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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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