of India.

Now let us descend a flight of stairs once again to the Rockefeller Memorial Hall, on the ground floor. Here we can enter the space directly below the Hall of African Mammals: the Hall of North American Mammals. We find still more superb animal dioramas. The most famous of these is the Alaska Brown Bear. Two of these stand behind the glass. One is reared up on its hind legs, while the other prowls menacingly nearby. The height of the upright bear is startling. Standing before it, you feel how easily this creature could overpower you. Another superb display is of the moose, which features two bull moose jousting with their antlers. As a Canadian friend once told me, moose are the “king of the beasts.”

A quick trip through the Roosevelt Memorial Hall will lead us to one of the museum’s newer spaces: the Hall of Biodiversity. Opened in 1998, it did not exist when I was a young child. The room has a stunning design. Through the center is a swath of artificial rainforest, made to replicate one of earth’s most diverse environments. A legion of tentacled creatures hang from the ceiling, including a giant squid, an octopus, and a massive jellyfish. A glass case holds the giant panda and Siberian tiger, among others, as examples of endangered species; and the bones of the long-dead dodo can be found. Most of the action takes place on the far wall, which is illuminated from behind. Here is represented the entire panoply of life, from bacteria, to algae, to fungi, to plants, and finally to all the many variations of animals: worms, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and vertebrates of every kind. (There is an online version that you can click through.)

The sheer abundance of models on display gives a visual illustration to the richness of life on this planet. This amazing variety, developed over 3 billion years of evolution, goes far beyond our humdrum ideas about plant and animal types. To give an example, once a teacher of mine asked everyone in class to make a guess at how many species of bee there are in the world. People’s guesses ranged between 12 and 300. The answer is 20,000. Unfortunately, this biodiversity is being dramatically curtailed through human action—which is why this gallery was made. 

This attractive space opens up to what has always been, for me, the most dramatic room in the museum: the Hall of Ocean Life. Here is where I would spend most of my time as a child. This hall is one of the biggest spaces in the museum. It is dominated by the life-sized model of a blue whale, the largest animal to ever exist on the planet, hanging from the ceiling. This lightweight model weighs no less than 21,000 pounds—so just imagine what the real animal must weigh. It is frankly stupefying that something so large can be alive. The entire herd of elephants from the Hall of African Mammals can huddle underneath its belly.

Dioramas line the walls of both floors of this hall. The best of these are on the bottom, where you can find a polar bear, a pod of walruses, and a huddle of sea lions. Here, as elsewhere, these displays are amazingly dramatic and lifelike. We can see the sharks in pursuit of the poor sea turtle, and the dolphins jumping out of the water to catch some flying fish. But the real masterpiece of this hall is the battle between the sperm whale and the giant squid. The sperm whale is the biggest toothed predator in the world, and its prey is likewise large. This big-headed mammal dives deep under the water—sometimes over a mile deep, going more than an hour without breathing—in order to prey on the invertebrate monsters that lurk below.

The most notable foe of this whale is the giant squid, itself one of the world’s largest animals, capable of growing to over 40 feet in length. When a whale finally catches on of these squids, it must be a serious fight, as the suction-cup scars found on the hide of sperm whales attest to. The diorama evokes all the drama of this encounter. We arrive once the fight has commenced: the whale has one of the squid’s tentacles in its jaws, and the squid is wrapped around the whale’s enormous head. The diorama is illuminated in a semi-darkness that recalls the inky blackness of the deep ocean

As a child, I found this scene both fascinating and terrifying, and became obsessed. I drew the battle over and over, doing my best to perfect the two different forms: the smooth blue whale and the sprawling red squid. Even now, this conflict between the big-brained sperm whale and the monstrous giant squid calls to mind a deep conflict within our own nature.

This description only touches upon the strange, otherworldly beauty on display in the Hall of Ocean Life—a beauty that captivated me as a child and which still moves me. The world below the seas is more fantastic and alien than anything dreamed up in science fiction. You can see this clearly in the three dioramas depicting life in the ancient oceans: creatures whose bodies form spirals, cones, wings, prowling about on an ocean floor populated with blooming anemones. The colorful, twisting, bulbous forms of the coral reef also evoke this strange allure. A part of me has always wished to be a marine biologist.

Now we will leave the Hall of Ocean Life to travel back through the Hall of Biodiversity, to enter a space which I have still not adequately explored. The first is the Hall of North American Forests. This space is dedicated to the sorts of environments present in the United States and Canada, from the deserts of Arizona to the cold forests of Ontario. The most impressive object on display is a cross section from a 1,400 year-old Sequoia. It is enormous: big enough to serve as a dance floor or even to serve as the foundation for a house. Notable historical events are marked on the tree rings, going from the invention of book printing in China (in 600), to the crowning of Charlemagne (in 800), to the death of Chaucer (in 1400), to the ascension of Napoleon (in 1804), to when the tree was finally cut down, in 1891.

This hall is also notable for a diorama depicting the little critters who live in the soil, responsible for breaking down organic matter and keeping the cycles of life in swing. The worm, centipede, and daddy-long-legs are blown up to 24 times their actual size, which is not a pleasant sight. The same can be said for the giant model of a malarial mosquito, which does not increase my affection for that species. Teddy Roosevelt played a part in educating the public about the role mosquitos play in spreading malaria, since he had to deal with the disease when overseeing the Panama Canal.

When we leave this hall, we enter yet another of the museum’s grand entrance spaces. This is named, appropriately enough, the Grand Gallery. It is most famous for the hanging Great Canoe, made by the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Carved from a single tree, this enormous boat can hold a dozen people and is suitable for use in ocean waves. The front features an exquisite painting of a killer whale. When I was a boy, I normally entered the museum here. At the time the canoe was filled with the plastic figures of Native Americans; and I would look at these mannequins with a kind of uncomprehending terror, since I could not figure out what those men were doing. The museum has since refurbished the canoe and removed the figures, hanging it higher so as to make the decoration more visible. 

There are still other treasures to be found in this gallery. In one corner is a glass containing an ammonite fossil. This are extinct mollusks which looked like squids living in a spiral shell. This particular ammonite happened to fossilize under high pressure, which resulted in it being an iridescent rainbow. Nearby is a magnificent stibnite: a metallic crystal formed from antimony and sulfur. These crystals form themselves into a collection of jagged silver spikes all sprouting from a central core. A nearby child compared it to a porcupine.

The Grand Gallery normally leads to the Northwest Coast Hall; but it is currently closed for renovation. This hall is the oldest continued exhibit space in the museum, having been opened in 1900. The peoples of the Pacific Northwest are known throughout the world for the high quality of their visual art, including the iconic totem pole. This hall contained a great many of these poles, among other art, which made it one of the museum’s more beautiful spaces. Much of this was collected by the pioneering anthropologist, Franz Boas, during the famed Jesup North Pacific Expedition of 1897 – 1902. The current renovations are yet another example of the museum’s attempt to confront its past: updating the information to reflect how these cultures wish to be represented, rather than how anthropologists represented them 100 years ago.

The Grand Gallery also leads into the equally grand Hall of Human Origins. Opened in 1921, this hall was the first exhibit about the controversial topic of human evolution in the United States. The hall still performs this admirable task, teaching visitors about the evolutionary past of our own species. The visitor is first confronted with three skeletons, one of a modern human, one of a chimpanzee (our closest living relative), and one of a Neanderthal (our nearest extinct cousin). On the wall there are models of various primates, with their genetic similarity to humans shown underneath. Chimpanzees are nearly identical, with 99% similarity.

A major highlight are casts of famous human ancestor fossils, including Turkana Boy and Lucy. (I myself studied human evolution in the Turkana Basin, so it is always gratifying to see the plaque about the region.) There is also a reproduction of the Laetoli Footprints—imprints preserved in volcanic ash 3.5 million years ago, showing clear evidence of bipedalism—and a diorama of the what the two australopithecus may have looked like as they walked across the ashy plain (the male with his arm snuggly around his mate). There are also scenes representing the life of early humans, building shelters out of mammoth bones or being ambushed by giant hyenas. It was a tough life back in the paleolithic.

After moving through the Hall of Human Origins, you come to the Hall of Meteorites. This is most notable for containing a large chunk of the Cape York Meteorite. It is unknown when this iron meteorite struck the earth (near Cape York, in Greenland), though it was likely thousands if not millions of years ago. The original meteorite broke up into three large pieces, which were used by the Inuit living nearby to make iron tools. For decades Westerners searched for the mysterious source of iron (not easy to come by in the arctic), until Robert Peary, the explorer, finally found the meteorites and arranged for them to be transported and sold to the AMNH (likely without compensating the Inuit). The fragment displayed is so heavy that the foundations for the platform had to be built down to the bedrock below. It’s an awfully big rock. 

The Hall of Meteorites normally leads to the Hall of Gems and Minerals. However, this hall is closed for renovations at the moment, which does not surprise me, since every time I visited the hall struck me as looking decidedly retro. The angular, geometrical design of the room (which appropriately mirrors that of a crystal) was praised highly when it was opened in the 1970s; but nowadays it looks very similar to how Kubrick imagined the future would be, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, this is one of the most beautiful corners of the museum. The glass displays, arranged throughout the room, are filled with gleaming stones—gems which reflect and refract light in a thousand distinct ways. 

(Visit here to see photos of the original gallery and concept drawings for the new gallery.)

This hall has a colorful history. Whenever I visit, I think that the hall looks like the kind of place Lex Luther would rob in order to get some kryptonite. Other people have had similar thoughts, it seems. In 1964, Jack Roland Murphy (“Murph the Surf”), with two accomplices, snuck into the museum and stole some of its most famous pieces: the Eagle Diamond, the DeLong Star Ruby, and the Star of India sapphire (all donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan). The thieves were eventually caught, and the jewels found and returned to the museum—the Star of India was found in a bus station foot locker—with the notable exception of the Eagle Diamond, which was likely cut into smaller pieces and sold. (Murph the Surf was later convicted for murder; in prison he became a minister and was released early; he is currently the vice president of the International Network of Prison Ministries.) 

The heist even inspired a 1975 movie.

We have gone to the very end of the museum, but we have still left out one of the museum’s most notable wings: the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Opened in 2000 (so I did not see it as a child) this is the newest part of the museum, and it shows. The space-age design features a massive central sphere enclosed in a glass cube. The new Hayden planetarium is housed within this sphere, where visitors can see shows projected on the upper dome. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the first and, so far, the only director of the Rose Center; and he narrates many of the astronomical shows.

Below this “cosmic cathedral” (as the designer called it) is the Hall of the Universe. Here you can find information about stars, planets, galaxies, and the moon, all displayed on sleek metallic panels. There are scales that tell you what your weight would be on Mars and the Moon (in pounds, which requires a conversion for non-American visitors). In one clear glass case there is a self-contained ecosystem of algae and tiny shrimp—a microcosm that represents the macrocosm of earth. A curving walkway that leads away from the planetarium takes the visitor through the entire history of the universe, from the big bang to the present day. 

The star of the hall is the Willamette Meteorite. This is another iron meteorite, yet it looks strikingly different from the Cape York Meteorite. Its surface is pockmarked—I believe from centuries of weather erosion. The rock has been on earth a long time. Possibly the core of an early proto-planet, smashed to smithereens in a cosmic collision, this meteorite struck earth thousands of years ago (but we have yet to be able to find the impact sight). It was found in Oregon, but it was likely moved by expanding and receding glaciers. As with the Cape York Meteorite, the Willamette Meteorite was taken without the consent of the native peoples who had long known about it. This led to a lawsuit, in 1999, by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, demanding the return of the rock (which had been in the museum for nearly 100 years by then). Luckily, the AMNH reached a deal that allowed it to keep the meteorite.

