thomas m wilson

Altes Museum and Neus Museum

August 18th, 2023

One of the world’s great museum entrances has to be the Altes Museum in Berlin. Stone eagles sit in a row above the entablature, and 18 ionic columns line the portico. A huge granite basin sits in front. This was the king Friedrich Wilhelm the thirds idea, and his architect Schinkel realised it. Built by 1830, it was a relatively recent idea that the middle classes, newly confident, should have access to great culture.

The granite basin in front of the Altes Museum is 7 metres across. They were obviously looking to go to the level of the ancient Egyptians in scale for this one.
You then enter a great rotunda, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, and ringed by statues of the Greek gods.
Next you would have walked through a doorway and are greeted by what is in my opinion the jewel of German archeology: the boy praying, an original Greek bronze.

The ‘boy praying’ statue is from around 300 BC, and was found in Rhodes. By 1503 it had ended up in Venice, and then cycled through the hands of aristocrats around Italy, was owned by Charles the first in England at one point, and by French royalty later. Eventually Fredrich the Great had it at his palace in Potsdam where he could see it from his desk in his study. Luckily in a more democratic century it is accessible to all of us plebs, if you make it to Berlin.

The Neus Museum next door was the idea of the next king, Wilhem the fourth. It was badly hit in the war, and rebuilt in part, leaving the bullet holes on the outside, in the early 2000s.

In the Neus Museum next door I was struck by the splendour of this marble statue of Helios, god of the sun. It had to be lowered by a helicopter through the ceiling! Its eyes are piercing.
The second of the great bronzes held by Germany, Xanten Boy. This figure would have carried a tray full of luxurious foods.

The sculpture above, Xanten Boy, was found by fishermen on the banks of the Rhine river near Xanten in southern Germany in 1858. He wears a crown of grapes, flowers, pomegranate and fruits of the field. He would have been present holding a tray at a Roman banquet. He probably comes from the first century AD. Perhaps he was dropped into the river when someone had stolen him and was making off. Imagining the bronze sculpture in place in a Roman banqueting room you start to get an idea of how old is the idea of presenting beautiful food and drink to one’s guests as a gesture of abundance and celebration.