Three Days in Berlin

Museumsinsel Berlin

Last week I was sent to Berlin for a few days on business, which meant that I was finally able to knock several major museums off my ‘to do’ list. I’d only been to Berlin once before, as part of a sixth form trip, during which our programme took us to the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and Wansee but signally failed to consider anything pre-1933. In desperation, during a couple of hours’ free time when all the other girls went shopping, I begged my teacher and a hapless friend to come with me to the Gemäldegalerie, and my abiding memory of the entire school trip is standing in front of Caravaggio’s Amor Victorious, uncertain whether to be scandalised or delighted.

Twelve years later, I still haven’t quite decided, but the Amor certainly always brings a smile to my face. However, on this trip the Caravaggio had some serious competition for most memorable sight, as I fitted in six of Europe’s finest museums: intensive sightseeing even by my standards. Here’s a summary. With lots of pictures.

BODEMUSEUM · KUPFERSTICHKABINETT · GEMÄLDEGALERIE

ALTES MUSEUM · NEUES MUSEUM

THE PERGAMONMUSEUM

The one thing I was determined to see in Berlin was the Ishtar Gate and so I took the train directly from the airport to Museumsinsel. The Pergamonmuseum is currently undergoing restoration, so the entire wing with the Altar itself is closed until 2019, but you can still see the Ishtar Gate, the Market Gate of Miletus, the early Middle Eastern galleries and the Museum of Islamic Art on the upper floor; and, for now, that’s all that mattered to me.

Towering above me in all its rich, lapis lazuli splendour, the Ishtar Gate was much taller than I’d imagined, and I had difficulty processing the fact that this is just the smaller outer gate. The inner gate with its towers and battlements, which was also excavated and brought back in pieces to Berlin, would be twice as tall as the present gallery if reassembled. Of course, much of what we see (including on the Processional Way with its prowling lions) is a modern reconstruction, with only certain worn tiles showing the original material incorporated from the excavations at Babylon. But it’s a tremendous feat of archaeological resurrection.

I also had the chance to learn more about the iconography: I knew that lions were important in Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian culture but I didn’t understand why; and now I learned that the lion was the sacred animal of the goddess Ishtar; while the bull represented the storm-god Adad; and the eerie, elongated dragon was the symbol of the great god Marduk.

The rest of the museum afforded many other treasures: cylinder seals; winged man-headed bull gods; and of course the monumental Roman Market Gate with its columns and pediments. At the other end of the scale were the lovingly-crafted miniature models of Babylon, both the Ishtar Gate complex and the inner city with the great ziggernaut of the Temple of Marduk. There were tiled reliefs from the Achaemenid palaces at Susa; gorgeous ancient jewellery made from beads and mother-of-pearl; Roman sculpture from the Forum; and, rather unexpectedly, Babylonian erotica. Upstairs I found the exquisite panelling of an entire Ottoman room brought from Aleppo, and the ornately carved façade of a caliph’s palace. It was overwhelming; but for me, on this first visit, all was dwarfed by the magnificence of the Ishtar Gate itself.

What a fabulous start to the trip.

THE BODEMUSEUM

Perched on the tip of Museumsinsel, the Bodemuseum is the place to come for sculpture, coins and medals. The museum is an architectural gem in its own right, with a central cupola and sweeping staircases. On the upper floor you find smaller-scale sculptures, a good explanation of techniques such as bronze-casting, and the numismatic collection.

In the old days I’d have skipped that part, but in the wake of my recent encounter with Louis XIV’s histoire medallique I paid more attention, and was especially taken with a series of medal designs made in wax by the sculptor Raymond Faltz. One of these was a self-portrait roundel, barely a few centimetres across but executed with a level of detail – especially in the stray curls of hair – that was absolutely staggering. Downstairs there are larger galleries showing portrait busts, reliefs, retables and other sculptures. Here I finally tracked down the one thing I’d really wanted to see.

Tucked away in a back room in the Italian Renaissance section, beneath a crowd of della Robbias, is a little terracotta study of a sleeping boy. It was sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio (Leonardo’s teacher) and, along with many other things I’d see on this trip, it was exhibited in 1999 at the National Gallery in the exhibition Florence in the 1470s. I never saw the exhibition, but the catalogue was the very first art book I ever bought for myself, at the age of fourteen, and those exhibits have held a very special place in my heart ever since. Verrocchio’s sculpture is especially striking for its naturalism, its informality and absence of any mythological attributes: it’s just a beautiful young man sleeping, his head sinking onto his arm, the repose of his body countered by the tension visible in his left hand. A beautiful thing.

