Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Main Floor

When: through March 16, 2014

I think this is the first time I've gone to see an exhibit on the day it opened, which happened to be the only day I was able to get to the museums this week.  I prefer going two or three times per week, but sometimes life intrudes!

Like the Capitoline Venus, on display in the same place earlier this year, this sculpture is a masterpiece of ancient art and is on loan from the Capitoline Museum in Rome.  This is the first time the piece has left Italy since Napoleon carted it off in 1797 and put it on display in the Louvre in Paris.  I'm assuming the National Gallery asked nicely, rather than sending an army to pillage it.  It's part of the celebration of Italian culture that's been going on this year, as was the Venus and the da Vinci Codex at the Air and Space Museum.

The Dying Gaul has been admired by students of art (for whom a copy was part of their standard curriculum) and art lovers generally for hundreds of years.  Thomas Jefferson was eager to acquire a copy for a never-realized art gallery at Monticello.  The work also became a required stop on the Grand Tour, and inspired works by many other artists.

This piece is quite impressive - the musculature is incredible.  It's not a terribly pleasant work, as it depicts a dying warrior, but you can't help but admire the craftsmanship.  Happily, you can walk around the entire sculpture, so as to get a full sense of just how good this is.  There's almost no damage to the piece, which considering that it was created between 1800 and 1900 years ago is quite an achievement.  I noticed that the sword depicted next to the Gaul looks as if the tip has been broken off, but other than that, it seemed to be intact.

My only criticism is of the location of the work, and this is a problem that will resolve itself in a few weeks.  The Gaul is in the rotunda on the Main Floor, in just the same spot as the Venus.  As a general rule, this would be an excellent bit of placement.  Amidst the massive marble columns and fountain, it's the most dramatic area of the museum.  So what's my beef?  At present, it's decorated for the holidays, which means it's a festive display of lighted greenery and bright poinsettias.  Incongruous to say the least for such a serious sculpture.  Oh well, after the holidays, the Gaul will fit right in.

Verdict: Absolutely worth seeing, although I might wait until after the holiday decorations are put away.  On the other hand, the floral display is lovely and worth a visit all on its own!

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