Adjoining the Hall of the Universe is the Hall of Planet Earth, devoted to geology. This gallery has accomplished the difficult job of rendering geology visible, tactile, and immediate. The space is filled with models of geological formations, many of which can be touched. These slices of earth help to illustrate the normally invisible processes below the surface which have shaped our planet—the slow churning of the continental plates, the effects of receding glaciers and running water, the volcanic explosions which hurl up new land from the depths. The hall also has a section devoted to climate change, which features an ice core (a piece of ice formed over thousands of years) which the visitor can “read” by moving a monitor over different sections, thus revealing how the climate has changed. 

From what I observed, children love the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Everywhere I looked young kids were reading, looking, touching, laughing, and in general having a great time. To me this represents an accomplishment of a high order. Making whales and dinosaurs accessible to children is straightforward; but to make accessible the abstract theories of physics, the slow processes of geology, and the distant threat of global climate change—this calls for subtlety and skill, and the designers of this hall have accomplished their task with brilliance.

Now we must get to an elevator and ascend from the bottom to the top floor. We have dallied in the museum for a good, long time, and it will close soon, so we had better get to the spectacular fossil rooms on the fourth floor.

The proper place to begin is on the Orientation Hall. Here the visitor can see a video that explains some background of evolution and cladistics (making evolutionary trees). But the visitor will likely have difficulty focusing on this video, since in 2016 the museum added an enormous dinosaur to the room. This is the Titanosaur, a massive, long-necked sauropod whose form dominates the space. From tail to head, the animal stretches 119 feet (or 32 meters); and in life it likely weighed well over 60 tons (an adult elephant, by comparison, weighs about one-tenth as much). The size of these animals is simply staggering—especially considering that they began life in an egg scarcely bigger than that of an ostrich. How much vegetation did one of these have to eat in a day in order to survive? 

The fossil rooms make a closed circuit, so the visitor can go in any direction. The most logical direction to go in, however, is to begin with the Hall of Vertebrate Origins—since this way the galleries are chronological.

From the perspective of biology, the Hall of Vertebrate Origins is likely the most fascinating hall of fossils, even if it lacks any of the spectacular specimens of later eons. We can see examples of the first vertebrates, on sea, on land, and in the air. One of the more memorable fossils on display are the jaws of the extinct Megalodon, a shark that lived millions of years ago, and which grew several times larger than today’s great white shark. The tremendous and terrifying jaws, hanging from the ceiling, dwarf even the bite of a Tyrannosaur. Nearby hangs a model of the Dunkleosteus, an armored fish that lived many hundreds of millions of years before the Megalodon, and which likely was major predator of its day. Further on is a Pterosaur, a member of the first known vertebrates to have achieved flight. (Commonly called dinosaurs, the Pterosaurs were closely related but technically not dinosaurs. Also, the term “Pterodactyl” only refers to one subgroup of the Pterosaurs.)

These three examples only touch on the immense biological richness in this hall. For anyone hoping to better understand the history of life on our planet, their time will be well spent in close examinations of the specimens on display. The museum also offers computer booths that allow visitors to scroll through various evolutionary trees and learn more about different species.

We now come to one of the museum’s most spectacular spaces: the Hall of the Saurischian Dinosaurs. Now, Dinosaurs are typically split into two large evolutionary groups, the Ornithiscia and the Saurischia. The latter includes all carnivorous dinosaurs as well as sauropods (and birds, the only living dinosaur group). This means that this gallery includes the famous Tyrannosaur. Even when manifestly dead, the Tyrannosaur has a commanding presence. The mere thought of it being alive is enough to cause goose bumps. And this predator—one of the largest to have ever walked the earth—was likely even more terrifying than we normally think. According to the paleontologist Stephen Brusette, Tyrannosaurus was highly intelligent, had excellent vision, and likely lived and hunted in packs. One of them is frightening enough; imagine a gaggle of T. Rex. And to think that this fearsome creature began its life no bigger than a chicken. 

Across from the Tyrannosaur is another museum favorite, the Apatosaurus (sometimes called the Brontosaurus). This is a sauropod, somewhat smaller than the Titanosaur in the other room, but still large enough to make even the Tyrannosaur look petite by comparison. Another fearsome predator on display is the Allosaurus, a carnivore somewhat smaller than Tyrannosaurus that lived several million years earlier, which was an apex predator in its own epoch. This Allosaur is bending over to scrape some meat off of a fresh carcass. One less flashy specimen on display is the skull of a velociraptor (which, despite its portrayal in Jurassic Park, was about the size of a turkey).

Next we come to the Hall of the Ornithischian dinosaurs. This group does not contain quite as many star dinosaurs as the other hall, but it will not disappoint. Here can be found one of the museum’s most important specimens, a mummy of a duck-billed dinosaur. Unlike in the vast majority of dinosaur remains, here we do not only have the skeleton, but the skin of the ancient animal. This has allowed scientists to get a much better idea of what the scales of a dinosaur were like. Also on display is a Stegosaurus, famous for its small brain, spiked tail, and a back covered in vertical plates (whose purpose is still debated). My personal favorite, however, is the Triceratops, an herbivore that lived alongside T. rex and was one of its principal foes. Powerfully built, with a three-pronged horn and a protective ridge, hunting these beasts must have been no easy matter. 

I am always moved by the dinosaurs. They were magnificent animals, many of them so far beyond the range of size and power that we can find among today’s land mammals and reptiles. That such a diverse group of powerful beasts could go entirely extinct from a chance event—a meteoric bolt from the blue—cannot but remind us of our own precarious existence. Indeed, these chance catastrophes play a disturbingly crucial role in the history of life on our planet. Dinosaurs themselves would never have become so dominant if not for the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event (possibly caused by volcanic activity), which eliminated much of their competition. And the mammals would never have been able to emerge as the current dominant life form if not for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which eliminated every one of these creatures (except for birds), thus leaving the stage set for us. But how long will we last?

The next hall focuses on the early history of our own clan, the mammals. The further back one goes in evolution, the mudier become the distinctions between distinct lineages. Thus, some of the fossils on display in the Hall of Primitive Mammals do not strike us as mammals—and in fact are not, only early relatives. Into this class falls the Dimetrodon, a sail-backed cuadroped that looks far more reptilian to my eyes than anything resembling a house cat. But a close examination of its skull reveals the tell-tale opening behind its eye socket, leaving a bony arch which scientists have decided constitutes the defining mark of a new class of animal, the Synapsids, which includes mammals.

The Hall of Primitive Mammals is notable for the mammal island—a large array of fossil specimens that illustrate the range of mammalian diversity. By any measure, we mammals are an immensely diverse lot, having populated the land, sea, and air, occupying all sorts of niches, and ranging in size from a large insect (the smallest bat) to the biggest animal ever to exist (the blue whale). Amid this sea of variety we find the Glyptodont, an extinct relative of the armadillo, far larger and far more heavily armored. The face of this fossil preserves a sense of the patient drudgery which must have characterized this poor beast’s life, as it dragged its heavy shell through the landscape. The saber-toothed cat led a more exciting, if not more successful, life thousands of years ago, as did the lumbering cave bear. But the most terrifying skeleton of all may belong to the Lestodon, an enormous ground sloth whose gaping nose socket seems to look at you like a cyclops.

Finally we come to the Hall of Advanced Mammals, which features species more recently extinct (many of which died off during the great megafauna extinction 10,000 years ago). Here we can see a large array of specimens that illustrate the evolution of horses, growing up from dainty things the size of dogs up into the stallions of today (though, as often happens with evolution, this progress was not always linear). At the end of the hall we see extinct relatives of the elephant. One is the mastodon, which is about the size and build of a modern elephant, if slightly stockier. This nearly complete fossil skeleton was found in New York—amazing to consider.

Standing a head taller is the Mammoth, a much closer relative of the elephant that went extinct not too long ago, while the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were well under way. It is massive, of nearly dinosaurian proportions, with tusks that curve so tightly inward that it seems they would have been useless for defense. (Scientists are now playing with the idea of using DNA from frozen mammoth remains to bring them back. I wish them luck.)

By now, you must be exhausted. Museum fatigue has set in, and you can no longer concentrate on or even enjoy what you are seeing. This is inevitable at the American Museum of Natural History. There is just way too much. I have already written far, far more than I planned to, and there is still so much of the museum left to explore. I have left out the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, the Hall of North American Birds, and the Hall of Primates. And that is not all. The museum has huge exhibits devoted to cultural anthropology. Aside from the aforementioned Northwest Coast Hall, there is the Hall of Asian Peoples, the Hall of African Peoples, the Hall of Mexico and Central America, and the Hall of South American Peoples.

And here I must add a note of criticism. It says a great deal that a museum of natural history would include exclusively non-Western cultures. Admittedly, this is largely a historical artifact of the time when the study of “primitive” living peoples was grouped with the study of human evolution and primate behavior in the discipline of “anthropology.” This grouping obviously reflected cultural and racial biases of the original founders of the field. But we have moved far beyond that, and now it seems discordant and strange to walk through, say, the Hall of Asian Peoples. How could a single hall, however well-made, encompass the enormous history and diversity of the Middle East, Central Asian, Southeastern Asia, and East Asia? Even encompassing the traditions of China alone would require a museum for itself. Not only that, but the cultural halls generally have a dark and dingy aspect, as if they have been left unchanged for decades.

So it is my hope that the museum soon refurbishes, not just the Northwest Coast Hall, but all of the cultural halls—taking into account not only advances in our understanding, but how the cultures themselves would like to be represented. Judging by the progress that the museum is already making in this respect, I think that the future looks bright.

What more can I say about the Museum of Natural History? I have already said more than I planned to, and yet it scarcely seems enough. My visits to the museum had a fundamental influence on me. My shifting interests throughout my childhood and adulthood—in marine biology, chemistry, physics, botany, human evolution, and human cultures—have virtually tracked the floor plan of the museum. From an early age, I have been possessed with a desire to collect, catalogue, and display—an urge which I am sure owes much to this place. Beyond its importance in my life, however, I see the Museum of Natural History as a model institution for the coming ages, as something much needed in our society, even as a kind of secular church for the new age: capable of appealing to the mind and to the emotions. I hope that every child may feel the wonder I felt, and still feel, at both the universe around us and the intelligence within, which has allowed us to know something of this universe.

Memories of Lisbon

Memories of Lisbon

Lisbon was the very first place outside of Spain that I visited in Europe. It was in April of 2016, during Holy Week, as the end-point of a trip through Extremadura. We took a Blablacar, and I was amazed that there was no border, natural or artificial, between Spain and Portugal.

As we approached the city, the driver turned on the radio to let us hear Portuguese. I had hoped that my experience with Spanish would allow me to understand a little of this sister tongue. But it was absolutely foreign to my ears. Far from sounding like a closely-related language, Portuguese was as familiar as Russian. (I have since learned that this reaction is quite common. Peninsular Portuguese is strikingly different in pronunciation and speech rhythm from Spanish, even though on paper the two languages are quite similar.)

We entered the city on the majestic 25 de Abril Bridge—a suspension bridge conspicuously reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. (The 25th of April, 1974,  is the date of the famous Carnation Revolution, when the dictatorship was overthrown.) Two massive towers hold up a double-decker span over the river Tagus, the whole thing painted a rusty red color. Next to the bridge is another monument that recalls a foreign city: Christ the King, a tall statue of Jesus inspired by the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Through the cables of the bridge we could see the city of Lisbon huddled on the riverbank, its colorful tiles shining in the sunlight. This was my first glimpse of the city.