Elsewhere in the museum I stumbled across all sorts of wonderful exhibits: a mid-15th century German wooden bust of King David, which loomed unexpectedly out of the wall at head-height; an entire apse in mosaic from Ravenna; and portrait sculptures like the superbly characterised head of Niccolò Strozzi by Mino da Fiesole, which compels with its arrogance and the sheer meaty presence of the man.

But the part of the museum which really moved me was a space in the upstairs galleries, where there’s currently a display called ‘The Lost Museum’. Here the museum commemorates the works that were lost or severely damaged in 1945, when the Friedrichshain bunker in which they were being stored for safety caught fire shortly after the Soviet entry into Berlin. 400 paintings from Berlin’s collections were presumed destroyed, including the first version of Caravaggio’s St Matthew and the Angel and a Botticelli tondo of the Madonna and Child with Angels.

Some of the missing treasures are reproduced in black and white photographs at original size: an impressive and rather audacious display strategy which really emphasises the measure of the loss. Moreover, a third of the sculptures were destroyed. Some that survived are shown here: a Renaissance angel gestures without hands, while on the portrait bust of a bishop the stone has melted and slipped, giving the sculpture the horrifying, disturbing quality of real ravaged flesh.

At a time when once again we’re seeing history and heritage being destroyed before our eyes, it struck a truly sobering note.

THE KUPFERSTICHKABINETT

I spent several hours at Berlin’s museum devoted to works on paper, looking through some of their boxes of Italian drawings in their study room. Despite arriving with a long list of things I wanted to see, I naturally found myself lingering over the more beautiful sheets and by the end of my visit I hadn’t come close to seeing all my desiderata; but that’s the way it is. Part of it is my fault for blithely asking to see their Federico Barocci drawings without realising that Berlin have around 400 of them; and yet they are such fine examples of his draughtsmanship that I’m a little sad I wasn’t able to see more than two boxes’ worth. For me, Barocci is at his most breathtaking in his sumptuous figure studies in black, white and red chalk, the contours drawn in with confident strokes of oiled black and the three colours then blended together into a smooth evocation of rosy living flesh.

Alongside wonderful examples of Barocci’s work, I was also able to see the drawing attributed to Michelangelo (uncharacteristic and very polished) and their Raphaels, including some lovely small-scale cartoons pricked around the contours for transfer. But, as ever, there was one thing I especially wanted to see and that was another item from the Florence in the 1470s catalogue: Verrocchio’s sublime study of the Head of a boy. The young man’s head is tipped back, his eyes raised to heaven and his lips parted in a ravishment of revelation. It is one of the most exquisite of Renaissance drawings and it was such a privilege to be able to simply sit there and stare at it all by myself.

Unfortunately I didn’t get onto the Carracci or Zuccaro drawings, which I’d also hoped to see, but that just gives me an excuse to go back.

During the summer the Kupferstichkabinett puts on light-hearted themed exhibitions and this year they’d chosen a show titled We’re Going to the Dogs, which was still on display when I visited. This brought together images of dogs from across the graphic collection, both prints and drawings. To pick only a few of the hundred-or-so exhibits, there were fine impressions of prints by Dürer and Goltzius and drawings by Carracci and my beloved Giandomenico Tiepolo. But perhaps the most surprising things to find in a German museum were two cartoons by Ronald Searle, showing fox and hounds making a pact to deceive a troop of red-nosed, half-drunken huntsmen.

As a tongue-in-cheek way to broaden their audience, the Kupferstichkabinett had had special visiting days for dogs (and their owners), and reproductions of certain works had been placed at dog-height for canine edification. Alas, I hear the dogs weren’t particularly gripped: for all their artistic quality, the reproductions didn’t smell. I had to grin, though, at such a quirky and creative concept.

THE GEMÄLDEGALERIE

In some ways the Gemäldegalerie was the least thrilling of the museums, but that’s only because there were the fewest surprises. I’d been there before and, although it contains some of my favourite pictures, there wasn’t quite the same sense of walking round a corner and being faced with completely unknown splendours. However that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of wallowing among so many fabulous pictures. Fortunately I managed to be there on a Thursday night when the gallery is open late, so I spent an utterly self-indulgent two hours drifting around the rooms.

