BMCR 2022.05.30

Collection of classical antiquities Berlin: masterpieces of ancient sculpture. Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Pergamon Museum

, , , Collection of classical antiquities Berlin: masterpieces of ancient sculpture. Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Pergamon Museum. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2020. Pp. 255. ISBN 9783406735004 €24,00.

Classical antiquities in Berlin have had a chequered history. Greek and Roman antiquities began to be collected by the electors of Brandenburg in the 17th century, who purchased them from other private collectors in Europe to decorate their residences. They became accessible to the public thanks to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, who commissioned Karl Friedrich Schinkel to erect the Altes Museum ca. 1830 to house the royal collection of antiquities and old master paintings. The façade of the Altes Museum, a masterpiece of Neoclassical architecture, consists of a stoa with Ionic columns and the centrepiece of the display area is a two-storey rotunda. It is vaguely reminiscent of the Painted Stoa in Classical Athens, except that the Painted Stoa had Doric columns outside and Ionic columns inside, and was decorated with panel paintings, not wall-paintings.

As the collections grew in size, new museums on Museum Island were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries to house them, for example the Neues Museum, a Neoclassical building of the mid-19th century, as well as the more sober Pergamonmuseum, which is dedicated to the finds from Pergamon. The coin collection has now found a home in the Bode Museum, which was recently restored.

World War II wreaked havoc on both the fabric of the buildings and the collections inside them, as many antiquities were dispersed or removed to Russia (then the USSR) as war booty. Whereas the sculptures of the Pergamon Altar were rendered back to Berlin in the late 1950s, the restitution of other objects is still pending. While monumental sculptures stayed in East Berlin, small objects were displayed in the Charlottenburg in West Berlin. After the re-unification of Germany in 1989, most of the antiquities were once again put on display in the Altes Museum and the Pergamonmuseum. The Neues Museum was restored and reopened in the last decade. But the brief moment of unification of all Berlin antiquities on Museum Island passed away, as the Pergamonmuseum was closed for refurbishment in 2013 and is not due to reopen before the mid-2020s. The gigantomachy frieze of the Pergamon Altar is once again inaccessible to the public, while the Telephos frieze can be viewed in a temporary exhibition building named after the Panorama of Pergamon which is on display inside.

The Herculean task of restoring the museums and re-installing the antiquities has been carried out by the Director of the Antikensammlung, Andreas Scholl, and his team since 2010 and is an ongoing project. As an additional offering to museum visitors, Scholl has produced a beautiful picture book on the sculpture collection, available in English, German and Russian. The first chapter of the book serves as an introduction to the current state of the museums and their collection of antiquities. The author is particularly sensitive to installation issues and sets out to explain the principles behind the new display; he also lovingly describes the restored architecture of the Neues Museum and the survival of its neo-classical elements. This reviewer was particularly gratified to see four copies of Herodes Atticus’ Caryatids from his villa on the Appian Way incorporated into the fabric of the doorways of the Niobid Room (figs. 19, 26 and 27).

In the last chapter of the book, the reader can find a detailed account of the convoluted history of the collections and their installations. Scholl pays tribute to the curators who strove to present the antiquities to the public since the 19th century, sometimes under difficult circumstances and rapidly changing conditions. Old photos of previous arrangements trace the development of taste and the aesthetic approaches towards the presentation of antiquities in neo-classical architecture. An early trend favoured the exhibition of restored sculptures, then the restorations were removed in an effort to present the figures in their original condition, while the current trend is to retain the restorations, and display figures like the Meleager and the Spinario as they were restored in the 18th and 19th centuries. In previous displays original marbles were sometimes juxtaposed with plaster casts of sculptures in other museums for educational purposes.[1]

The current arrangement follows the chronological development of Greek and Roman sculpture, mixing the monumental with the small-scale. Scholl’s conversational approach does not follow the format of a catalogue, as there is no bibliography for each entry. The objects are treated as a starting point for a general assessment of the art and archaeology of each period. Dates and dimensions are given in the captions to the figures.

A chapter of the book devoted to Greek sculpture approaches its subject thematically. The sculptures of the archaic period are grouped together as Early Greece regardless of subject-matter. Scholl describes and illustrates a small selection of key figures like the so-called Berlin Goddess, which is actually a funerary statue from Attica, pointing out their salient features, their significance in the history of Greek art and any recent discoveries regarding their technique. Berlin holds an attractive fragment of the so-called Brother-and-Sister stele, an archaic funerary relief from Athens, which is now distributed among Athens, New York and Berlin. A reconstruction drawing of the stele would have been useful here. In addition, the brother holding an aryballos is not really an athlete—exercising in the gymnasium would have been part of his education.

The sculptures of the Classical period are grouped under the sub-headings of gods and heroes, votive offerings, masterpieces and funerary monuments. This section contains both Greek originals like the Giustiniani stele and Roman copies of significant Classical works like the portrait of Pericles and the wounded Amazon. The Greek theatre is represented by a Roman copy of the statue of an actor in silen costume, while the Western Greeks feature the iconic seated goddess of Taranto. As for the Hellenistic period, Scholl has chosen to comment on a number of less familiar sculptures, large and small, like the torso of a fisherman and a lavishly painted terracotta figurine of a lady. The marble torso of a dancer is an interesting case of a figure whose date fluctuates between the fourth and the second century B.C. Geominy is said to have advocated again a late Classical date but his opinion is undocumented.

The chief monument of the Hellenistic period, the gigantomachy frieze of the Pergamon Altar, even though not on display, receives detailed treatment and is well illustrated. Scholl seizes the opportunity to discuss his interpretation of the altar as an allusion to the palace of Zeus on Mt. Olympus.[2] Very little is said of the Telephos frieze, which is actually on view.

Cypriot antiquities are displayed in the Neues Museum. Etruscan art can be found in the Altes Museum, while Roman art is divided between the Altes Museum and the Neues Museum. The kouros of Idalion is the token Cypriot sculpture of this book, while Etruria is represented mostly by its funerary sculpture. Roman sculpture is discussed in a separate section, comprising sarcophagi, portraits, reliefs, and copies and variants of classical masterpieces. Among the sculptures highlighted in this section are the Meleager and the Spinario, both heavily restored. The Spinario is of particular interest as a reflection of Roman taste in eclectic figures. A small selection of imperial portraits provides an opportunity to comment on the personalities of Hadrian and Caracalla. The juxtaposition of the portraits of Caesar and Cleopatra, made separately but united for the first time in this Museum, serves as an example of the history of the Berlin collection of antiquities, as Caesar was acquired by Frederick the Great, while Cleopatra became part of the collection when it was housed in West Berlin. The fact that Cleopatra’s head was gilded, however, cannot be attributed to posthumous deification because the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt was dissolved shortly before her death. As she was deified in her lifetime and assimilated to Isis, the gilding should come as no surprise. The head was probably found in Italy, erected during her visit to Rome in the last two years of Caesar’s life.

This very attractive and informative book is supplemented by a bibliography listing mainly catalogues of the collections and books on their presentation history. It also includes floor plans of the Museums to facilitate the visitor. In the long run, the book will serve as another document to the long and eventful history of the antiquities in Berlin.


[1] The plaster cast collection is now housed in a separate museum near Charlottenburg.

[2] See A. Scholl, “The Pergamon altar: architecture, sculpture, and meaning,” in C. A. Picón and S. Hemingway (eds.), Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, 44-53. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.