Friday, 29 May 2009

10 must-see museums in Europe


A World of culture awaits you
10 of the most interesting museums in Europe. One lifetime. You can do it!


1. Mauritshuis; The Hague, Netherlands
The Mauritshuis does not hold an extensive collection unlike some museums in the list, about 730 paintings, 50 miniatures and 20 sculptures. However, what it does exceptionally well is play to its strengths - in this case, pictures from the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. Housed in one of the most beautiful examples of elegant 17th-century Dutch classical architecture, the museum is bordered on two sides by water, with a refreshingly calm 18th-century interior (the original interior was destroyed by fire). Seeing the works on display here makes for a warm and intimate experience.

Dutch painting of this period benefits from being viewed in such an environment, at a leisurely pace, so its narrative and symbolism can be unraveled slowly. Three pieces in particular have ripened in this palace on the pond. Vermeer's 'View of Delft' miraculously handles real light and atmosphere in paint and conveys an overwhelming sense of rest; at a quick glance it also appears to describe the museum and its immediate environs. The acute contrasts between dark and light in Rubens' 'Old Woman and Boy with Candles' makes for a intensely intimate work and one the artist was personally and particularly fond of (he never sold it). Finally, Vermeer's 'Girl With a Pearl Earring' features one of the most magnetic gazes in art. In fact, you may spend most of your time in this museum staring at this exceptional work.

2. Museo Nacional del Prado; Madrid, Spain
You can't blame the Prado for beaming with national pride. It contains the world's greatest collection of Spanish paintings (from the 12th to 19th centuries), though only a third of its artwork is ever on display. The masters Velasquez and Goya are especially well represented, yet the Prado's collection of foreign works is strong too, attesting to the historical strength of Spain. For centuries Spain ruled the Low Countries and some parts of Italy, and strong works from these locations are present: Rogier can der Weyden's 'Deposition,' Rubens' 'St.George and the Dragon,' Brueghel the Elder's nightmarish 'The Triumph of Death' and Bosch's rightly famous 'Garden of Unearthly Delights' are each more than worth the entrance fee alone. It's best, however, to take the opportunity and stay in the company of Goya and Velasquez for the duration of your stay. Don't miss 'The Third of May' and 'Saturn Devouring his Children' by Goya and Velasquez's 'The Surrender of Braeda' and his famous oil 'The Handmaidens.'

3. Kunsthistorisches Museum; Vienna, Austria
Like the Medici in Florence, the Hapsburgs of Vienna were wealthy, enthusiastic patrons and collectors of art. Their legacy is one that sits Vienna on top of the pile of the richest art cities in Europe. Today their mighty collections of royal carriages, decorative arts and sculpture, coins, a castle, books, armor, musical instruments, European paintings, as well as Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Near Eastern antiquities, are spread throughout eight buildings across the city. You will be rewarded handsomely for paying particular attention to the tiny stone 'Venus of Willendorf,' a universal image of nature and nurture felt as acutely today as it would have been upon its creation 30,000 years ago. Elsewhere lie superior Titians, Mantegna's physically perfect 'Saint Sebastian,' masterpieces by Brueghel the Elder (the largest collection in the world), a flourish of Rubens and a dozen Holbeins. Farther along still are the 10th-century imperial crown, the sumptuous carved-onyx 'Gemma Augustea' and the star of any celestial table setting, Benvenuto Cellini's colossus in miniature, the golden 'Saltcellar,' fit (and created) for a king.

4. The National Archaeological Museum; Athens, Greece
This museum holds the greatest collection of ancient Greek art on Earth. This immeasurably valuable asset can be said to translate into substance the birth of modern Western thought concerning the human condition and our place in the universe. It is in these remnants of a bygone age that we see the birth of the concept of the importance of man as an individual amongst all the other beings of creation. These ideas are evident in the museum's fifth-century B.C. bronze Zeus, perfectly poised to throw a lightning bolt; modeled so as to be freestanding, he is the result of close observation ' the study appears to be of a god, but in truth it is the study of man. Other wonders include the gold funerary masks of Mycenae (such as the one famously misidentified as Agamemnon's), the sensitive fifth-century B.C. relief of 'Demeter giving seeds of grain to Tripolemos,' the classical sculpture of Nereid riding a horse (her garments blowing in the wind), and the pottery collection ' the finest in Greece.

5. The State Hermitage Museum; St. Petersburg, Russia
Spending just a second in front of each piece in the Hermitage's collection would take up over three weeks of your time. Its 2 million items are spread throughout five palaces built over five centuries. As with the Prado and Uffizi, it's best to stick with what's uniquely local (despite excellent Picassos, Matisses and Italian High Renaissance paintings). Focus on the artwork and artifacts of the sixth- to fourth-century B.C. tribes who populated this part of the world and buried their leaders and gentry deep underground, which is why so many of its antiquities survive and in such good condition. These Sarmatians and Scythians left behind awesomely decorated everyday and ceremonial items, like saddles and wall hangings, as well as what forms the superior core to Czar Peter the Great's famous Gold Treasury. The latter contains gold combs, bottles and shield emblems that display the most remarkable skill ' a triumph of detail and storytelling over size. The Hermitage's other specialty lies in the halls of Russian furniture and decorative arts. There you will find an unusual collection of tapestries and embroideries of courtly portraits. Translated from oil paintings, they are though no less lacking in life and detail, as one might expect.


