Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Politics and Art at the Power Plant

As an undergraduate at Western Illinois University I was fortunate to be able to take an Ancient Rome seminar taught by a Dr. Brice. I enjoyed the class immensely, despite some embarrassing errors on my part as an ill-prepared undergraduate. Once I had settled in Rome, I decided to email Dr. Brice and ask him if he had any suggestions for how I should use my time and specifically, how I can best explore the themes that I am interested in here in the city (politics and art, schools, and the confessional at St. Maria Liberatrice). He responded to the first topic suggesting that I broaden my scope (presumably historically) in considering expressions of power. In particular, he suggested visiting the Centrale Montemartini. That was a few weeks ago, so he probably assumes that I've forgotten, but I haven't. I had an opportunity to visit yesterday and the following are some musing on my experience.

The Centrale Montemartini is a museum that is part of the Capitoline Museums group because it displays ancient Roman sculpture from the same national collections. The building is the former Giovanni Montemartini Thermoelectric Centre, which was Rome's first power plant. In the museum, art from ancient Rome and the pieces of the power plant are displayed along with one another. Both the sculptures and the plant itself are presented as works of art in their own right and, of course, both represent power; electrical and political.

The most surprising aspect of the museum is probably how well the pieces of the power plant hold up as works of art in and of themselves. The piece on the left is part of the first section of the ground floor. Its description, unlike the descriptions of the sculpture in the museum was only given in Italian and so I am not sure what purpose it served within the power plant. I can only remark similarly on the piece of machinery on the right that I found upstairs in the garden room. The design of the Centrale may appear to be a simple gutted and cleaned power plant with sculpture added at first, but all of these pieces of machinery were left purposefully. Additionally, depending upon where one is in the museum, certain pieces of machinery have been covered. That is, not all of the power plant is on display as art, much of the first floor's apparatuses have either been removed or disguised behind newly constructed walls.

Each of the machines left in the museum as pieces in the gallery represent the artistic form of the implements of electricity production. They all fit into a particular style of purpose-made industrial artifact. That is, they all represent the production of electricity. Moreover, some do so physically in addition to in their purpose. This control panel includes a number of gauges that literally represent power, its current, capacity, and resistance. These representations were designed to be of use for those who control the plant, but looking at the control panel itself there does appear to be a certain artistic form in its production. The gauges relevant to the person adjusting the dials are set at eye and slightly higher than eye-level, while a couple of critical gauges, which may be important enough for more people in the plant to be able to keep track of, are set up high above the panel. This expands my understanding of the representation of power, but not, perhaps, in the way Dr. Brice intended me to.

Most of the sculpture in the Centrale Montemartini is from the late republic and early imperial age in Rome. As you can see above, most of the sculpture is presented in such a way as to use the power plant itself as a staging ground. The interior of the museum that is not the power plant itself is all painted in one of the three colors: white, blue, and green. The downstairs galleries are white, the upstairs power generation room is blue, and the upstairs room containing pieces from the garden like the one immediately above this paragraph is green. The monochrome rooms do their best to allow the ancient art to be juxtaposed with the modern/industrial/found art without any distractions. With many of the pieces, human physical and political power is staged by industrial electrical power. The classical meets the industrial in the clash of white marble in front of black steel.

A plaque at the museum explained that portraiture was one of the most important and widespread artistic representations during the fading days of the Roman Republic. This bust is an example of this work. It is not known who this bust is supposed to be, but since the person it represents was able to have a bust made of himself, he was presumably of some noble standing in Rome. The plaque indicates that the precarious nature of the late republic in Rome made for particularly fierce politics. This in turn enhanced the need for representations of the self and one's power. The increasingly wealth and numbers of the noble class all competing for a few choice political positions may explain the stern countenance of this particular bust.

This is a bust of interest to me personally. It is the emperor Septimius Severus. Aside from being the first emperor of Rome to come from Rome's North African territories and having a landmark arch in his honor still standing in Rome, he was the emperor I was assigned to read about in Dr. Brice's class. I had to read a biography about him and while I do not have my notes here to be sure, I think it was the Birley.

This particularly striking statue is of the Empress Agrippina. She was the wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero. She was also a great granddaughter of Rome's first emperor, Augustus. Being both the wife and mother of an emperor, even if the emperor she mothered was not a good one, made her extremely important in her own right. It is important to note that such a statue is not merely representation of her husband or son's power, it is a display of her own.

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