Where should I begin? The old favourites? Take Caravaggio: the black-feathered wings and lute and music and discarded armour all serve as little more than framing material for his Amor – the boy grinning with disconcerting candour as he extricates himself from a tumble of sheets – the audacious composition, the lighting and the carefully limited palette of colours all drawing the eye to the centre, to that fearless, honestly-observed adolescent flesh.

And there were new favourites, like Rembrandt’s portrait of an old man wearing an elaborate silver helmet embossed with classical patterns: a meditative pendant to his wonderful Alexander which was recently in the National Gallery’s exhibition, painted with vigorous dabs and dashes of paint, which dissolve the form as you come closer.

Considering the amount of art I’d already seen that day (I’d been at the Kupferstichkabinett), I simply allowed the pictures to wash over my mind and waited to see what made the greatest impression. Particularly memorable pieces included a gorgeous sacra conversazione by Cima da Conegliano, one of my favourite Venetians, in which the reds and blues blaze out beneath a golden mosaic dome of the kind favoured by Bellini in his great altarpieces. There were two pictures by Simon Vouet, a painter who’s recently become another of my favourites: his Venus at her bath blends Rubensian voluptuousness with the clarity and grace of French 17th-century painting (which Vouet would do so much to form); while his portrait of his Roman wife, Virginia da Vezzo, is painted with attractive frankness and a lingering sense of Caravaggesque tenebrism.

And then there were single faces that lodged in my mind. A beautiful young man painted by Giovanni Battista Carraciolo as St Damian looks as if he’s wandered into the Roman 17th century by accident from a Filippino Lippi fresco. In her late self portrait, the painter Anna Dorothea Therbusch shows herself wearing a truly fascinating contraption on her head which allows her to use a lens to paint the more detailed parts of her pictures. And a lovely young man stares seriously out from an early 16th century portrait in bright, crisp colours by Domenico Capriolo.

I have pages and pages of notes on pictures which I loved, and far too many photographs to file away; but this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive post, just a quick jog through a few of my favourites. You could easily spend an entire day in the Gemäldegalerie and even then you wouldn’t be able to appreciate all the pictures. I shall have to return; many times, I expect. But what a luxury to be able to see a little more this time!

THE ALTES MUSEUM

Containing the Greek and Roman collections of the Staatliche Museen, the Altes Museum was the unexpected highlight of my visit. There was a truly dizzying array of treasures, from hoplite helmets to vases, sculptures and everyday artefacts, all well labelled and beautifully lit with special care to bring out the best contrasts in the statues. I could easily have spent far longer in there than the two hours I had available.

Among my favourite exhibits were the Etruscan painted terracotta roof-decoration showing Juno crowned with a deer’s horns and ears, with its startlingly vivid red and blue stripes; the archaic Spartan relief showing worshippers bringing votive gifts to two enthroned heroes; the sculpted busts of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar (neither of whom look remotely as posterity has imagined them); and the contents of the gorgeous treasure chamber displaying Etruscan and Byzantine jewellery in all its jaw-dropping golden splendour. I was also charmed by a little case of painted Tanagra figurines.

You might remember that I fell in love with a terracotta figurine of a pensive woman in the Defining Beauty exhibition? Well, these painted figures are her cousins: made in the same region and suggesting what she might have looked like when originally made, perhaps painted in these same pastel shades of pink and white.

I took many photographs in the Museum and it is hard to decide which pictures to include here, but the majority of the jewellery will have to be sidelined in favour of the mummy portraits from Fayum. The people who gaze out from these painted panels are the members of Roman families who emigrated to this town in Egypt and who gradually acclimatised, but who adopted a very specific form of burial in the first couple of centuries AD. They followed the embalming practices of their adopted country but their mummies were buried with these extraordinarily lifelike portraits placed over their faces.

Attractive and full of personality, these are people you’d like to talk to: the genial-looking man with the unkempt beard and shock of black curls, whose eyes glitter with a suppressed smile; the young girl in her toga with its stripe of purple, a stray curl escaping at the side of her neck; the young matron proudly wearing one string of pearls and another of beads, and discreet but elegant earrings, half-smiling as she gazes out; and the smart young official with a thick neck and not much chin, who stares earnestly at us from beneath the crowning glory of a golden wreath.

The Altes Museum have given them an even greater sense of life by choosing some jewellery from their collection and displaying necklaces and earrings alongside some of the ladies’ portraits which feature similar items. I found them absolutely captivating.