(The Tagus, by the way, is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, also passing through Toledo and Aranjuez.)

Despite this grand entrance, however, my mood quickly turned sour. I had been spending the previous six months exploring Spain like a madman, slowly getting the lay of the land, coming to understand the ancient country’s geography, culture, and language. Now I was, once again, a complete novice. I did not have the slightest grasp of Portuguese, so I had to rely on English, which made me feel like any other tourist. (This wasn’t a problem for communication, since the Portuguese are excellent linguists.) And I had not even the slightest notion of the history of anything we saw. 

But maybe this is all just an excuse. Maybe I was just sick of being on the road. After all, I had hardly spent a single weekend in Madrid the whole year. Whatever the cause, I managed to sabotage my own trip to Lisbon. I spent the better part of my time in that beautiful city wishing I were back in Spain. As anyone who has been to Lisbon knows, this is a shame, since Lisbon is one of the jewels of the Iberian peninsula—indeed, of all Europe.

Residual guilt and regret prompted me to revisit the city two years later, in September of 2018. TAP Portugal, the budget airline, lets you have a layover in Lisbon for no additional charge. So, before returning to Spain for the new school year, I had a little vacation in the Portuguese Capital, determined to see the city with fresh eyes. It was worth it.


Lisbon has one of the most distinctive profiles of any European city. The streets are paved with the famous Portuguese pavement—smooth bits of stone, black and white, that are sometimes arranged into mosaics. The buildings, meanwhile, are marked by that other distinctly Portuguese art: azulejos, or colored tiles. Even very ordinary apartment buildings are coated in shining porcelain. The city is generally quite hilly; and the smooth pavement does not make walking any easier. But the hills are what make Lisbon so dramatic, for streets will open up into magnificent views of the city and the ocean beyond.

On my first trip to Lisbon I learned something of the history and layout of the city by taking a “free” walking tour. The tour lasted four hours, and it was one of the most memorable experiences from my travels. We were led around by a man with long, flowing, black hair, whose passion for the city was intoxicating. He was a true Portuguese patriot, and an enthusiastic son of Lisbon. As he reminded us, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities on the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the world, founded by the Phonecians and later occupied by the Carthaginians and the Romans. The city is far, far older than the country for which it serves as capital.

In our guide’s memorable phraseology, Lisbon is a woman—with “black, flowing hair” (like his) “studded with seashells, who wears a dress that flaps in the wind like a sail.” Her husband, he continued, was the sea; and their child is the neighborhood of Alfama. This is the oldest neighborhood in the city; and if you have an ear attuned to languages, you will know that its name derives from Arabic. Though popular with tourists, the neighborhood has preserved much of its original charm. When we arrived, neighbors were chatting through their windows, and an old woman was washing something in a fountain. The area preserves the chaotic jumble of narrow streets typical of ancient cities; and this arrangement muffles out much of the extraneous urban noise, giving the Alfama a peaceful atmosphere.

Our guide also took us to the Bairro Alto, the “upper district.” Indeed, the neighborhood stands on one of the city’s hills. It was built considerably after the Alfama, and its streets lack the labyrinthine intricacy of that lower zone. Nevertheless, the streets are intimate and at times reveal lovely views of the city. More importantly, the Bairro Alto is the center of Lisbon’s youth culture nightlife, comparable to Brooklyn or Madrid’s Malasaña. At night the streets are packed with crowds of drinkers freely mingling. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to partake.

I did, however, go to see a fado concert in a café in this neighborhood. Fado is the flamenco or the blues of Portugal: a folk music sung to the accompaniment of a guitar (in this case, a Portuguese guitar). Though I did not understand the words, the music’s mournful quality is palpable. As the guide of our free walking tour informed us, the music expresses saudade, a Portuguese word that means “longing”—a deep state of spiritual disquiet for something missing. Our guide, incidentally, thought that this feeling was at the heart of the Portuguese character: the yearning of a widow for her fisherman husband, lost at sea; or the urge that drove the Portuguese to push off into the unknown during the Age of Exploration; or nowadays the longing of some Portuguese (our guide among them) for the country’s Golden Age, when it was briefly one of the most powerful states on earth. Thus our tour ended with our guide stating his desire that Portugal leave the European Union to forge its own path. Quite an experience.

To continue with my overview of the city, we turn next to Baixa. It stands in the heart of the city, and at the heart of Baixa is the Plaça do Comécio. This is a grand, monumental square that opens up right to the River Tagus. An equestrian statue of Joseph I of Portugal stands at the center of the yellow buildings, with the king looking warlike and formidable despite being mainly dedicated to opera during his reign. In this area are to be found high-end shopping and touristy restaurants, which I like to avoid. Right next to Baixa is Chiado, a similar zone of shopping and restaurants, containing some of the city’s central plazas. 

One of Lisbon’s most characteristic sights are the trolleys. As in San Francisco, the trolleys help pedestrians to traverse the steep hills of the city; and they have become a tourist attraction in their own right. The trams preserve a retro look, since the cars in use are still of the same rather diminutive size as when the system was built, in the 1870s. The most famous tram line is 28, which often ridden just for providing a good tour of the city. Our guide, however, warned us that it was wise to keep a sharp eye on one’s belongings, since the trolley is patrolled by pickpockets. I took a ride on the tram on my first trip—waiting nearly an hour on line to do so—and was, sadly, quite disappointed in the experience. I think walking provides a much better view of the city.

Lisbon has more recently taken on a strangely south Asian appearance, due to the spread of rickshaws catering to tourists. Again, I preferred to walk.

As befitting a seaside city of steep streets, Lisbon has many excellent lookout points. One is the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, near the Alfama, which offers an excellent view of the deep orange tiles of the rooftops and the pastel blues and pinks of the buildings. Lisbon has none of the brooding majesty of some Spanish cities; it is all light and air. The lookout point itself is a nice place to have a rest, with its tile benches and flowering trees. Right next door is the Miradour das Puertas do Sol—offering another superb view of the Alfama and the river beyond. The last time I went an enormous cruise ship was docked right in front of the old neighborhood. This cannot be good for maintaining its local atmosphere.

By continuing up the hill you will reach what is simultaneously one of the best views and the most impressive monuments of Lisbon: the Castelo de São Jorge. This medieval fortification is built upon the ancestral core of the city, where everybody from the Phoenicians to the Moors had their own forts. This is no surprise, of course, since the castle stands upon an easily defensible spot, controlling all the surrounding ground and providing an excellent view of the river as well. It is a superb spot.

The castle is up above.

What remains today is hardly more than a husk—the proud walls encircling little but trees and a few decaying ruins. But it is worth visiting for the commanding view alone, which becomes especially dramatic once you climb up to the top of the walls. The castle gardens are home to a handful of peacocks, which surprised me by appearing high up above my head, in the branches of a tree. I had no idea that peacocks were so agile. The castle also contains a small museum, showcasing some of the archaeological objects unearthed there—many examples of ceramics, as well as some ornamental Moorish tiles.

From the front of the castle, overlooking the city, the visitor can spot one of the other great lookout points of Lisbon: the Miradouro da Graça. Further up that same hill is the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a place frequented by sunset lovers and aspiring instagrammers. The city is nothing if not photogenic.

During my first visit to Lisbon I was very surprised by its cathedral, often called the Sé. I was used to seeing the massive gothic, barroque, and neoclassical constructions of Spanish cities. Lisbon’s cathedral seems downright humble by comparison. It was built during the Romanesque period, which necessarily limits its size (since the barrel vaults of Romanesque architecture require a narrow space). What is more, the church has been repeatedly buffeted by earthquakes, most notoriously the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

An engraving of the earthquake, fire, and tsunami

This earthquake was one of the deadliest and most destructive in history. It was a catastrophe. The earthquake struck in the morning of All Saints Day, when most people were in church—heavy stone buildings that were probably the worst place to be. A massive tsunami followed in the wake of the earthquake, and in the chaos a fire raged out of control. In the end, tens of thousands of people were killed and over three-fourths of the city’s buildings were in ruins. During the walking tour our guide pointed out the Carmo Convent, a convent that has been maintained in its ruined state as a memorial.

An old photograph of the ruined Carmo Convent

This disaster caused ripples in Europe’s culture as well as its surface. Many took it as a punishment from God, since it fell on a holy day. Voltaire, meanwhile, was dissuaded of the Leibnizian idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This led, among other things, to the writing of his most famous book: Candide. But before that philosophical tale, Voltaire published a poem on the event, condemning the idea that humans had somehow deserved it: “And can you then impute a sinful deed, / To babes who in their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” Rousseau responded vigorously against this poem, asserting that humanity deserved it by being corrupted by civilization. After all, if the people of Lisbon had been living in little hamlets, spread out thinly across the landscape, the casualties would have been small. But it did not take a Voltaire to see through this casuistical argument.

My second trip to Lisbon was vastly enhanced by visiting two of the city’s museums. The first was the very popular Museo Nacional do Azulejo, which celebrates the great Portuguese art of colored tiles. The museum is somewhat out of the way, located in what was previously a convent: Madre de Deus. But it is well worth the effort to get there.

The collection offers a bit of history on the tradition of azulejos. As you may have intuited, the word is a loanword from Arabic, specifically the word for “small polished stone.” Any visitor to the Alhambra will know that decorative tile had a strong tradition in the Moorish world, the art of geometric design driven by the prohibition on depicting human forms. Even today, many if not most azulejos contain either geometric or plant motifs. However, this is certainly not always the case. Azulejo altarpieces depicting Jesus, Mary, and the saints were on display. Other tiles portrayed scenes of history or of daily life, like the tapestries that hung in many royal dwellings. 

The former church of the convent that now houses the museum

The variety was astounding. From restrained blues and white to vibrant colors of every kind; from quaint flowers to designs created from mathematical algorithms; from plain squares to tiles with three dimensions—the museum showcased the scope of the artform. Just as impressive as the collection, however, was the building itself. The convent has many richly decorated rooms, with golden altars, coffered ceilings, and walls covered with paintings. In one of the more celebrated rooms, the choir, the entire space is ornamented with gilded woodwork encasing high-quality oil paintings.

Yet the most stunning work on display was the Panoramic View of Lisbon before the 1755 Earthquake. This sequence of tiles encircles the walls of a large room, providing a detailed sketch of the riverside of Lisbon as it existed before that calamity. The work was originally commissioned to decorate a palace, presumably to help a monarch keep track of his own domain. Even a superficial inspection of this work will impress the viewer with how much the city has changed since the earthquake. The old city is covered with religious architecture: churches, convents, monasteries—and now only a hint of this monumental majesty remains. This azulejo is likely the closest thing we have to a snapshot of the ruined Lisbon.

The next museum I visited was the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which is somewhat misleadingly translated as the National Museum of Ancient Art (though the word “antiga” just means old, not “ancient,” and indeed hardly anything in the collection comes from ancient times). This is the largest museum in Lisbon and indeed Portugal; in fact it boasts one of the largest collections in Europe—or so they like to boast. 

Judging from my visit, I am willing to believe the claim, for the museum seemed to constantly expand. Luckily, the museum is quite a pleasant space, since it is in an erstwhile palace. I first visited the painting gallery. It was far more impressive than I had anticipated. There were works by Dutch, German, Italian, and Spanish masters. I was particularly pleased to find a wry work by Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in His Study, with the old bearded saint pointing rather impishly to a skull as a memento mori. The airy, triumphant style of Giambattista Tiepolo (who decorated Madrid’s palace) was in attendance, as well as the dark, brooding style of José Ribera.