6. Vatican City
The Vatican is both a religious and cultural Mecca. It contains some of the finest works of Italian art from the Renaissance and High Renaissance, a.k.a., the finest works ever produced. The dome was designed by Michelangelo, the portico created by Bernini, and St. Peter was martyred here. Fact and legend coalesce on this spot, making it one of the most overwhelming and intoxicating places on Earth. Of the tens of thousands of works on display (spread throughout around 1,400 rooms), a few stand out from the others: The 'Belvedere Torso' and marble 'Laocoon' are both staple models, called upon by artists throughout art history. Bernini's 'Baldacchino' is a magnificent marriage of political and religious aims, uniting Old Testament wisdom, Constantine's Christian tradition and a triumphal church under the guidance of the Barberini family (who paid for it). The Christ in Michelangelo's 'Pieta' is not dead, but simply in a peaceful state of repose awaiting his return and triumph ' look closely, blood still pulses through his veins. Finally, the Italian wonder of the world: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes. It is testament to the artist's skill and dexterity that he turned this 'nuisance side-project' (he considered his time better spent with marble) into a masterpiece, and no matter how good the reproductions you've seen, nothing can match standing in this room and feeling the great weight of human existence around you.

7. Galleria degli Uffizi; Florence, Italy
What the Prado is to Spanish art, the Uffizi is to Italian. But more so. It too has a small, but strong collection of foreign works, and some of its native creations are split between other institutions, like the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris. However, the emphasis here is definitely on Italian painting, in particular from the Renaissance. Anyone living in the Western world who produced or appreciated art at the time (or largely since) would have looked to the works by artists in this collection for inspiration or instruction. The collection was born and cultivated by the enormously philanthropic Medici family over a number of centuries. The fruits of their generous patronage are beguiling. Having to single any works out is painful, but Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus' and 'Primavera' stand out as colorful gems ' the latter chock-full of political and religious intrigue ' as do many of the earlier works on display: From a technical perspective, Cimabue's 'Madonna in Majesty' and Giotto's enthroned Madonna both act as hinges in Western art; their vitality and presence ensured that high religious art would never look the same again.

8. The Natural History Museum; London
In the late 19th century, the British national collection was split two ways: one half became the British Museum (the museum of all mankind); the other became the Natural History Museum (the museum of all creation). Here, in the Natural History's 70 million or so specimens, lies the evidence of what man has learned of all facets of creation over the last 250 years. So important is this collection, that parts of it have been presented over the centuries as evidence used to debate and argue the age of the planet and the evolution of life. The specimen of cacao used in the Cadbury Brothers' original recipe for chocolate is here, as are Darwin's Galapagos finches and the plants from Capt. Cook's expeditions. Over half the meteorites that have hit the planet are here too, alongside complete dinosaur skeletons and rare examples of dinosaur skin. The building was purpose built; a lush Romanesque fa├žade that continues inside. It is filled with fitting, rustling ornamentation, such as birds, animals, leaves and flowers. Temporary exhibitions range from contemporary art to activities that replicate life in the freezing Antarctic. Far from being a dusty dinosaur, the museum today carries out an invaluable function as a center of interactive research and learning about vital topics like the state of global warming worldwide and the effect it has on the planet and its inhabitants. It is a museum important as much for our past as for our present and future.


9. The Louvre; Paris
The Louvre is France's finest cultural institution, and one that bares its history on its sleeve. You can enter via a contemporary glass pyramid, walk around its 12th-century fortress perimeter underground, follow the ornate stairways of the 16th-century kings between galleries and, thanks to the 18th-century French Revolution, walk through nearly every room in the building. Although there are world-famous pieces here, it is well worth taking the time to adjust yourself to each room and corridor that you enter, as there is much to take note of that many miss. For example, after viewing the 'Venus de Milo,' notice the ceiling of the small room beyond; it will tell you more about the Venus' influence on art history than the sculpture's explanatory plaque. To the right of the large crowd staring at the 'Victoire de Samothrace,' you'll find yourself alone with a delicious Botticelli fresco ignored in the corridor's shadows ' it's all puppy-dog eyes and fumbling toes. On your way to join the queue to get to within 8 feet of the 'Mona Lisa,' stop at the clump of 'Venus and child' pictures by Botticelli, Lippi and Ghirlandaio. The subject and composition are identical in each, but notice the joy in the sly Lippi smile, the near photo-realism of Ghirlandaio's faces and the sensitive study of a woman lost in Botticelli's rosy-cheeked, sullen virgin. There is much of worth to see here, and taking your time you will be all the better for it.

10. The British Museum; London
A quick glance at what the British Museum has lost will tell you much about the importance of what remains; its natural history and library collections alone formed separate institutions, each taking their place amongst the greatest of their kind in the world. Left behind were objects of the highest quality of magnificence, beauty, awe, genius, reverence, complexity and great age. Yet it is perhaps the presence of the human and everyday (vain, simple, honest, contemporary), in amongst the greatest treasures imaginable, that provides the visitor with the crucial perspective and thus the tools with which to come to a personal understanding of what is on display. A (free-of-charge) visit to this museum is vital if you want to learn where not only our culture, but others too have come from, and where it is we each look to be going. In the words of its current director, in the British Museum "you can locate your culture in the context of the whole world." What a rare blessing that is, indeed.
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