It so often happens that we discover unheralded works of art in those museums that escape the attention of tourists. Until some time ago, I for one had never actually set foot in the Maffeiano Lapidary Museum in Verona, which boasts treasures of Greek and Roman art and is just an hour away from Milan by train.
It is one of the oldest public museums in Europe and takes its name from the Marquis Scipione Maffei, its founder and a prominent figure in eighteenth-century Verona.
A staunch supporter of an enlightened Catholicism, Maffei was a passionate humanist. He made regular journeys to Europe, collaborated with the leading Italian playwrights of the time, and never ceased his studies in ancient history and epigraphy.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the Marquis was also among those who sought to give a new meaning to aristocratic privileges, taking an active part in community life. Created with this impassioned sense of civic duty, the Maffeiano Museum was founded with the aim of enriching the cultural life of Verona’s residents, offering them an astounding collection of stones, inscriptions, funerary reliefs and urns, and sarcophagi from the Etruscan, Greek and Roman periods.
The museum is located at the Philharmonic Academy, a seventeenth-century building overlooking Corso Porta Nuova and the Arena in a central yet secluded location. Past the ticket office, visitors can take the lift and be transported to the very origins of Western culture in the heart of Ancient Greece.
The artifacts in this first room originate from Asia Minor and date from between the 2nd century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. Unlike sculptures, funerary art can tell us much more about the life of ancient societies, showing us a humanity that is diverse as it is moving, with each piece telling a particular story.
There is, for example, the story of the young Gaius Silius Batillus, a mimic actor who disappeared in Attica when he was just a child and who is portrayed with his dog. We see Martha, a young woman from the city of Rhenea who died aged 22 of an incurable disease and who is depicted while offering the typical funeral greeting (a handshake) to her father Demosthenes. More than simply serving as a poignant memory of those who are no longer with us, the stones celebrate the life of the individual, caught in his or her absolute uniqueness.
Moving on to the Etruscan-Roman Hall, the pugilistic theme permeates the entire first room, which is located on the upper floor and overlooks the inner courtyard of the building. Soldiers, centaurs, satyrs and Pankration boxers remind us that the Roman Empire was built on the dust of battlegrounds, arenas and the heavyweight clashes between gladiators.
Yet, behind this self-celebratory image of Imperial Rome there is another, much more private image; one which is connected with the sarcophagi decorations of wealthy families. One of them, depicted on a frieze, tells of the myth of Phaethon, the son of the sun god, who fell from his father’s chariot and who is mourned by the gods. The quality of the relief, dating from around the second century A.D., is truly remarkable.
Even more impressive for its realism is the sarcophagus of an unnamed Roman boy, who is immortalized in stone while he dreams about his chariot races. And then there are the Etruscan banquets, the magistrates and merchants, the devoted wives and the ill-fated daughters.
Every centimetre of this small museum is a novel in itself that narrates the day-to-day life of two millennia ago.
There are no more rooms, so I conclude by visiting the inner garden. Divided into two side chambers culminating in a majestic vestibule, this space was the Marquis’s very first collection. Walking amid the colonnades that mark out the two side halls, I see the faces of ancient Veronese men and women whose features you might just as easily recognise on people’s faces in the streets of Verona today.
And just behind the six columns of the vestibule I can also see inscriptions, marble floral motifs, lions and winking angels that once adorned the streets and squares of Roman Verona.
Once the Republic of Venice collapsed in 1797, Napoleonic troops plundered the Maffeiano Museum, taking several artifacts with them to Paris. If you happen to visit the Louvre, you might be interested to know that some of its ancient art comes from Verona. If you are in Milan on a spring afternoon and have never seen Pompeii, then perhaps it is worth making a trip to the Museum of the Marquis Scipione Maffei: it truly is a small compendium of the ancient world. The Museum is open daily except Monday, from 8.30 am to 2 pm, and tickets cost € 4.50.
–Giulia Zanoletti is a freelance journalist who has lived in Milan and Rome writing about cinema, theatre, and opera. With an eye for guerrilla marketing, she loves Italian culture, French cinema, and British irony.
Concierge tip: As mentioned above, the Museo Lapidario Maffeiano is just an hour away from Milan by train. So why not combine a visit to Verona with a stay at Carlton Hotel Baglioni, so that you can also immerse yourself in EXPO 2015?