Dürer’s depicting of St. Jerome

But my favorite work by a long shot was the Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch. Anthony was one of the early Christian ascetics, who isolated themselves in the desert in order to purify themselves. Bosch’s work represents the physical and spiritual temptations that the saint had to endure during his long years of fasting and prayer. As usual with Bosch, this gives rise to bizarre and fantastic imagery. The central panel is the main focus: showing the kneeling saint surrounded by the whole population of Bosch’s superfecund imagination: human-animal hybrids, men lacking limbs and even whole bodies, fish wearing armor, ruined buildings and burning cities—each of these images visually fantastic and symbolic of sin. It seems that Bosch had a both a horror and a fascination of sin, since he was so adept at portraying it.

Paintings constitute only a small part of the museum’s collection. There are all of the items of royal living: elegant furniture, finely-woven tapestries, delicately crafted silver and ceramic tableware—the list goes on. And the collection is not merely from Europe. Pioneering explorers and colonists as they were, the Portuguese collected many fine works from far off places, most notably China and (if memory serves) Japan. The museum’s sculpture collection is especially impressive, if only because of the way that the statues are arranged in the wide halls of the former palace, like silent servants waiting to be called upon.

Inevitably with a museum of this size, some version of fatigue sets in during the visit. Fortunately, the museum has a fine café which leads out to a garden in the back, where you can enjoy yet another sweeping view of the city. I would have lingered there longer, but the museum was closing and the guard kicked me out.

I have spent this long describing the enchanting city, but I have yet left out one of the most splendid corners of the city: Belém. 

The name “Belém” is Portuguese for Bethlehem. The neighborhood stands rather far from the city center, near the mouth of the Tagus river. To get there it is best to take a tram or a train. I took the latter, passing under the 25 de Abril Bridge on the way.

I am afraid that my first trip to Belém, in 2016, only added to my bitterness at Lisbon. This is because the line to visit the Jerónimos Monastery—one of the famous monuments of the are—was very long; and after waiting for an hour and paying to get inside, I found out that the most impressive section of the monastery, the church, is free to visit and has no line at all. Let my experience serve as a warning to any visitors in a hurry.

All carping aside, the Jerónimos Monastery is by far the most impressive work of religious architecture in the city. Its size is immediately striking. Like so many grand monasteries, Jerónimos spreads out with the girth of a palace. While waiting in line, under the hot Portuguese sun, I did get a chance to admire the building’s beautiful façade: ornamented with fabulously intricate friezes designed by João de Castilho (or, as he is known in his native Spain, Juan de Castillo). The cloisters of the monastery are some of the finest I have ever seen, so delicately carved that it makes the stone seem lighter than air. Within this monastery are buried several Portuguese luminaries, such as the novelist Alexandre Herculano and the poet Fernando Pessoa.

The monastery church maintains this exquisite decoration. In the vast and gloomy space, culminating in web-like vaulting, the columns rise up like legs. Each of them has been carved almost from top to bottom. As in the Escorial Monastery in Spain, Jerónimos serves as the royal resting ground. Large pyramidal tombs sit upon sculpted elephants, containings kings and queens. Yet the most famous people buried in the church had not a drop of blue blood. In matching tombs near the entrance are buried Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet, and the famous explorer Vasco da Gama. These tombs were constructed long after those two eminent men died; but their remains were transported here in the 19th century.

The style that characterizes the Jerónimos Monastery is called Manueline—a blend of gothic, Italian, Spanish, and Moorish influences—and it is typical of the Portuguese Golden Age. Nearby is another excellent example of this style, as embodied in the Belém Tower. Indeed, this tower was composed of the same rock as was used to make the monastery. It was built as a defensive structure; but this pragmatic function did not lead to a dull edifice. Rather, the fortification displays the same exuberant decoration as the monastery. The fortress was originally constructed on a small island near the bank; but the shoreline has gradually expanded, so that nowadays the tower can be visited on foot. Both times I saw the tower, the line to enter was quite long, so I decided against it.

Just down the river from the tower is the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a far more recent construction, having been built in 1939 for the Portuguese World Exhibition. It is a worthy addition to the area. The massive concrete fin is shaped like the prow of a ship; and riding on top, in a heroic procession, are great figures from Portugal’s Age of Discovery. In the space in front of the monument, a large mosaic compass has been inserted into the pavement. In the center is a map of the world, with the names of notable explorers and the dates of their voyages marked. Most of the figures aboard the ship are, I am afraid, unknown to me. But at the tip is Henry the Navigator, the Prince who helped to inaugurate and coordinate the first Portuguese explorations.

No account of Belém would be complete without mention of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, a bakery famous for making Lisbon’s most iconic food: pastel de nata. This is made with egg custard inside a small, crispy pie crust. They are omnipresent in Lisbon and make for an excellent breakfast or dessert. The recipe was originally developed in the Jerónimos Monastery itself, by monks who wanted to make some extra money. But when the monastery was secularized in the 19th century, the recipe was sold. While I am on the subject, I should also say that, in general, the food in Lisbon is quite good: fresh, flavorful, and reasonably priced. I especially enjoy the cod.

To sum up this long overdue account, Lisbon is a city of delights. The city itself is beautiful; and it is full of history and culture. Indeed, the only problem with Lisbon is that it is so nice that it attracts a great many tourists. But this is the curse of all great destinations.

NY Museums: The Cloisters

NY Museums: The Cloisters

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


Sitting atop one of the highest points on the island of Manhattan, overlooking the palisades of the Hudson Valley stretching northwards, is the most convincing slice of Europe in New York—perhaps in the country. This is the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, specializing in medieval art and architecture.

Like any great museum, the story of the Cloisters begins with a person and his vision. In this case we have George Grey Barnard, a European-trained sculptor and collector, who managed to acquire a large collection of medieval sculptures, pillars, and and tombs during his time in France. He did this by focusing on stones that had been the victims of pillage and war—often repurposed by local populations for mundane needs. This was an especially amazing feat, considering that Barnard—an exuberant and impulsive man—was not wealthy to begin with, and had terrible spending habits which often landed himself on the verge of financial ruin.

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John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

It was during one of his periodic pecuniary crises that he was forced to sell his collection to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a man who could hardly have been more different—puritanical, reserved, prudent. But the two men shared a love for medieval art; and Barnard’s collection was the first step towards Junior’s dream of opening a museum in this romantic niche of Manhattan.

Things moved rather swiftly with the world’s wealthiest man financing the project. After the acquisition of Barnard’s collection in 1925, Junior had Fort Tyron Park built around the chosen site (designed by the descendants of the designer of Central Park); then, he had substantial sections from abbeys in Catalonia and France shipped to New York, where they were incorporated into a single structure. The museum was then donated to the Metropolitan Museum, and the park to the city. The result is an oasis of medieval Europe in uptown Manhattan.

It is interesting to compare this museum to the one founded by Junior’s wife, Abby Aldrich: the MoMA. They are a study in contrast. The MoMA sits right in the center of the city, surrounded by activity and noise; its design is sleek and modern, with a vertical orientation and sterile white walls. The Cloisters is situated far from the city center; indeed it is somewhat inconvenient to visit the museum, since it is so out of the way. The surrounding park is quiet and bucolic, a haven from the noise and stress of city life. The museum building itself is an attempt to recreate the past: using traditional materials and techniques to mimic a bygone age. If the MoMA tries to break with tradition, the Cloisters tries to break with modernity. It is a wonder that Junior and Abby got along so well, since they had such diametrically opposed attitudes to art.

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The Cloisters is exceptional in that the building itself is one of the main attractions. Whenever possible, the original materials have been integrated into the structure, creating a faux-monastery, complete with quasi-churches and pseudo-cloisters, where imaginary monks perform invisible rituals. There are several ornamented doorways, with sculptures climbing up the sides and crowning the top. Some walls display decorative friezes—Biblical scenes and medieval bestiaries—and the windows shine with colorful stained glass. The cloisters have authentic columns, complete with Romanesque capitals; and there are three gardens where rare plant species pertinent to the medieval mind are grown. (Apparently, the madonna lily is associated with love and fertility.)

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As for the museum’s collection, on display are fine examples of every type of medieval plastic art: paintings, altars, carvings, sculptures, reliquaries, sarcophagi, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and tapestries. For the most part these are not organized by medium or style, but by their architectural setting: they are placed to create a harmonious and authentic experience. Thus walking around the Cloisters is akin to exploring a great cathedral, whose every chapel contains distinct works of art, organized by religious themes rather than academic categories. The final effect is not an emphasis on any one piece in the collection, but on the collection as a gestalt: an integrated, aesthetically captivating space.

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Nevertheless some pieces to stand out for special comment. One is the Mérode Altarpiece, whose central panel depicts the annunciation. It is a wonderful example of Dutch realism, showing a celestial scene taking place in a modest Dutch living room. I particularly like the Virgin’s round, plump face, and her carefree expression as she idly reads a book, not even bothering to look up at the angel bearing news of universal significance. In general the interior is convincingly painted—filled with fine detail, especially the book lying open on the table—but the perspective is a little uneven, as you can clearly see when comparing the table to the room. The kneeling figures of the donors are on the left-hand panel, looking appropriately wan and penitent. On the right, Joseph (looking considerably older than his wife) is busy at work as a carpenter; and behind him, through the window, we can see what is obviously a lovely Netherlandish town. (Biblical scholarship was not highly advanced in those days.)

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Besides Rockefeller Junior, an important early donor to the museum was J.P. Morgan, who contributed a few items from his incomparable collection of rare manuscripts (most of which, however, he kept for his own museum downtown). Among these are the Cloisters Apocalypse, the Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, and the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. This last is particularly impressive. A “book of hours” is a prayer book, usually made for wealthy patrons, containing prayers appropriate for different times of the day. In this case, Jeanne d’Evreux was the third wife of king Charles IV of France (reigned 1325-28); and the book was executed by the Parisian artist Jean Pucelle, who was a witty inventor of drolleries (the little designs that frame the text in an illuminated manuscripts). In any case, the book is a terrific example of gothic illumination.

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Yet my favorite work—and I suspect the favorite of many others—is the famed Unicorn Tapestries. This is a series of seven tapestries, depicting the hunt, capture, and (possible) rebirth of a unicorn. Its provenance is mysterious: First recorded in the possession of La Rochefoucauld family many years after their creation, then looted during the French Revolution (reputedly used to cover potatoes), the tapestries were ultimately acquired by Rockefeller Junior, who adored them and could scarcely bear donating them to the museum. But eventually his charity prevailed over his aesthetic greed, and now the tapestries hang in the museum for all to see.

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What is immediately striking is the quality of their workmanship and preservation. I have seen a fair number of tapestries by now, and most are not nearly as detailed nor as vibrant. Scholars debate nearly everything about the works—their meaning, their relationship to paganism and Christianity, and even the order in which they should be seen. Nevertheless some basic narrative is obvious. A group of hunters sets out in the forest; they encounter the unicorn by a well, surrounded by other beasts; they attack; the unicorn defends itself, killing a dog with its horn and kicking a man; but the unicorn is surrounded, killed, and brought back to the castle (apparently with its horn missing). But there is one tapestry that is difficult to account for, showing a unicorn standing inside a fenced enclosure, alive and with horn intact. Where does this image fit in? Should it go first or last? Does the unicorn come back to life?