THE NEUES MUSEUM

Confusingly, given the name, the ‘New Museum’ actually displays artefacts that are older than those in the Altes Museum. Here you find the Egyptian collections and, most excitingly for me, what remains of Schliemann’s discoveries at Troy. I’d expected to see slightly more Trojan material, not having realised that much of it was taken back to Russia after the war and is still primarily in Russian museums. However, I was at least able to see the earrings, necklace and diadem which Schliemann’s wife seems to be wearing in the famous photograph; so I was happy.

The highlights of this museum were undoubtedly the Egyptian artefacts and one of those in particular: Nefertiti. I hasten to add that this wasn’t something I’d been especially looking forward to. Indeed, I didn’t really understand why several people had got so excited on my behalf at the thought I would be going to see it. But I have to say that it really is a remarkable thing and the Museum makes the most of it, by displaying it on a plinth in a room all by itself, with various stern looking guards standing around to make sure no one breaks the absolute prohibition of photography.

What’s so remarkable is its naturalism. After the archaic symmetry and lack of individuality that you’ve seen in the earlier rooms of the Museum, the greater realism of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s artistic revolution hits you like an electric current: it undoes everything you think about pre-Hellenistic art. Here, 3,000 years old, is a sculpture that presents you with a vivid image of a distinguished woman in middle age, poised and well-preserved, with just the beginnings of soft bags under her eyes. She has an air of immense self-possession and she stares over the heads of all the tourists clustering round her with a faint air of benevolent irony. She’s marvellous. Having been entirely indifferent before I went, I was absolutely bowled over.

But there is more in the Neues Museum than Nefertiti. Other favourites included a disembodied pair of clasped hands from a statue of Akhenaten and Nefertiti (again from around 1350 BC); a painted relief of a royal couple walking in a garden, he leaning on a staff, she showing off the flowers she has picked (c.1335 BC); and an absolutely marvellous, slightly pugnacious portrait bust of Queen Tiye (c.1355 BC). Tiye was Nefertiti’s mother-in-law and looks splendidly opinionated. I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.

One of the most moving exhibits, though, was another mummy portrait from Fayum, showing a lady named Aline who was buried around 25 AD along with several other members of her family. Three of her children, still wrapped in their bandages with their portraits bound carefully over the area of the face, are in cases beneath her portrait, and her husband’s golden mummy mask (considerably less naturalistic) sits alongside them. Aline moved me even more than the mummy portraits I’d seen at the Altes Museum. The artist has been a little flattering, perhaps, but he’s also captured something simultaneously stern and vulnerable about her. Each side of her face has a subtly different expression and, in place of the confidence, the smiles or the pride of her peers at the Altes Museum, there’s a hint of discomfort.

She, Tiye and Nefertiti are the three faces of this Museum for me: three women, separated by more than 1,300 years from each other and all separated from us by at least 2,000 years, yet all so vividly imaginable that the millennia cease to matter. These are faces which beg to have stories written about them…

So you see: it was a marvellous trip. I know there were many museums that I completely missed and, within the museums that I did visit, there were rooms to which I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have done. But this time – unlike on that school trip, when I was only conscious of how much I hadn’t seen – I knew that I will have the opportunity to go back, and so I was able to savour it all. And what treasures to savour!

6 thoughts on “Three Days in Berlin

  1. Michael Savage says:

    Sounds perfect. One of my favourite cities. Last time I was there, I looked at some of the same drawings, and then to the museum for late night opening too. The catalogues of works lost in the fire make depressing reading … ah, the Signorelli! I wonder how much more we'd appreciate him if the Orvieto frescoes were in Rome or Florence, and the Pan had survived.

  2. Meritxell Tena Ripolles says:

    Thank you so much for sharing! I have great memories of every visit I've done to the Museuminsel, and it's fantastic to see you were impressed by many thing that impressed me too. Too bad about the altar! We need to plan something for 2020! Very fine drawings, but, being a freak of all things Egyptian, I must applaud your choice of pictures. The Akhenaton age is one of my favourites, so unexpected and beautiful in a weird way, so thaks for that. Glad to see you had a great time!

  3. dehggial says:

    My favourite thing in Berlin was the Pergamonmuseum (well, aside from mead drunk from a cow's horn 😀 ). I think I took 200 pictures. Most likely if/when I go back I'll visit again. The Fayum portraits are at the Altes Museum, then? Gorgeous stuff, always liked them, I should see them “in the flesh”.

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