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Review of The Vatican Museums

14 November, 2014 0 Comments

by Lyle Dunne

The Zeitgeist was always going to intrude. But the good news is that the reality of unfashionable but undeniable naked beauty blows it out of the water, and in the process knocks the Whig theory of history  into a cocked hat.

If I see that shot of that door opening one more time...(photo: Rymill films)

The Vatican Museums in 3D is a welcome extension of the welcome development of using the cinema to provide broader access to “high” culture such as opera productions from London or New York.

It is entirely fitting that the Vatican Museum should be at the forefront of this trend – and not altogether surprising, given that Church’s interests are perhaps less commercial than other major museums’.

(One should mention The Russian Ark, made in 2002, filmed in the Hermitage in a single amazing 87-minute shot; this however was not a documentary in the same sense, there was more focus on the palace and its history and less on the works themselves – and it did not use the same extraordinary ultra-high-definition 3D technology.)

The technical skills employed in bringing this work to the screen are literally astonishing. So astonishing, alas, that the film-makers, in my view, got a little carried away.

The shots in the film can be divided roughly into

  1. The Museum Director talking to us
  2. The architecture of the museum and its surrounds
  3. The sculptures
  4. The paintings.
  5. Linking shots.

Some of these work better than others.

With the “talking head” shots – though the Director is Italian, so we have to see his hand as well – I wasn’t conscious of the 3D at all. Some viewers have suggested his tie could have been straightened, his suit brushed; others may feel a handsome young actor could have been used. To me, this displayed humility – “it’s not about me”.

The architectural shots included aerial shots of the Vatican, the rooms, and the “Ladder” of Bramante, a double-helix spiral staircase – think “one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down”, twisted into a single stairwell.

These alone were worth the price of admission ($19, including the glasses; a ticket to the actual museum is 16€, not including airfare). Like being there, on a perfect day, freed from the distractions of crowds, sore feet (“Vatican Museum Feet” is a known affliction in our family) and Vatican security (Bramante’s staircase is normally inaccessible). If you could levitate, to get a better view of the dome of St Peter’s.

Then there were the sculptures. Simply breathtaking. I may have wept; I wouldn’t have been alone. The focus was on the “mega-hits”: the Laocöon Group, the priest and his sons being attacked by serpents sent by the gods (possibly for questioning the Trojan horse) whose discovery in 1506 led to the founding of the Museums; the Belvedere Torso, which Michelangelo supposedly refused to restore as it was too beautiful; his Pieta – not strictly in the Vatican Museums, but St Peter’s; the statue of Augustus (the idealised, youthful Octavius, the image the Emperor loved so much he continued to use it throughout his reign, like an ageing starlet); the two-horse chariot reconstructed by Franzoni (one of the horses is 17 centuries older than the other); the Discobolus (discus thrower) from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli…

Again, one floats around the works, viewing them from angles impossible to the viewer on the spot, undistracted by crowds or guards. In many ways this is better than being there.

The Laocoon Group (photo: Wikipedia)

The paintings were visually the least successful aspect, in my view. One can understand the urge: in a film about the Vatican Museums, people will want to see the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. And if you have to have those paintings, in a 3D film, and you have the techniques to convert them to 3D – why not?

Well, I have no idea how a painting is rendered into 3D, but I can give you some idea of the effects.

They seem to me to fall into three categories. The best, and I suspect most costly and labour-intensive, produces an image of a painting that looks like a sculpture, or a high relief. Thus the biceps of Adam and God the Father in the famous Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling appear to protrude from the screen – in a way I found disconcerting and distracting. Had Michelangelo wanted to show the creation in three dimensions, after all, he was the man to sculpt it.

The intent may be the problem. Whereas the shots of his Pieta strive to show what the work of one of the greatest artistic geniuses in history was really like, those of the chapel seem intended to indicate how his work could be improved upon. (What if, during the Prologue of Henry V, we projected CGI images of horses “printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth”?)

Nor does Raphael escape. In the Disputation of the Sacrament, The Fire in the Borgo, and especially The School of Athens, he is clearly striving for a 3D effect, both in the “architecture” of the subject matter – the placement of figures, paving, columns, arches – and the trompe l’oeil semicircular arches which frame the works. Here, it’s as though the elements of the painting (or a reproduction!) had been cut out, stuck to cardboard, and stood up at different distances from the viewer – like a stage set, or a children’s pop-up book.  I can’t imagine Raphael would’ve been impressed.

The School of Athens. Photo: Wikipedia

The third effect, used mainly for modern pictures like those of Van Gogh, Dali and Chagall, looks like the figures in a picture had been covered in an inch of plaster, a cutout of the figures stuck on top, and the edges coloured in. This didn’t bother me so much, because of the works in question: I think Chagall’s Pieta is verging on the blasphemous.

(There were a number of positive references to the Vatican’s collection of modern religious art, which I’ve seen because you can’t get to the Sistine Chapel without being herded past it, but I noticed the camera seldom got close enough to make out any details – commendable restraint.)

The linking shots were not offensive, just a waste of space. 3D flickering flames, smoke clouds, grains of sand trickling through hand, water drops splashing, all clearly symbolising something: creative inspiration? the indomitability of the human spirit? Italian financial management?

Then there was the male figure, young, muscular, naked (discreetly – they had a few smoke clouds left) whom I identified variously as Michelangelo, Hercules, and the Director’s nephew who’d always wanted to be in show biz.

-sorry, that may have been a reaction to the narrative (“…in the dense silence of dawn, Hercules reawakens…”), which perhaps like current papal rhetoric suffers from having been translated from the Italian, emerging ponderous, portentous and impenetrable. (The question “why ‘museums’, in the plural?” was raised, but the answer washed over me like so much zabaglione.)

In retrospect, I had unrealistic expectations. (I’ve done my best to preserve you from that fate.) The Zeitgeist was always going to intrude. But the good news is that the reality of unfashionable but undeniable naked beauty blows it out of the water, and in the process knocks the Whig theory of history – continuous improvement in every field of human endeavour – into a cocked hat.

Go and see it, especially if you haven’t been to Rome this year. And maybe even if you have. (I went to the Villa Borghese instead this year. And the Baltics. If you’re good, I might tell you about it.) I’m already less galled by Chagall. (It’s more chagrin-and-bear-it.)

And if you have any friends who have a 3D Last Supper in resin over their bed, take them along, and let them buy you a drink afterward.

Just not from the Venus di Milo soda siphon.

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