This last interpretation makes some sense, considering that the unicorn was used as a symbol for Christ during the Middle Ages. Still, the metaphor of hunting a unicorn seems odd for symbolizing the path to Christian salvation. Are the hunters supposed to be those seeking Christ’s wisdom, or is this rather a metaphor for the passion and death of Christ? I can hardly give a coherent answer; but the ambiguity only adds to the tapestry’s magnetic power. Yet even as images alone, the series is compelling: the lush forest, the atmosphere of fantasy, the dynamic encounters with the unicorn.

I am spilling words on these exceptional works, yet I feel I am failing to do justice to this museum—whose effect is never dependent on the excellence of a single piece. Indeed you might say that the building itself is the greatest work on display. Despite being a melange of elements—incorporating churches and monasteries from different eras and different regions—the Cloisters convincingly brings the visitor into the Medieval mindset: of chivalry, romance, nobility, and, most importantly, Christianity. Indeed, arguably the architectural eclecticism of the museum accurately captures the feel of medieval religious structures, which were often built over hundreds of years and incorporated several different mediums and styles.

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So if you have any interest at all in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend taking the A train uptown (190th street station) to visit this shrine to a bygone age.

NY Museums: MoMA

NY Museums: MoMA

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


I have always been prone to conservative tastes in music, literature, and art. I remember having long discussions in high school about the emptiness of contemporary music and the inanity of modern art (at the time, I knew close to nothing about visual art, ancient or modern). Every painting I encountered from the 20th century only confirmed my prejudices—using a minimum of technical skill to create images that were either incomprehensible or simply dull. At the ripe age of eighteen I mourned the decline in standards and the decadence of our culture.

Luckily, my tastes have broadened somewhat since then (though not as much as could be desired), and I have come to cherish the Museum of Modern Art as one of the great museums in New York—indeed, of the world.

Like many New York landmarks, the MoMA is a product of the Rockefeller family. Specifically, it was conceived and funded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, along with two of her friends.

Abby was the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who himself had a great love of art. However, he and his wife had diametrically opposed tastes. Junior was fond of Chinese porcelain and medieval art (which led him to develop the Cloisters Museum, uptown), while his wife was enamored with modern art. This occasioned not a few marital squabbles, since the straight-laced and puritanical Junior considered modern art to be degenerate and scandalously uninhibited. To add insult to injury, Abby wanted to demolish their old home to make way for the museum. Nevertheless, Junior offered the requisite financial support for his wife’s project, and so the MoMA was born. It opened in 1929, just a few days after the financial crash (while Junior was busy dealing with Rockefeller Center); and this opening marks a watershed in the institutional acceptance of modern art.

Upon entering the MoMA, the visitor should go all the way to the top, the fifth floor (American style), and then work her way down. Nearly all of the museum’s most famous paintings are to be found in this gallery, so it is best to go with fresh eyes.

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Almost immediately you will find the most famous painting in the collection: Starry Night. Like La Gioconda in Paris or The Birth of Venus in Florence, Starry Night is always surrounded by a swarm of buzzing tourists. Predictably, this detracts from the viewing experience. Much of the pleasure of a great painting consists in minute observation; and this is doubly true of Van Gogh’s works, which are so thick with paint that they are nearly tactile. In any case, I need hardly say that Starry Night is one of the great images of Western Art, as instantly recognizable as Guernica or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The swirls in the night sky have been as overanalyzed as Mona Lisa’s famous smile: as turbulent manifestations of the artist’s epileptic visions, or as a profound insight into the physics of nebular star formation, or as an allegorical representation of Christ.

While I think Starry Night is undeniably among Van Gogh’s best, I admit that overexposure has diminished my enjoyment of the painting. It is like hearing a song played one hundred times on the radio: even if it is a great song, it will lose interest eventually. In any case, the painting is exceptional in many respects. Unlike the majority of Van Gogh’s mature work (characterized by the artist’s strong commitment to observation), it contains several imaginative elements. For one, the village in the distance is an invention: it was not visible from his window at the monastery in which he was staying. More striking, the swirls in the sky seem to be a purely imaginative detail—not only invented, but fantastical. Are they clouds, wind, or a spiral galaxy? Nothing quite seems to fit, which is strange in a painter so obsessed with working from nature.

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Starry Night Over the Rhône

The final result is a painting whose effect is somewhat different from Van Gogh’s other mature work. The Starry Night Over the Rhône, for example, is typical of the artist in that, despite not being “realistic,” it evokes the sensation of an actual starry night. The Starry Night in the MoMA, however, evokes a quite different feeling: that of a cryptic, quasi-mystical utterance.

Another famous painting in this gallery is Henri Rousseau’s The Dream. It features a nude European woman reclining on a couch, in a reclining pose reminiscent of many European female nudes, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Goya’s The Naked Maja. But she is not in a living room, but deep in the jungle, surrounded by exotic birds, tropical plants, two lions, and an African person playing the flute. The style is exaggerated and cartoonish, not exactly dreamlike but heavily stylized. The woman’s portrayal, for example, is almost Egyptian in its perspective: her body facing forward but her head entirely in profile, with both of her braids somehow in front of her chest. My favorite aspect of the painting are the large, hypnotic eyes of the lions, which serve to make the animals seem terrified rather than terrifying.

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However, I must admit that, on the whole, I do not find the painting terribly captivating to look at. I do appreciate it as a kind of satire of bourgeois dreams of the exotic: the gentile French woman, dozing in her salon, lost in daydreams of the lush forests of the Africa. And perhaps the snake tail sticking out from the bushes, and the fruit hanging on the tree above, tell us that this imaginary Eden is liable to implode when faced with actual knowledge.

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In the next room there are several works by Picasso, including what I consider to be, after Guernica, his greatest: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (In this case, Avignon refers to a street in Barcelona where prostitutes would congregate, not to the city in France.) It is a brutal, disturbing work. Picasso painted it in 1907, when he was still relatively obscure and was embroiled in a rivalry with the older Henri Matisse. At the time there was widespread interest in so-called “primitive” art, such as that of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and pre-Roman Iberian sculpture. The painter Gauguin (who died in 1903) also contributed to this interest, since he had spent the last ten years of his life on the island of Tahiti, and had cultivated a “primitive” style in his late works. (This can be seen in Gauguin’s The Seed of Areoi, also at the MoMA.) Picasso combined this interest in the exotic with his admiration of Cézanne, whose daring landscapes pioneered the geometrical simplification that would become the basis of Picasso’s mature style. (The MoMA features several excellent works by Cézanne, including The Bather.)

The result is a painting utterly unlike any other in Western art. Five nude prostitutes gaze at the viewer, who is supposed to be a potential customer in their brothel. But there is not a hint of sensuality about these ladies of the night. Indeed, the extreme distortions of their bodies, and the mask-like form of their faces, transforms them into threatening monsters—particularly the two women on the right, whose faces bear the obvious influence of African art. The women have been literally objectified: reduced to distorted, two-dimensional placards. But the objectification turns them into objects of fear rather than desire; their curves are sharpened into knife-blades, their frontal gazes—traditionally a sign of invitation—are instead frightening blanks, devoid of any discernible emotion.

Compare this work with Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), completed just the year before; it shows us a colorful landscape full of voluptuous nudes, luxuriating in sensual pleasure. This is the ever-beguiling fantasy of sex. Picasso shows us the reality beneath the fantasy, the ugliness that we push into the shadows. For the relationship between the viewer as client, and the prostitutes gazing back, is dehumanizing for both parties. The women are visibly dehumanized—turned into thin masks, which perform their sexual function without pleasure or pain, without lust or hatred, but only a blank apathy. For his part, the client’s desire for sex becomes yet another financial transaction, performed mechanically—without enthusiasm and even without real desire—to fulfill mundane biological urges.

Perhaps I am reading too far into the painting, but for me the image represents the consequences of a repressive sexual morality: wherein a single man’s only opportunity for sex is the brothel, which in turn fuels a market that preys upon vulnerable women, pulling them into a cycle of poverty and abuse. Yet this is only one of an endless list of interpretations, as the helpless critic struggles to make sense of this pitiless image.

It was not a long way from these distorted forms to Picasso’s major breakthrough: cubism. Several cubist works of his hang nearby, as well as those of his partner in cubism, Georges Braque. I must admit that these works of “high” cubism always leave me cold: they are monochromatic and chaotic images, with at most the purely intellectual interest of a crossword puzzle. But there is no denying that cubism was the most influential movement of the period; through the painters’ experiments with perspective and abstraction, a new idiom was developed, a pictorial language that Picasso (among others) would later use to great effect.

Not far from here is a room mostly dedicated to works by Marcel Duchamp. Now, Duchamp is one of the most influential figures in 20th century art; in his program, The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes dedicates ample time to his work, and most of what he says is quite positive. For my part, I have been unable to penetrate this artist’s work, in part because he seems to represent what I generally dislike about modern art: namely, its abandonment of aesthetic qualities for intellectual games or self-involved irony.

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An example of this is his piece To Be Looked at (From the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. It consists of two panes of glass with a magnifying lens mounted in the middle. On the glass is a geometrical design of a three-dimensional pyramid. The glass was unintentionally cracked during transport, which greatly appealed to Duchamp’s sense of random creation. I can see that the piece is a sort of ironic comment on science and perspective; the design and the lens suggest the meticulous representation of space, and yet it is a mere parody—the image through the lens is distorted and fuzzy. It is also a sort of ironic comment on the act of seeing in a gallery, since the viewer must dedicate a frankly unrealistic amount of time to experience the visual distortions induced by the lens. In other words, the whole point of this work, which uses symbols of seeing scientifically, is to see badly. Yet is it interesting to look at?

Another example of Duchamp’s work is Three Standard Stoppages. He made this by dropping a meter-long thread onto sheets of glass, so they it fell in haphazard shapes, and then gluing the threads to the glass. Afterwards, he made wooden “rulers” (whose length is less than a meter, since the thread is curved) using these shapes. The idea (or so the MoMA audioguide explains) is to show the arbitrariness and the boringness of the standard meter, as opposed to the spontaneous naturalness of these shapes. This is a fine idea; but again I do not see the point of creating a work of art which only serves as the prop for an argument. I remain old-fashioned enough to think that it should be beautiful in itself; this is one of my many intellectual shortcomings.

De_Chirico's_Love_Song

A room nearby is dedicated to the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Indeed, the MoMA has perhaps the world’s greatest collection of this elusive artist’s work, including his most famous painting: The Song of Love. Like so many of Chirico’s paintings, it is a baffling image: a rubber glove hangs from a wall, next to a beautiful antique bust (of Apollo?), with a green ball on the ground in front—all of this in a cartoonish urban landscape. Like many, I can only hazard a guess of what this all means. I suppose that the powerful juxtaposition of the bust and the rubber glove is suggestive of different interpretations of the human body—one a unique idealized image, another a prefabricated utilitarian object—indicative of the many cultural manifestations of the same underlying reality. But, really, whatever interpretation we choose to impose, the image persists; and it is memorable.

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Another memorable image is Dance (1) by Henri Matisse. The work in the possession of the MoMA is a preliminary work for a decorative panel in the Heritage Museum, Saint Petersburg. If you keep in mind that this naive image was created in 1909, you can get an idea of how revolutionary it must have been. For there is not a hint of realism in the work; not only do the figures lack detail, but their postures are impossible—anatomically and perspectively. The landscape consists of two blobs of color, slashed across the canvass. And yet it is an utterly convincing image of joyous celebration. The freedom from realism is transformed into a freedom of all restraint, a kind of basic delight in movement and release. The painting is also a convincing demonstration that childlike can produce lasting art.

