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Classical Pop: A surprising exhibition


In Rome in Palazzo Massimo and Crypta Balbi, a beautiful, curious but also refined exhibition. Classical Pop is the ‘classic’ for everyone.

Fig. 1. An installation by Giovanni Volpato (photo: Teodoro Teodoracopulos).

It’s called Classical Pop and keeps its promises. It is a beautiful exhibition – in Rome at Palazzo Massimo and the Crypta Balbi – curated by Mirella Serlorenzi with Marcello Barbanera and Antonio Pinelli – which explains how serial artistic production is not only modern, but timeless. We’ve always been ‘pop’, if by this we mean artforms that have made seriality their paradigm. Since the world began, there have always been Andy Warhols who have been standard-bearers for ‘technical reproducibility’.

And the whole show is truly ‘pop’. At Palazzo Massimo especially, colourful installations show ancient works as you’ve never seen them before. Placed in a more dynamic context than the traditional uninspiring setting, they reveal all their ‘pop’ soul. Because they were also made in series, starting from the many objects in bronze or clay – even refined ones – that were made using the same mould.

Long live copies!

Of course there was no shortage of true masterpieces, unique works, but what about all the copies that the Romans made of Greek masterpieces to decorate their villas and gardens? Just like today, when Americans and Chinese order marble copies of Michelangelo’s David. So in order to understand what the (long lost) ancient originals were really like, we moderns found ourselves putting together what remains of the copies. Myron’s famous Discobolus – on display – helps us to grasp this mechanism.

However, the Discobolus also serves to remind us that before ancient statues were correctly identified, some copies of them were interpreted and restored as something else. In fact, other body parts were added to some Discobolus statues before its correct identification at the end of the eighteenth century, obtaining figures such as one of the sons of Niobe killed by the arrows of Apollo and Artemis. In short, the torso of a tense athletic figure was rotated to obtain a dying one.

What about all those modern masterpieces inspired by antiquity? Especially after Johann Winckelmann decreed the superiority of ancient Greek art, which we can but imitate. So what about Antonio Canova? But not only; the same images and the same compositional schemes, perhaps rotated, adapted or updated, have come down to the present and will perhaps never abandon us.

People flock to the installations at Palazzo Massimo. They’re amazed, have fun, and take selfies. They certainly appreciate the general sense of an exhibition, but perhaps not its different facets. Too short a break between one show and another means not leaving enough time to admire the works and read the panels that explain their meaning. And they are, after all, panels written in a very complex language.

Volpato, father of Classical Pop

But the exhibition’s true meaning is actually captured at the Crypta Balbi where the discovery of the workshop of Giovanni Volpato, the inventor of the modern souvenir, is narrated. This is where exhibition took its cue: archaeological excavation, conducted during restoration work on a building in Via Urbana in Rome, brought to light the remains of a porcelain workshop, which in the late 18th century made reproductions of ancient objects and modern creations inspired by antiquity.

Of course Volpato produced his souvenirs for wealthy Grand Tour clients, and therefore – although made in series – they were extremely refined. And Volpato also received orders from kings and emperors; he knew how and what to propose and produce so that everyone could have a little taste of ancient Italy in their own home. His strength was due to his good taste, as well as having become a reference point for the Rome of his time. It was he who pointed Canova in the right direction.

The circle closes: with Canova and Volpato, one exhibition refers to another. But the Crypta Balbi  halls are truly fascinating. With figurines and waste trimmings found in the factory, drawings by Volpato himself and Piranesi, and other porcelains and various objects and furnishings in series by Richard Ginori and Fornasetti, inspired by antiquities. And with videos and installations that magnify everything.

Here, however, there is something of a gap between the excellent videos and the panels, which are a bit cryptic for most. Furthermore, the exhibition is not advertised inside the museum, so visitors tend to come across it by chance. And the location of the Via Urbana workshop is not indicated on any map, which would have been very useful. In short, it seems that in both locations the exhibition curators did not put themselves in the visitors’ shoes quite enough. They concentrated on telling and surprising, neglecting certain details. However, the exhibition’s aim is brilliantly achieved; just a little more attention would have sufficed.

Volume 3 - 2019

Museum Archaeology

CC BY 4.0

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

How to cite

Dal Maso, C. 2019. Classical Pop: a surprising exhibition. Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology. 3: pp. 117-118. DOI: https://doi.org/10.23821/2019_6b/