Look at This, Not at That!

If you visit a museum dedicated to a subject that you know little about, one thing quickly becomes evident: the biggest frustration is not knowing what to look at!

IMG_5140The fact is, even if you have all the time and patience in the world, you’re simply not going to spend time looking at every single item in the entire museum. You naturally want to concentrate on the most important pieces–but if you’re not an expert in the field, how do you even know which ones those are?

This statue is a case in point. Located in one of Rome’s many museums of antiquities, it generally is ignored by tourists. After all, the museum is chock-full of full-length, life-sized statues of pagan gods like this Athena–so why stop to pay particular attention to this one? But if you fall prey to that mentality, you’re going to miss something of tremendous historical interest!

Unlike many of the statues in Rome, this one was sculpted by a Greek, which normally means two things: (1) it’s much older; and (2) it’s of higher-than-average artistic quality. So right away, this statue of Athena merits a closer look than most of the other works in the museum.

But there’s more! This particular statue is known to be a close copy of the famous statue of Athena carved by the great Phidias, which used to stand in the Parthenon in Athens. Phidias (400’s B.C.) was one of the greatest sculptors of ancient Greece–which you have to admit is saying a lot. And the works produced by Phidias for the famous Parthenon were among the finest artistic works the ancient world ever saw. Tragically, a lot of the sculpture from the Parthenon has now been lost; most of what remains was saved from certain destruction in the early 1800’s by Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Understanding the artistic importance of the Parthenon sculptures, Elgin went to tremendous lengths to obtain legal permission from the Ottomans to ship them back to England–at his own personal expense. Today they can be found in the British Museum.IMG_5142

But Elgin couldn’t save everything. The original of this particular statue is long gone, and only a couple of copies still exist today. This one, sculpted in ancient times by a Greek named Antiochos (who carved his name into Athena’s skirts, as seen here), is considered an exceptionally fine and faithful replica of Phidias’ original. If you stop to look closely at the precise yet graceful folds of Athena’s clothing, you’ll soon realize–even if you know nothing about sculpture!–that this is of much, much better quality than the bulk of the ancient statuary housed in this museum.

If you’re visiting on your own, however, and struggling with visual overload and general fatigue, do you think you would stop to look closely? Or would you walk right past without a second glance, as most tourists do every day? This is why you’ll get much more out of your visit, if you’re accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, who can tell you frankly, “Look at this! Don’t look at that!”