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I have a much more negative opinion of another so-called childish piece in the collection, White on White, by Kazimir Malevich. Malevich was the creator of the Suprematist movement, which emphasized the use of basic geometrical shapes—squares, circles, lines, and so on—with a black-and-white color scheme. White on White consists of an off-white square positioned diagonally in a white canvass. Neither this painting nor any other of the Suprematist works on display produce even the slightest iota of emotion in me; they are not visually interesting or intellectually stimulating.

But I should not pause to cast aspersion, but should dwell on the paintings that I do like. Among these is, naturally, Claude Monet’s wonderful painting of water lilies, stretched out on an enormous canvass (well, actually three canvasses). In the later part of his life, Monet retreated into his own estate; here following Voltaire’s advice, he cultivated his own garden. This became his artistic haven, where he would sit for hours, working. The most famous and stunning results of this aesthetic quest are these enormous representations of the surface of his lily pond. (Monet made several of these; most are collected in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.) The work is unmoderated aesthetic bliss: the swirling colors are so inherently peaceful and pleasant that they induce a sort of meditation, an artistic absorption in color and light.

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I see that I am rattling on and on, as I tend to do, so I will restrict myself to two more paintings. But be advised that this list is only representative of my tastes, and does not adequately reflect the wealth of beauty on display.

As a somewhat begrudging fan of Dalí, I was delighted to finally see his Persistence of Memory. This image is so famous that it requires no description. Nevertheless, I think it is worth pausing to savor this painting’s brilliance. For no painting I know is such a convincing depiction of time. Contrast this work with another whose subject is time: The Ages and Death, by Hans Baldung. This painting, which hands in the Prado, represents time by showing its effect on the female body. It is an exceptional painting, well executed and well conceived; but it has none of the haunting power of Dalí’s work. For here time itself ages—it melts and droops pathetically. In Baldung time is universal, inescapable, and adamantine; but for Dalí time itself takes place in a larger environment—that suggested by the rocky landscape—and is itself subject to change. This leads us to ask: what is ultimate, after all?

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The last painting I will mention is Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950. Admittedly, giving the name of a certain Pollock seems silly, since I at least would be at a complete loss to pick one out of a slideshow. Nevertheless I do want to single out this painting, and Pollock’s work generally, for its extraordinary energy. Though superficially random, any amount of inspection will reveal that, in fact, Pollock exerted an extreme level of control over his paint drippings. The result is a sort of explosion of human movement, an exploration of gesture, a kind of visual dance, where the overlapping colors create a rhythmic sensation, and the blobs of paint sticking out of the canvass make it nearly tactile.

If she is at all like me, the visitor will be quite exhausted by the end of this gallery. Yet this floor, although it contains the majority of the MoMA’s most famous works, is only a small fraction of its total exhibitions. On the next floor down are the more contemporary works, from 1940 to 1980. I will pass over this gallery in silence since, for me, visual art after the Second World War is hit or miss—and usually the latter. Below this, on the third floor, is a rotating special exhibition on architecture. When I went last year it was a fascinating exposition dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright; this year it is dedicated to communist Yugoslavian architecture. On the second floor (European first floor) the collection continues from 1980 up to the present. Finally, on the ground floor is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden, a peaceful place full of bizarre statues, plants, and benches, which is perfect for having a short rest.

This does it for my virtual tour of the MoMA. It is well worth a visit, not only because of its wonderful collection, but because it is one of the most significant institutions that governed artistic taste in the 20th century. Next, I will examine a museum founded by Abby Aldrich’s conservative husband: the Cloisters.

NY Museums: The Frick

NY Museums: The Frick

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


As a child in Manhattan, growing up on the Upper West Side, I visited the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. It is a little boy’s paradise: dinosaur bones, stuffed lions and elephants, and my favorite—the whales. Later, in high school and college, I developed a taste for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was first drawn to the Arms and Armor room—swords and guns, another boy’s paradise—and then progressed to the Egyptian and Greek antiquities. It takes little sophistication to enjoy cursed mummies and violent gods.

But it was not until I moved to Europe, and began visiting art museum’s here, that I developed an appreciation for sculpture and painting. Thus it was only during one of my summer trips back home to New York that I finally visited one of the finest art museum’s in the city: the Frick.

The Frick Collection is housed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick, who was one of the great robber barons that dominated the Gilded Age of America. He made his fortune by selling coke (the carbon fuel, not the drug), and achieved industrial dominance by partnering and eventually merging with Carnegie’s steel company. Despite his success and wealth, he is a difficult man to admire. Like many tycoons, he was adamantly opposed to organized labor, and played a key role in repressing the Homestead strike—a violent confrontation in which 9 strikers and 3 pinkerton detectives were killed, and which caused a major setback to the labor movement. He was so hated by laborers, in fact, that the anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed (Frick would die in 1919, at the age of 69, of a heart attack) and Berkman spent 14 years in jail as a consequence, where he wrote a famous memoir of his experience.

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Henry Clay Frick

But whatever Frick’s defects in the realm of social justice, no one can accuse the man of bad taste. He accumulated superlative works of art during his lifetime; and, fortunately for us, he donated his house and his collection to the public upon his death, to be used as a museum. Along with Rockefeller and Carnegie, Frick is yet another example of a robber baron who managed to be both cutthroat and civic minded.

The museum sits across from Central Park, on 5th avenue and 70th street, about a 10 minute walk south from the Metropolitan. From the outside the mansion is not especially impressive: a squat neoclassical building, the color of granite. It has none of the conspicuous stateliness of Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion, located just up the road (it is a part of Cooper Union now). But the inside is not nearly so restrained: each room is richly decorated, with the finest furniture, chandeliers, mirrors, and wallpaper that money could buy. I have walked through my share of palaces in Europe, so I am used to seeing affluent interiors; but I still found myself gaping as I walked through the house. In the giddy years before income taxes, the robber barons could accumulate more wealth than Old World despots.

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But of course the absorbing interest of the museum is not the interior decoration, however sumptuous, but the paintings on display. Though relatively small, the Frick has one of the finest collections of old masters in the city—perhaps in the country. Relatively few works by Velazquez are available outside of Spain. New Yorkers are fortunate: the Metropolitan has a handful, the Hispanic Society has three, and the Frick has one—a portrait of Felipe IV. Typical of Velazquez, it is a masterful work: we feel we are standing right in front of the king. The Spanish monarch’s magnificently regal outfit—painted with such delicacy that it is almost tactile—contrasts sharply with the awkward and gangly figure who wears it, with his monumental Hapsburg chin sticking out below his curled mustache. Most impressive of all, Velazquez manages to imbue this unpromising figure with a certain kingly dignity—his eyes calm, thoughtful, careworn, but in control.

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The other two members of the Spanish triumvirate are also in attendance: Goya and El Greco. I especially like the former’s contribution to the collection: The Forge. It is an excellent example of Goya’s ability to convey strenuous action while preserving the harmony of the composition. The stocky figures, contorted with effort, nevertheless combine to form a solid triangle in the center of the painting. I also enjoy the gloomy, almost liquid blackness that engulfs the figures, emphasizing their solitary grandeur.

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The Dutch masters are also here in force. Frick managed to get his hands on three Vermeers. My favorite of these, Officer and Laughing Girl, shows all the hallmarks of his style: an interior room lit from a side window, with a homely girl in the center and a detailed map in the background. In this case the girl is chatting with a soldier, seated with his back to us. Is she being courted, or is there something more scandalous afoot? From a purely technical perspective, the most extraordinary feature of the painting is the map, which is so beautifully and accurately rendered as to beggar belief. Rembrandt is here, too, with two works. One of these is a self-portrait, showcasing himself as a florid gentleman with a sword strapped to his hip. The other paintings is rather more mysterious: The Polish Rider. It shows us an armed man in slightly exotic garb, mounted on horseback. Scholars cannot decide who this person is supposed to be; he is called “Polish” because of the style of his hat and dress; but beyond that there is little but guesses.

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We can also see a work by the greatest of English painters, J.W. Turner. The Harbor of Dieppe is entirely typical of his style: a bright yellow morning, a shimmering sea, and a large perspective with dozens of figures and boats. Nothing about the painting’s content is profound or especially moving. Its appeal is mainly to the eye—it is a joy to behold, since Turner captures so perfectly the warmth and the brilliance of a summer sunrise. Standing in front of the painting, you can almost feel the sun on your skin. How can paint be made to glow so intensely? In this glorious landscape of light—Turner paints the sun twice, in the sky and reflected in the sea—we can also sense the magic of all ports of travel: a place where different corners of the earth mingle, a gateway to the wide world, beckoning us towards the beyond.

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In the interest of brevity, I will skip over many other worthwhile paintings to get to the two great masterpieces of the collection, both by Hans Holbein. They hang on either side of the great fireplace in the center of the mansion. To the right is a portrait of the English politician Thomas Cromwell, and to the left is the Renaissance humanist Thomas More (famous for inventing the word “utopia”). The two were adversaries in life. Cromwell aided Henry VIII in his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, which resulted in England’s break with the Catholic Church; meanwhile, More remained loyal to the Pope and opposed the new marriage. Despite this opposition, the two men shared the same fate: beheaded by the order of the king. More was beheaded for opposing the establishment of the Church of England, and Cromwell because he helped arrange the king’s next marriage (after Boleyn was duly decapitated) to the German princess Anne of Cleves (who did not please the king, but who escaped execution). These were dangerous times for love.

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The two portraits are masterful. Each detail is so sharply defined that you can lean in very close without noticing the brushstrokes. Both men sit in sumptuous rooms, and Holbein obviously delighted in painting the fabrics of their gowns, the tablecloth, the cushions. And, as in any great portrait, the personalities of the sitters shine through. Cromwell appears suspicious, scheming, intelligent, and alert; he is a man grasping for power and influence, and wary of all impediments. More’s portrait is a study in contrast. He is dignified and focused. Unlike Cromwell, who gazes sideways with narrowed eyes, More stares straight ahead. His eyes are soft and sensitive, almost like a poet’s, and yet the expression is far from naive; it is, rather, experienced and far-sighted. It is easy to picture such a man dying for his principles, just as it is easy to picture Cromwell plotting to bolster his influence with the king. The two portraits are complemented by Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII himself, which I have seen many times in the Thyssen in Madrid. As you stare past the corpulent face into his black beady eyes, you can tell that this was not a man to be trifled with.

I left the museum deeply impressed. By any standard the Frick has a marvelous collection of paintings, all the more remarkable for being here in America and for being showcased in a historical mansion. Whether you are a tourist or a New Yorker, I urge you to visit.

A Walk Through the Prado

A Walk Through the Prado

 

Of all the many things to see and do in Madrid, of all the wonderful parks and museums, of all the shops and restaurants, the Museo del Prado stands out to me as by far the most rewarding place to visit in the city. Considering how many masterpieces are on display, how many of the finest collections of world class artists—El Greco, Velazques, Goya—can be found here, I have no doubt that it must be one of the greatest art museums in the world. The first time I visited, I was in a state of perpetual amazement—and I’m not usually an art enthusiast.

In this post I would like to take you on a guided tour through the museum. But be warned: I am no art expert, and can hardly even be called an amateur. My knowledge of art history and my capacity for intelligent criticism are slim to none. Nevertheless, they say the best way to learn is to teach, so I will try to teach you about this place.

