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Asia Discovered in Rome
Rome is a city whose history is on show in layers. It never fails to amaze me that at one moment I can be standing in front of a grand piece of architecture from the Roman Empire, turn a corner and be faced with a medieval or renaissance era building, and then take another turn to find myself back in the 20th century.
With so many things to see in the Eternal City, Rome can sometimes leave you feeling a little overwhelmed, especially when you start thinking about those long queues and noisy tour groups at the city’s biggest attractions. Sometimes, a visit to a place off the beaten track can help you put things into perspective.
Right alongside Rome’s bustling Termini Station is the district known as Esquilino, unofficially the city’s China Town. Here, you’ll find the fifth century Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome’s largest church devoted to the Virgin Mary, but venture a couple of hundred metres further, and you’ll also find the former Brancaccio Palace, which is now home to one of Rome’s most under rated and over looked museums; the Museo Nazionale D’arte Orientale (The National Museum of Oriental Art).
The museum’s collection spans much of Asia, with pre Islamic and Islamic period pieces from the Middle East; a collection of antiquities from the Indian Subcontinent and its surrounds; Gandhara (now Pakistan and Afghanistan), India, Nepal and Tibet; on through to collections of East Asian artefacts and artwork from China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan.
The collection is varied, and is perhaps the only place in all of Italy where you can discover treasures, large and small, exclusively from a diverse range of eras across the Asian continent. The exhibitions offer visitors the chance not only to see rare Afghan works, but also the opportunity to think about the world that existed beyond the borders of the Roman Empire and Europe; places that until recent periods of history were often linked by trade networks, but always represented a distant, somewhat far away part of the world.
I have to say that this is one of my favourite museums in all of Rome, partly because it feels like a boutique collection, and the wonderful building, a former palace, adds to the experience. The museum, like its host city, is like a meeting point of different cultures, different perspectives and different visual styles, all linked by a certain elegance and nobleness of the collections.
Amongst the first of the exhibits, the Ancient Near and Middle East rooms, is a glorious third century fragment of a funerary relief, La Dama di Palmira from Palmyra, Syria. It depicts a noble woman decorated in jewels and a headdress that reflect her high standing in society and likely wealth, and she is accompanied by a smaller relief that depicts one of her sons, who is seen behind her, to her right.
La Dama di Palmira, funerary relief (fragment), limestone, third century, Syria
This is a particularly beautiful piece, and is also done in a mixture of styles, natural given that the clothing they are depicted in also reflect mixed traditions of Ancient Greece and Central Asia. Touches of colour suggest gold and wealth and help lift this fragment into something extremely special.
My journey through the rooms at the museum then takes me into the world of Islam which includes a range of metal, glass and ceramic works, amongst them, twelfth-thirteenth century ceramic pieces. One of my favorites from this room is a Mina’ cup from Iran whose design of a Mongolian horseman on horseback against a decorative background is particularly impressive. The horseman is clad in grey on a bright blue saddle, and his horse is shown in a majestic pose, together they seem to brimming in movement, and it has the kind of elegant simplicity that makes you just want to stare and stare.
Bowl, Mina’ painted ceramic with gold leaf inlay. C.12th-13th century, Iran
Many of the pieces in the collection originally came from Italian archaeological expeditions carried out in Central Asia, and along with the finds from Iran and Afghanistan, the pieces from archaeological excavations carried out in Gandhara (now Pakistan and Afghanistan) are particularly evocative.
In the Gandhara collection room, we can see further evidence of how even back in the first to fourth centuries C.E, there was a mix of cultural influences in the way that artists and artisans represented their worlds. In one of the many showcases, a collection of sculptural fragments and reliefs show the influence of Grecian art on Buddhist art from this region. Classical style faces stare out from their displays, but the most memorable aspects of these pieces include stylistic references unique to this part of the world. On at least two of the stone pieces that depict women from the region, we can see ornate tattoos and jewels which are carved into the women’s faces, recording the fashions and the tastes of their time. These are incredibly beautiful pieces that share company with the surrounding Buddhist art pieces that adorn the room elsewhere.
Maitreya Seated in the Lotus Position, shale, c. 2nd-4th century, Pakistan (formerly Gandhara)
Maitreya Seated in the Lotus Position is one of the more accomplished statues in the room. This relief statue shows the Future Buddha in a serene pose, simply and elegantly dressed in flowing robes, with Central Asian physical features and again, a strong classical influence. There is something that is quite powerful and calming about these sculptures, even though many of them are small enough to fit into glass cabinets. The Gandhara room in particular is a treat to visit, as sensor lights dramatically light up as you head in whatever direction you choose to. It’s a simple but rewarding kind of display, leaving you with the feeling that you are somehow rediscovering all of these pieces all over again.
Tibetan and Nepalese interpretations of Buddhism are also on display in their own gallery, with a rich assortment of textiles, mandalas, paintings and other ritual works from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries. This gallery is further complemented by the adjoining Indian gallery, whose collection includes Indian Buddhist artworks as well as statues of Hindu deities including Brahman, Shiva and Vishnu.
Yet more rooms are devoted to East Asian collections; themed displays of Japanese woodblock prints, neolithic Jomon pottery and a range of decorative and ritual artworks sit alongside collections of Vietnamese and Chinese works, which remind us of how complex and varied the traditions and cultures of Asia are.
Guanyin, painted wood with traces of gold guilding, c.12th century, China
Perhaps my favourite piece in all of the museum can be found amongst these East Asian collections. In a room all of its own stands a towering Guanyin; a bodhisattva, or enlightened Buddhist deity. Guanyin is usually depicted as the female Goddess of Compassion, but occasionally (as in this beautiful painted lacquer statue) has been known to appear in a male form. This Guanyin is attributed to either the late Song or Jin Dynasty, which dates it from the twelfth century. He’s a towering figure, dressed in noble clothes, and looks downward at visitors, suggesting that wherever he used to stand was a high vantage point, giving him the ability to cast his eyes down upon his faithful. He’s in good condition; his clothes still bear some of their colourful tones of red, blue and green, and his skin has a translucent quality. There are so many beautiful details in this sculpture; the elegant headdress and drapery, the beautiful carving to depict his thick head of hair, the strong and smooth features of his face which seem graceful and honourable.
In many ways the Guanyin statue speaks a lot for the experience of visiting the Museo Nazionale D’arte Orientale. The Guanyin statue is stylish, dripping with elegance and nobility, but is also very accessible and unique. Guanyin is a devotional image from one corner of the Asian continent, and happily sits beside hundreds of other regional devotional images and non-religious works from countless regions of Asia.
He gives us the opportunity to admire and respect the way in which his craftsman chose to artistically interpret his world, his surroundings, his purpose in much the same way as the works throughout the galleries in this museum allow us to do at a regional level.
The end result is that as a visitor you are left with an appreciation not only of the differences that mark our individual cultures, and the different regions of the vast Asian continent, but also of the similarities that are sometimes not so immediately noticeable. In a city like Rome, so richly endowed with centuries of its own past and its own history, a visit to this museum seems to me like a wonderful opportunity to take stock, put things into an international context and help me better understand what makes us all tick on a human level, whilst also offering the opportunity to enjoy some exquisitely crafted artworks and artefacts.
The Museo Nazionale D’arte Orientale is located at Via Merulana 248. The museum is centrally located; within walking distance of Termini and Vittorio Emmanuele (Metro A) stations and Cavour (Metro B) station.
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