Before I went to Rome, I never really associated it with modern art. The grandeur of the Colosseum, churches filled with Michelangelo’s and Donatello’s and pizza on every corner were closer to my expectations. Sure, Rome’s got all that, but after a few days of hustle and bustle, it's too much. I started looking for quiet, out-of-the-way places and found something I didn’t expect – contemporary art.
I love art from the late 19th and early 20th century. Give me a surrealist painting by Dali or de Chirico any day over a Renaissance painting of the Madonna (no offense Mary). Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the talent, but I can only take so much Renaissance art. It just doesn’t make my heart go pitter-patter like modern art does. This is why I was pleasantly surprised when I visited the Vatican Museums.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are huge, but certainly not the first place one would expect to find the works of modern masters. There are dozens of rooms bursting with paintings and sculpture, but for me, the Scala collection was amazing. Added in 1973, the Scala collection includes works from artists such as Miro, Chagall and Rodin. In fact, there is a small bronze cast of The Thinker in the collection. It was a small, and I was rather disappointed, because I always thought that it was massive. Later, I discovered that there are many plaster casts and bronze versions of The Thinker housed around the world.
The crowning glory of contemporary art in the Vatican is the amazing bronze sculpture housed in the center courtyard. It was made by artist Arnaldo Pomodoro and is called Sphere within Sphere. The uniqueness and scale of this modernist piece makes it the perfect back drop for a memorable photo. Pomodoro has other pieces at the U.N. and Trinity College in Dublin.
If you decide to visit the Vatican Museums, make sure you book online otherwise you stand in a huge lineup. Rome is busy and the Vatican is the busiest. Despite this, there are always spots where you can hide away from the crowds and I had ample elbow room while visiting the Scala collection. When you book your ticket you must pick a time. I strongly recommend that you arrive early as usually hundreds of people are roaming the streets, and that’s on a quiet day.
Chiostro del Bramante
For the truly adventurous, another great place for exceptional art is the Chiostro del Bramante. This fabulous museum in nestled in the corner of an obscure, winding street. I used my very poor Italian no less than four times to find the place, but I’m glad I persevered. The marvelous works of the Dutch artist, M.C. Escher, were waiting inside. Not only is the museum housed within the walls of a historic chapel, there’s also a stunning courtyard and accommodation available for those who want to experience Rome at its very best.
Once inside I couldn’t believe how many of his works that I had never seen and I could follow his artistic progression through time. His early detailed surreal landscapes are interesting, but his later woodcut prints of impossible architecture are what earned him his acclaim. All of his work is finely crafted and impossibly intricate. The gallery was not crowded and the work, diverse and fascinating. Surprisingly, Escher also did installations that were just as inventive and painstakingly perfect as his prints. The Escher show is on until February 22nd. Consider using your GPS to find the place as it is well-hidden.
National Gallery of Contemporary Art
Another must visit is the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, or National Gallery of Contemporary Art. This gem is in behind its more famous cousin, the Villa Borghese. The Villa Borghese is a sprawling park and a well-appointed museum packed with Bernini sculpture. The Borghese Park is so large that they actually rent bicycles, pedal cars and segways to get around and I suspect many people miss the National Gallery because of exhaustion.
This museum really touched me because it not only has a massive array of modern art, but it also felt so Italian. Let me elaborate. What I love about Rome is that art is not just on the walls; it is a part of life. From the mirrored floor at the entry strewn with shards on to endless galleries, each one was full of surprises. Van Gogh smiling, action-packed Futurist paintings and everyday people immortalized in bronze are nestled beside a small café serving cappuccino and biscotti. The chairs are chic and the decor without clutter.
It was clear that many people had just stumbled on the museum and they loved it. Perhaps it was Renaissance overload or the calming nature of the place, but I think it was more than that. I think many people discovered anyone can find a piece of contemporary art they like in Rome.