Of Gods and Heavenly Bodies – the Rotunda in the Altes Museum

Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Altes Museum houses the Collection of Classical Antiquities of the Berlin State Museums. At the heart of the Museum is the magnificent space of the Rotunda.

1. The Rotunda

When you approach the Altes Museum in Berlin, climb the stairs and cross the vestibule you enter straight into the museum’s most spectacular space.

This is the Rotunda, a circular room 22 metres in height over two stories.

It is crowned by a cupola decorated with ornamental cassettes and with an opening allowing daylight to enter from above

The red-gold cassettes display winged protective spirits known as genii...

...signs of the Zodiac such as Scorpio and Libra …

...and decorative rosettes.

The fourteen statues on the second storey of the Rotunda are set back into shallow niches, allowing visitors to walk around the gallery and making the statues appear to retreat into the wall. The figures on the second storey are smaller than those on the main floor, making the room seem higher.

On the main floor of the Rotunda there are sixteen statues, placed between the columns to make space to walk around them. Thus they are part of the architecture and yet at the same time works deserving appreciation in their own right. The statues depict gods of Antiquity, Roman copies of famous Greek sculptures. The figures facing each other along the central axis of the room make reference to each other and form a counterpart.

To the left and right of the central door are statues of Nike, the goddess of victory, known to the Romans as Victoria. Despite being carved in marble they seem to hover in the air. They hold laurel wreaths in their hands.

Aesculapius is the god of healing, with a snake wound around his staff.

Next to Asclepius is his daughter Hygíeia (Salus). She is the personification of health.

Hermes (Mercury) is the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology. He is also the god of commerce.

Hera (Juno) is the mother of the gods and the protector of marriage.

Silvanus, the Roman god of woods and gardens, carries various fruits in a cloth.

Artemis (Diana), the goddess of the hunt, reaches for the quiver on her back to pluck an arrow for her bow, which has unfortunately been lost.

Echoing the Nike statues, two almost identical statues face each other to the left and right of the entrance door to the Rotunda, satyrs (fauns), nature spirits from the entourage of Dionysus, leaning against a tree-trunk.

Aphrodite (Venus) has laid her clothes aside and covers her nakedness with her hands.

Dionysus (the Roman Bacchus), the god of wine and agriculture, is leaning on his staff.

Demeter (Ceres) is the goddess of fertility. In one hand she holds wheat sheaves and in the other a torch.

Apollo, the Antique god of wisdom and divination, is depicted here as a cithara player and leader of the Muses.

Then comes the goddess of chance and luck, Tyche (Fortuna).

Next to her is the statue of Zeus (Jupiter). The father of the gods and ruler of Olympus is flanked by an eagle.

2. History of Altes Museum

The Altes Museum is one of Germany’s earliest public museums. The museum building and the Collection of Classical Antiquities it houses today both look back on an eventful history.

The Elector of Brandenburg first started collecting Classical art in Berlin 350 years ago. His collection later grew into the Kunstkammer, the royal art collection in the Hohenzollerns’ City Palace. It included excavated archaeological treasures and gifts exchanged with other princes.

In 1806 the Classical artworks were taken to Paris as Napoleon Bonaparte’s spoils of war and displayed in the Musée Napoléon in Paris. One of the most important exhibition pieces was the ‘Praying Boy’.

The antiquities were returned to Berlin in 1815. But the concept of the Museé Napoléon was retained as the model for planning a ‘civic’ art museum in Berlin. In 1823 King Friedrich Wilhelm III issued a cabinet order for the building of a public museum in the Lustgarten by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel‘s museum was a major example of Classical architecture. His drawings show the main view of the building; its forms, such as the mighty columns along the front, refer to Classical Greek architecture.

The Royal Museum in the Lustgarten was opened in 1830 in a prominent position directly opposite the City Palace. As more museums were built on Berlin’s Museum Island, it was renamed the ‘Altes Museum’ (Old Museum).

3. An atmospheric space

Karl Friedrich Schinkel paid special attention to the Rotunda. It was his intention that it should be not only the spatial centre of the building but also its spiritual core.

Schinkel planned a dignified room as the heart of the museum, which would be like the inner sanctum of a temple where treasures are kept. The circular shape of the room and the cupola of the Rotunda are reminiscent of the early 2nd Century Pantheon in Rome. The Pantheon exemplifies Classical architecture of the Imperial period and has served as a blueprint in every age since the Mediaeval period that has modelled itself on Classical architecture. Schinkel himself referred to the Rotunda in his drawings as the ‘Pantheon’.

The Rotunda is based on a Romantic-Classical idea - Schinkel intended that the first room on entering the museum should put visitors in the mood for entering the Collection of Classical Antiquities.

“This place is first entered on coming in from the outer hall, and here the view of the beautiful, sublime room must make the visitor receptive and inclined to enjoy and recognise what it is that the building holds.”
Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Schinkel also took great care in placing the sculptures and arranging them in the room. Together with other works chosen from the royal palaces for the Altes Museum, the statues were brought to the sculpture workshop of Christian Daniel Rauch and Friedrich Tieck in Berlin for restoration in 1824.

In the 19th Century, “restoration” of antiquities included not only cleaning and stabilising the statues but also replacing missing parts. Additions already made in the 18th Century which had become shabby or were now considered out of fashion were simply removed. Sculptors and art theoreticians debated and came to case-by-case decisions as to whether and to what extent ancient statue fragments should be “restored”. While irretrievably changing the original ancient fragments had to be avoided there was nonetheless a tendency to create a visually uniform image to make the subject being depicted recognisable again.

The statue of Nike was restored in the workshop of Christian Daniel Rauch. The missing head and the neck of the ancient goddess of victory were replaced along with her right arm holding a laurel wreath, and she was also given new wings made of copper, which were later removed

4. A room in changing times

Since the museum first opened, the Praying Boy has been a favourite of Berlin museumgoers, visible through the open central door of the Rotunda to lead visitors in to the main floor of the Collection of Classical Antiquities.

166 ancient works in the Sculpture Gallery were exhibited in the Rotunda and the Hall of Heroes, and later in the Roman Room. Classical ceramics, bronzes, terracotta objects, coins, gemstones and jewellery were shown in the Antiquarium in the base storey.

The Rotunda was and still is today a place for special exhibitions in the Altes Museum. A drawing made in 1886 shows visitors in the Domed Hall, in which the frieze panels of the Great Pergamon Altar were first shown to the public. Today the panels are firmly housed in the Pergamon Museum. The display in the Rotunda was constantly changed during the subsequent decades.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 the Altes Museum was closed and the collections were moved to the museum cellars, the Reichsmünze (mint building) and into flak bunkers. Damaged by a bomb in 1943, the building burned out completely in 1945.

Between 1958 and 1966 the building was restored using Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s original plans. The Rotunda and the decorative paintings in the cupola are from this period too. Only the columns with capitals from the early 19th Century still have any great remnants of the stucco from the original building period.

In 1999 all the statues originally displayed on the main floor were completely restored, and in the following year the sculptures on the upper floor, so that today the Rotunda again radiates its old magnificence.

Credits: Story

Texts based on:

Wolf Dieter Heilmeyer, Huberta Heres und Wolfgang Maßmann: Schinkels Pantheon. Die Statuen der Rotunde im Alten Museum, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2004. In: Die Antikensammlung. Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Pergamonmuseum. Auswahl der ausgestellten Werke
Hrsg. von Agnes Schwarzmaier, Andreas Scholl und Martin Maischberger, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2016 (übersetzte und überarbeitete Fassung der 4. Auflage 2012).

Concept/Editing: Lisa Janke
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Altes Museum

Credits: All media
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