Classical archaeology meets industrial architecture. Bet you’ve never heard that one before…Rome is a place in which the Emperor Trajan’s forum, two Baroque churches, a nineteenth century monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and about 3000 vespas all fit into one piazza. So no wonder a temporary exhibition displaying classical artefacts in a disused electrical plant is still there 15 years on. Rome is a city that likes to mix it all up.
La Centrale Montemartini (or The Montemartini Power Plant for us anglophones) is tucked behind the busy, I-think-I-need-to-be-a-child-of-michael-jackson-to-survive-this-pollution Roman road that is Via Ostiense. Unlike its mother museums on the Capitoline Hill, the approach is certainly not a romantic one. As you enter through the gates of number 106 Via Ostiense, the gasometers straight ahead of you remind you that this is in fact not Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, but an electrical plant.
So why have some of the world’s most important Roman artefacts been subjected to these industrial surroundings? After Rome had been granted its status as capital of the newly unified Italy in 1871, in the early twentieth century it was plunged into two decades of fascist rule during which excavating became ‘the thing’ to do. In this period, vast amounts of Roman artefacts were found and housed in the Capitoline museums. But in 1997, renovations were needed in all three of the museum’s buildings, and some of the exhibits were left homeless, needing somewhere to reside. They were looking for somewhere big and a setting that would not take away from the power of ancient Rome, so where better than the Montemartini Power Plant? Ironic that artefacts dating as far back as the fifth century BC can bring an old power plant back to life.
After asking for an audio guide and being told that audio guides they do not have but that an Italian guide was starting, I politely declined. Instead, I entered the Sala Colonne, which exhibits artefacts from the Republican era (pre-Augustan for those of you ignorant folk). Actually, if you are one of those ignorant folk this exhibition is right up your strada, with informative boards meeting you on every turn. I found these a little too informative. Not only because I am a slow reader and so for half an hour I was stuck in the Sala Colonne with just the seated museum guard (always an awkward one) for company, but because in a museum you want to be looking not reading. Short, sharp indications of what you see before you is what I’m all about. Besides, it is the setting of these magnificent artefacts that blows your mind more than anything.
As you enter the Sala Macchine, you become really aware of your surroundings. Busts, full sculptures and temple pediments are the actors for a stage set of black painted steel machinery. To give you an idea of this backdrop, take the date of the factory’s inauguration: 1912. What other significant historical event happened in that year? That’s right, the Titanic. So if we take the scene when Leo and Kate (the event is the film right?) make their way down into the engine area of the ship, this is exactly like the backdrop we have for the museum. It’s the Queen at Arcadia, Glastonbury. This is the kind of contrast I’m getting at.
The final room, the Sala Caldaie, houses some fantastic works of art from the horti or imperial gardens that were once dotted around the city. I liked that most of the findings were discovered when building train stations, tram tracks or tunnels for cars. In the museum, we are constantly playing between old and new, inanimate and animate, inoperative and operative.
Although La Centrale Montemartini is a little bit off the beaten track (a positive in Rome, surely?) I would urge the first time traveller to the city to hop on the number 23 bus and spend a couple of hours marvelling at the concept of Rome in just one building.
For more information on the museum and directions how to get there, click here.
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