Since it would be neither possible nor desirable to talk about every work in the collection, I will confine my tour to my favorites. Here’s another warning: my descriptions of paintings will be dreadfully boring and pointless unless you look at an image of the paintings yourself. You can’t take photographs of the paintings in the Prado, so I can’t insert my own images. Therefore I recommend you simply search the title of the painting as you read through.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Before I got into the nitty gritty of analyzing the paintings, I have to tell you a bit about the museum itself. (By the way, throughout this post I am relying on the official Prado guidebook as well as what I can find online for information.)

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The Prado

The Prado is located, appropriately enough, on the Paseo del Prado, a long boulevard in the city center that is also home to the Thyssem Museum, not to mention several government offices. From the outside, the building isn’t especially impressive. It is a long neoclassical building, with arches on the first floor and columns on the second; its façade is a dark grey. Near the front entrance is a metal statue of Goya, hat in hand, looking every inch a gentleman. Near another entrance is a wonderful statue of Velazques, slumped in a chair, a brush in one hand and an easel in the other.

The museum was first opened in 1819, under the auspices of King Ferdinand VII. According to the guide book, the model for the modern public museum was the Louvre in Paris, which was opened in 1793 during the Revolution. After the Napoleonic wars, many of the revolutionary ideas in France were disseminated to Spain. Indeed, now that I think about it, the institution of a public museum is quite a revolutionary idea. Consider where these great collections come from; they used to be the personal collections of monarchs, nobles, and the super rich. It was thus a great advance for civilization when the institution of the public museum was created, for it signaled a broader shift in values. Art was to be celebrated as communal heritage, not hoarded as a private prize. But I suppose the old, hoarding model of art appreciation did have its merits, since it is due to the fine taste and acquisitiveness of the erstwhile Spanish monarchs that we have this collection in the first place.

Let’s have a look inside. The vast majority of the museum’s permanent collection is housed on two levels. The floor plans of both are nearly identical. The Prado Museum is a symmetrical structure. In the center are the largest chambers, bookending the building. Connecting these rooms is a wide hallway, the main gallery, with a lovely arched ceiling. To one side of this gallery (left or right, depending which way you’re walking) is a labyrinth of rooms where most of the art is to be found. I find it easy to get a bit disoriented in these rooms, since you must keep turning left and right to get to the next one. But travelers less navigationally challenged than I am will have no trouble.

The two floors are divided chronologically, with the oldest art on the bottom floor and the newer art on the top. The span of time covered by the collection ranges from about 1300 to 1800. (The Reina Sofia has the more modern works.) Unsurprisingly, the majority of the artists on display are Spanish. The Prado is fairly weak on Northern European paintings—though there are some very nice Flemish works here. (The Thyssem Museum just across the road, which I’ll save for another post, is an excellent complement to the Prado, since it is strong in many areas where the Prado is weak.) There are also many works by Tintoretto and especially Titian, who painted for the Spanish monarchs.

Although the museum contains the excellent works by many artists, the heart of the museum, as the guidebook says, is undoubtedly Velazquez. Of his one hundred or so known paintings, nearly half can be found here. Thus with him we find both the most complete and arguably the most impressive collection in the whole museum. It is to him, therefore, that we must now turn.

Velazquez

Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was perhaps the greatest artist of Spain’s greatest age. Born in Seville, he spent much of his life painting for Phillip IV as a court painter. He painted the king, the queen, princesses and princes, court jesters, dwarves, as well as religious and mythological paintings. Velazquez is to Spanish painting what Cervantes is to Spanish literature.

One of my favorite of his works is his Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, a mythological subject. This paintings depicts the scene in Homer when Apollo tells Vulcan, the crippled god of fire and blacksmiths, that his beautiful wife, Venus, is having an affair with Ares the god of war. It’s marvelous. Apollo, god of light, is clothed in an orange robe; his garlanded head emits rays like the sun itself. He is turned away from the viewer, one hand lifted, as he tells Vulcan the bad news. Before him are several grubby, shirtless men, wearing only brown robes around their waists. They are at work in Vulcan’s forge, surrounded by various tools and anvils; everything in the room is a musty, brownish gray, lending contrast with the bright robe of Apollo. A delicate play of shadows makes the viewer feel the space. The illusion is perfect.

The musculature on these smithies is fantastic—not at all exaggerated, but taut and distinct. Every one of them (I’m not sure which figure is Vulcan and which are his helpers) looks at Apollo in amazement. My favorite is the second man from the right. His eyes pop in astonishment, his jaw hangs slack from his mouth. He looks as though he’s about to drop the hammer he’s carrying. He’s clearly stunned by the news. His skinny face, his curly hair, his five o’clock shadow, and his Greek nose—all is so magnificently done that you wonder whether he will soon turn his head and look straight at you.

Another of my favorites is also a mythological scene: The Feast of Bacchus. Dionysus (or Bacchus), god of wine, sits in the center. He is naked except for a blanket draped over his waist. For a god, his physique is flabby, and his arms are thin. He is placing a garland on the head of one of his revelers, who kneels at the god’s feet. But strangely, Dionysus isn’t looking at what he’s doing; his eyes are turned away, to his right, and a coy smile is playing on his lips. It’s as if he’s thinking about something, a secret that he’s keeping from his followers.

To his left are the revelers, a motley crew of bearded peasants. Every one of them is smiling and drunk. My favorite of these is the seated man immediately to the right of Dionysus (from our perspective). The realism of this face is stupefying. He looks out at you from beneath a black, rimmed hat, tilted back on his head. He smiles, showing white teeth from under a bushy mustache. He looks middle aged, but already his face is wrinkled and careworn. He’s dressed like a peasant, and has the look of a man used to manual labor. Although he is giving a toothy grin, I find something quietly tragic in this face. He smiles because of the drink, because of the merrymaking; he smiles because, for a few brief hours, he can forget his cares, forget his hard life, and lose himself in drink. Is this Dionysus’s secret? Is this why he looks away? Is it that he knows that the happiness he provides is a false happiness, not born from appreciation of what one has, but from forgetfulness of one’s lot?

These are two of my favorites, but they don’t convey the versatility of Velazquez’s art. There is, for example, his Christ on the Cross, which is easily one of the best I’ve seen of this subject. It’s a terribly sad painting, with Jesus’ hanging, face turned down, eyes closed, in front of a pitch black background. Velazquez focuses the whole of the viewer’s attention on the Savior’s body, which hangs limply from the cross. His isolation is devastating; He is totally abandoned in this painting—but for the halo of light around His head.

There is a room full of paintings of court buffoons. Apparently, it’s true that kings used to have people who used to be called (quite unjustly) “freaks of nature.” Velazquez painted many of these buffoons, most of them dwarves; and the paintings are excellent. You might expect the portraits to be condescending or exaggerated, but Velazquez looked upon these subjects with real empathy. There is one portrait in particular, of a bearded dwarf, sitting on the floor, staring intently at the viewer. There is nothing buffoonish or silly in his expression; rather, he looks dignified and serious.

I can’t help comparing these portraits with the many paintings of kings, queens, princes, and princesses in the next room. This is the center of the museum, an octagonal chapel that houses the royal portraits. I have to admit that (apart from Las Meninas) I don’t care for these at all. I find the whole lot frankly ridiculous—not because of Velazquez’s execution, but because of the subjects. Many are equestrian portraits. The king sits on a horse rearing its legs, staring off into the distance. It could potentially be heroic, but the final effect is comical—almost satirical. Philip IV looks more like a buffoon than his buffoons, with his overlong, egg-shaped head; his greasy, red hair; his pale, pasty skin; his oversized, puffy lips; his empty, dull eyes. I’m not judging his job as king—he obviously had good taste in art, at least—but he wasn’t a handsome man.

And the dresses that these poor women had to wear! There is a portrait of Queen Mariana of Austria, for example, and I can’t help feeling both sad and embarrassed for the woman. Her dress is so big you could have a dinner party underneath it, and her enormous hair is a close second. She wears a severe and unhappy expression on her face, perhaps because this getup was so uncomfortable. Fashion is a funny thing. This used to be considered highly dignified—royal, in fact. And now, it’s beyond absurd.

But of course, the shining exception to this Las Meninas. This is Velazquez’s masterpiece, and can fairly be said to be the greatest painting in the whole Prado (though it’s not my personal favorite). It is one of those images, like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, that can stick in your mind forever after just one glance. There is too much, and not enough, to be said about it; one could fill a library with analysis and come up short.

First, there is Velazquez himself in the painting, leaning slightly to his left, with a brush in one hand and an easel in another. He is staring right at the viewer, with a thoughtful and serene expression on his face. He looks as though, at any moment, he will begin to paint you, the viewer, as you stand and contemplate him. But what is he painting? Hanging on the other end of the room is a mirror, where we can see a ghostly image of a couple—the king and queen—who Velazquez is presumably in the process of painting.

In the center is the princess Margarita, who also looks right at the viewer. There is something mysterious about his expression. Her head is turned slightly away from us, but she turns her eyes to face us. To her right and left are her maids of honor, the titular meninas, waiting on the princess. But she isn’t interested in them; she’s thinking about something else. What? On the far right of the painting is a dog, looking very sleepy, being bothered by a little girl; and we also see another of the king’s dwarves. On the far side of the room, to the right of the mirror, a man standing in an open doorway. He is one of my favorite parts of the painting. The way he stands, with one foot raised on the stair above him, makes me want to follow him into the scene.

Why is this painting so powerful? At first glance, it’s just a slice of everyday life. Nothing terribly interesting is happening. So why is it so universally celebrated? Well, for one, the composition is perfect. The way the figures are arranged in the space is unsurpassable. But this is a technical perfection. There is something deeper; Velazquez seems to be getting at something. Perhaps the painting is a comment upon art itself. There he stands, painting a royal portrait, in a room already filled with paintings. There he stands, before two of the most powerful people in the world, a guest in their house, working under their patronage. But although Philip IV commanded millions of men, and Velazquez only a brush and paint, whose work has been more enduring?

 

José de Ribera

José de Ribera (1591- 1652) was a contemporary of Velazquez, who was born in Spain but died in Naples. Stylistically, he strikes me as quite close to Velazquez, though he is not as profound. The Prado has an impressive collection of his works, and two in particular have caught my fancy.

The first is his portrait of Democritus (or Archimedes, depending on who you ask). Of course, it is an imagined portrait, but it is done in the same manner as a real one. Democritus stands before you, a quill in one hand, some papers in another. (If you look closely, you can see that these papers are covered in geometrical drawings, which leads me to think it was supposed to be Archimedes.) The man himself is an ugly fellow. He’s going bald, with only a tuft of hair on the top of his head; and on his face is an unkempt beard. His baldness makes his creased forehead looks enormous, adding to the impression of a man devoted to his intellect. However, he is no dull scholar. He smiles at the viewer, a happy and mischievous smile. It is the smile of an old lecher rather than a philosopher. Or perhaps it is just the mischievousness of a man who is above all the things that make us frown; a man who sees life as a silly game. Although every element seems inappropriate—his winking smile, his peasant clothes, his scraggly beard, his balding head—taken together, the whole thing is a convincing portrait of a real philosopher. It’s a wonderful painting.

The next painting I love by Ribera is his Trinity. The first thing to notice is its composition. The work abounds in diagonal symmetry. Seen from a distance, the painting is composed of five diagonal bands, running from the bottom left to the top right. The first band (at the bottom right) is dark blue; the second (formed by the cape on which Jesus is being carried) is white; the third, (formed by the angels) is a mix of black space and flesh colored faces; the next (formed from God the Father’s robes) is bright red; and the last is bright yellow. Running counter to these bands of color, from the bottom right to the top left, is Jesus’ deathly pale body, stretched out across the canvas. The final effect of this is to make an “X” in the painting, a collision of lines at opposite angles that adds intensity to the composition.

Jesus’ head rests in God’s lap, while his legs are supported by the angels. His arms hang limply from his sides, and his legs are curled beneath him. The portrait of God the Father is one of the most convincing images of God I’ve ever seen, perhaps second only to Michelangelo’s renditions. Although His Son lies dead before Him, He is imperturbably calm. He is infinitely powerful, and yet above all of the corruptions that usually taint the heart’s of the powerful here in earth. Perched below Him is a shining white dove, the Holy Ghost, completing the Trinity. To me, this is the height of religious art.

El Greco

Now I get to one of my absolute favorites, El Greco (1541 – 1614). His real name was Domenicos Theotocopoulos, but the Spaniards gave him his nickname (“the Greek”). Born in Crete, El Greco was trained in the Byzantine tradition of icon paintings. Later, he traveled to Venice, eventually working in Titian’s workshop. Unable to find suitable patronage, he later made his way to Spain, settling down in Toledo. According to the Prado Guidebook—and I quite agree—he forms part of the trinity of great Spanish painters, along with Velazquez and Goya.

His style—influenced by both Orthodox and Catholic traditions—is absolutely unique and unmistakable. In fact, his style is so distinct that it makes more sense to talk about his work as a whole rather than individual paintings, which I will now attempt to do.

Although El Greco often dealt with traditional, religious themes, his treatment was far from traditional. The colors are bright and pure. El Greco painted with a severely limited pallet; he wasn’t working with the big, fancy 64-crayon box, but the basic 12-crayon set. These simple colors dominates over everything else—big, brash, bright colors; the paintings would be gaudy if they weren’t so beautiful. The bright reds, greens, yellows, and blues swirl and curl across the canvas, highlighted by the dark grey backgrounds he prefers.

There is a certain cartoonish character to his paintings. By this, I don’t mean that they are silly, but that they are exaggerated. El Greco doesn’t aim for a ‘realistic’, ‘lifelike’ representation; instead, he aims for an expression of passionate emotions. Realism, perspective, orderly composition—all are sacrificed for feeling. His figures are distorted and contorted, with elongated bodies in exaggerated and sometimes unnatural poses. Here the vertical predominates over the diagonal and the horizontal. Everything is stretched, and you can feel your eye being pulled upwards. I cannot help comparing this intense feeling of height with that evoked by the Toledo Cathedral in El Greco’s home town. In both that wonderful cathedral and in El Greco’s paintings, the whole emphasis is upwards, creating an astonishing feeling of smallness and awe.

All of these characteristics are evident in El Greco’s Trinity. This painting was actually based on a print by Dürer—the same print on which Jose de Ribera based his depiction of the Trinity. But even though the inspiration was the same, how different are the results! Ribera’s work, although supernatural in subject matter, is strongly realistic in style, whereas El Greco hardly makes the attempt to be realistic. As I mentioned above, Ribera’s painting is based on diagonal symmetry, whereas El Greco’s work is all vertical. Here, Christ lays lifeless, but His body is still held upright. The angels, too, stand upright, as well as God Himself. El Greco’s color pallet also differs markedly from Ribera’s; the latter uses complex shades and shadowing to achieve the verisimilitude, while the former’s preference for bright colors is apparent. Jesus’ naked flesh is contrasted with the bright blue, red, and green robes of the angels who flank Him. And above these figures is the Holy Ghost, flying triumphant against a shining yellow background. Ribera’s picture, although taking place in an imaginary space, still looks solid and three dimensional, while El Greco’s treatment of space seems almost medieval in his lack of concern with solidity and depth. Two masters; two diametrically opposed artistic visions.

For me, the strongest works of El Greco in the Prado are his Annunciation and Baptism of Christ. These two works were both originally part of an Altarpiece that El Greco designed and which has since been dismantled. The composition and style of both are quite similar: a Biblical scene plays out on the lower half of the canvas, while on the upper half figures float above the action. The feeling of vertigo engendered by these works is especially noticeable in person. I find it’s best to experience El Greco’s paintings while standing quite close, looking up at the top. Seen from this angle, elongated and distorted figures do not look at all ridiculous, but like heaven itself has opened up above you.

I find it especially difficult to articulate exactly why I like El Greco’s work so much. His work is not technically astounding (at least, not in my opinion). They are also not exactly pretty, at least not in the way many landscapes and portraits are pretty. True, there is a certain sweetness and tenderness in El Greco’s faces, such as the face of the Virgin in the Annunciation; but there is no physical beauty, and hardly any individuation. Like in medieval painting, El Greco isn’t trying to capture individual personalities; his paintings are not about people—at least, not primarily—but about the divine.

He is great because his vision is so convincing. One feels that he is trying to communicate his whole worldview to you. The author who I most readily think of for comparison is Dostoyevsky. Both El Greco and Dostoyevsky were unconcerned with realism, naturalism, or conventional elegance, but instead subordinated everything to their profound, religious perspective. Both produced works that would be silly, ugly, or even ridiculous if they were not so powerfully moving. Both were products of their time, and yet looked far beyond their time; both had styles influenced by the fashions of the day, which yet broke every rule of conventional taste. Both were overshadowed during their lifetimes by lesser artists, due to their insistence on expressing their deepest thoughts in a style unique to themselves. El Greco, like Dostoyevsky, defines what it means to be a true artist.

Goya

We now move on to the third part of the Trinity—Goya.

Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828) was actually alive when the Prado was opened. Though born into a poor family, he eventually rose to be the most famous painter in Spain. Now he is recognized as one of the most influential and important painters of his century—indeed, of all time. The Prado has an enormous collection of Goya’s works. According to the guidebook, there are almost 150 paintings of his. Like Velazquez, Goya was extraordinarily versatile; he painted portraits, country scenes, landscapes, mythological scenes, religious works, and still lifes. But Goya was also an artist of enormous depth, creating many works of astonishing emotional force.

Because he was so versatile, it’s difficult to discuss his work as a whole. But there are some things I notice. First, he had a preference for dark colors; many of his paintings are set in a kind of gloomy twilight, even if they are outside. Second, to my eye Goya’s figures are unnaturally short and stocky; and I find that Goya’s faces have a kind of ape-like quality, with a small forehead, a small nose, and big eyes. In some paintings, this effect is subtle, but in others it is quite apparent. Many of Goya’s best paintings are depictions of violence, terror, desperation, and pain. Like Kafka, Goya had a way of portraying the terrors of life so forcefully that even us moderns, constantly barraged with violent imagery, are still shocked and horrified by what we find.

Although there are several fine portraits by Goya in the Prado—as well as one famous nude drawing of a woman, which was quite scandalous at the time—what most appeals to me is his darker side. This is exemplified in two of his most famous paintings, The Second of May and The Third of May, 1808. These depict the Napoleonic occupation of Madrid, and the short-lived Spanish resistance to the French soldiers. They are both enormous paintings, about twice the size of an average man. They hang side by side in the lower floor of the Prado, a panorama of war.

The first painting, The Second of May, 1808, depicts the fighting itself. The scene is set in the Puerta del Sol, where Spanish citizens are attacking the French troops. Some of these French soldiers are Mamelukes on horseback, who Napoleon picked up in Egypt. According to the audioguide, the sight of Arab troops in Madrid was an especially troubling sight for the Spaniards, since they had fought so hard to push the Muslims out of their continent.

Be that as it may, Goya’s treatment can hardly be called propagandistic. There are no heroes or villains in this painting; rather, everyone—Spanish, Egyptian, or French—is reduced to animal desperation. There is nothing glorious to be found; there is only despair and death. Compare one of the figures in the foreground, a Spaniard. He is dressed in dark clothes; in his right hand a dagger is held aloft. Below him, hanging off a horse, is a dead Mameluke with blood dripping down his body. Even so, the Spaniard, with inhuman eyes filled with a mixture of fear and hatred, prepares to stab down once more at the dead soldier. Above him is his counterpart on the French side, a Mameluke seated on a horse. He also has a knife grasped in his right hand, prepared to stab down; his eyes also are filled with that mixture of fear and hatred that animates the Spaniard. These two foes are equals in this battle—neither is ideologically, morally, or culturally superior. They are men turned to beasts through violence. Around these two figures, everyone else is nearly faceless; their eyes and mouths are mere blurs in the confusion.

The second painting, The Third of May, 1808, depicts the ruthless execution by the French of the prisoners taken during the uprising. The scene is now the hill of Principe Pio. On the right of the painting, a faceless line of French soldiers are hunched over their rifles, prepared to fire. Here the soldiers are neither men nor beasts, but mere machines of destruction. On the left are a group of cowering men, about to be killed. The most arresting figure is, of course, the man in the very center. While everyone around him is dressed in dark colors, this man wears a white shirt and yellow pants. He alone doesn’t cower; he looks right at the firing squad. His arms are raised high in the air—but why? Is he begging for mercy? No, it’s something more. That man’s gesture express Goya’s own feelings at the senseless destruction of war. It is a horrified, despairing plea for it all to stop; for the soldiers to cease seeing each other are enemies, and to start seeing their enemies as humans.

But these two paintings, as violent as they are, seem almost tame in comparison with Goya’s Black Paintings. Here is where Goya most nearly approaches Kafka. These paintings were originally painted by Goya for himself, late in his life, while he was living in a house outside Madrid called La Quinta del Sordo (The House of the Deaf Man). They are enigmatic, mysterious, and terrifying works. Their name comes from their dark color, which Goya achieved by mixing printer’s ink in with his oil paints.

The most inscrutable of these paintings is what’s called the Half-Submerged Dog. A dog’s head emerges from behind something—a dark brown area at the bottom of the painting. But what going on? Is the dog swimming? Above, the canvas is absolutely featureless, just a dark, textured yellow. The viewers eye is attracted to the dog’s expression; he is staring up into the yellow space above, and looks frightened to me. But it is really impossible to guess what Goya was trying to depict here. The final impression is one of devastating emptiness and confusion.

The rest of the paintings are hardly easier to interpret. Two giant men stand in a countryside, cudgeling one another. A goat-like shaman sits surrounded by monkeyish peasants. An old man eats soup, while a cadaverous figure points a bony finger.

But the most absolutely disturbing of these paintings is Saturn Devouring his Son. The subject is the old Greek legend. Saturn was told that one of his children would overthrow him, so he gamely decided to eat them all as soon as they were born. Goya takes this story and turns it into a nightmare. Saturn is not godlike, not even human. He kneels in a dark space, his naked body covered in shadow. He stares at the viewer with wide eyes as he takes another bite of the already decapitated, bleeding figure clutched in his hands. There is no question why he is doing this: fear. You can see in his eyes, he is terrified. This must be one of the most penetrating analyses of power I know. This titan, ruler of the universe, is forced to eat his own children to maintain his control. Absolute power has not only corrupted him, but it has destroyed him. There is nothing left in him but desperation.

Only the Beginning

I have spent days writing this post, and have only scratched the surface of the treasures you can find in the Prado. I need to stop before I get any further carried away in my descriptions. But know that these paintings I have described, though I think they are some of the best in the museum, are not a fair representation of all that the Prado contains. There are works by Titian, Tintoretto, Roger van der Weyden, Rubens, Dürer, Raphael, Caravaggio, Corregio, and Fra Angelico. Added to this are innumerable works by minor masters, filling every room with beauty.

If you visit Madrid, do take the time to go to the Prado. It’s a magnificent place.