Day 7: Sunday, June 2: Berlin

Bridge Across the Spree in Berlin
The always-visible Victory column with its golden angel at the center of Tiergarten (the Central Park of Berlin)
Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian.
Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian, Detail of “seeing things in the clouds” (a sign of the painter’s imagination as well as his learnedness)
Piero di Cosimo’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid
Piero di Cosimo’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid, Detail of the fly on Mars’ pillow
Portrait of a Lady by Botticelli
Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait of one of her mother, Bianca Ponzoni Anguissola, 1557
Correggio’s Leda with a rather obviously amorous Swan
Caravaggio’s Amor Victorious
Self-Portrait (with special visual apparatus)
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Young Woman (Hendrickje Stoffels?), ca. 1656
Vermeer, Woman with a Pearl Necklace
Holbein, Portrait of the merchant Georg Gisze, 1532

This morning, we had a quick breakfast at our lovely Villa Seraphinum, settled our bills, and took a taxi to the train station to avoid the hassle of getting connecting buses and trams on a Sunday morning. We were booked on a pretty full train to Berlin, so I am really glad that I had gotten extra reservations after initially thinking when I booked our ticket that I wouldn‘t need any. We were actually in a compartment for six, pretty much like sardines, given that everyone had luggage, but we had a really good conversation about traveling, art, and music going, with a woman who lives in Dresden and loved talking about traveling, an older couple from the countryside who were on their way to Norway to take a cruise, and a young man, probably not 20, a classic choir boy (from a youth choir from Fulda, where my dad went to school) who was about to start his training to become a bass-baritone operatic singer, and was excited to tell us about next year’s trip to Florence for a European choir festival. In the spirit of 6 degrees of separation, it turned out that a) he was on his way to Osnabrück to help a former teacher out with a musical program there, and b) that he spent his entire schooling as a kid at the Waldorf school in Loheland, where my aunt Karin got her first job as a weaver in the early 50s, and where she lived until she got married and emigrated to the US in the mid-60s. Crazy. Poor Mark was again mostly excluded from the conversation, because I couldn‘t translate as fast as we were changing topics! 

The two hours went really quickly that way, and once we got to Berlin, we found the bus to our hotel right away, and were actually able to do an early check-in and leave our bags in our room.  Then we set out, in glorious, sunny weather, to walk to the museum. We took the slightly longer route—our Meininger chain hotel (in the part of Berlin called Moabit) is north of the huge „Central Park“ of Berlin, Tiergarten (the former hunting grounds of the kings of Prussia), and north of the river Spree that runs through Berlin. So we crossed the river into the park and walked through the park with its lovely shade to get to the Gemäldegalerie Berlin, where the state collection’s 1300-1800 paintings are. We took a slight detour, because something was going on on the main road through the park, which turned out to be a huge fair relating to environmental products, from rental e-bikes and the German version of ZIP cars to farm products and reusable coffee cups. The political parties and environmental organizations had stands, and the anti-nuclear-energy people were right across from the nuclear energy booth. We strolled around for a little bit and then finally did make it to the museum. We hadn‘t had lunch yet, so we took advantage of the cafeteria and had quiches and salad before going on our extensive walk through the museum. I feel bad for Mark, because this was already four very intense hours and I told him Florence would be way worse! 

But until I got tired myself about 3 hours in, I had a really good time, and I had set it up so we started with the temporary exhibit on Mantegna and Bellini, and then focused on the Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists, to be followed by the Dutch and German baroque, working backwards. So it wasn‘t so terrible that we were out of steam by the time we got to the Dutch and German artists of the late Middle Ages, which I do not care about that much.  More below in the AH-TLDR section on the art I saw, but I was really pleased to find a painting by a female Renaissance painter, Sofonisba Anguissola, and discover a self-portrait by another female painter, an 18th century German woman named Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721–1782), who had done an interesting self-portrait while wearing an interesting monocular contraption (presumably to see her subject matter better). But the highlight of the museum visit were the Mantegna-Bellini exhibit and seeing Piero di Cosimo’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid, which I had written about, up close.

By the time we left about 4:30, Mark was so worn out that he didn‘t take any additional pictures until we got home, although we went all over the Tiergarten park, even taking a little nap on the grass in the shade. It was beautiful outside, although definitely hot, and so we did spend a lot of time trying to find shade. The park is full of mature trees and windy paths, so that was the perfect environment for the day. But eventually we got hungry and walked back into the Moabit neighborhood and found ourselves some Döner—the Turkish variant of gyros that became the # 1 German fast food many years ago in Berlin. We had them „in style“ at a little rickety outdoor table at a little shop with about three such tables right on the sidewalk, and wrapped up with a surprisingly boring gelato. We headed home to the hotel about 7 pm, full of impressions but out of steam. We hung out in the large lobby/bar area for a while, hoping for it to cool down a little, and to look at our photos. As with Dresden, one day is not enough in Berlin—but we know we‘ll be back. 


Too much to talk about! Here are some highlights. 

  1. The exhibit on Mantegna and Bellini, who were brothers-in-law and at times rivals, and had pretty similar but not identical styles, especially as Mantegna left for Mantua while Bellini stayed in Padua and then left for Venice, was really impressive because it compared certain works of theirs where they clearly influenced each other or where Bellini copied from Mantegna. Many of the pieces in the exhibit were „art history textbook“ examples, like their two versions of the Agony in the Garden and their two Saint Sebastians (I also saw the Saint Sebastian of the Modern Underwear yesterday in Dresden, and a Rubens variant today). But another pair, the dual version of Presentation of Christ at the Temple, I hadn‘t seen before, and since the two paintings are not normally in the same museum, it was pretty special, and there were a lot of sketches and a few etchings, which are always hard to come by in the original. Not to mention an exhibit on restoration which showed how damaged some of these paintings really are, and how often they have been retouched  and painted over. Crazy. But the highlight of the Mantegna portion was really the St. Sebastian, since I had read a long essay by my professor Andrea Bolland about this piece, and she‘d also covered it in lecture, so I really saw things I would otherwise not have seen. She talked about the way a horse pops up in the clouds on the top left, for example, and that was very clearly visible. And I was also amazed at how small the painting is. I had imagined it much bigger, but it was only about 2 feet tall. 
  2. Another Piero di Cosimo! Venus, Mars, and Cupid. This one was much more meaningful to me, because I had looked at it in more detail, and it didn‘t have a Christian theme. I am also wondering whether Eliot did in fact see this one on her museum visits in Berlin (she doesn‘t mention it then, and in the Romola, the reference to the big bunny in it could come directly from Vasari; but it is possible, if the painting was already in Berlin in 1856. I have to do a little digging). But I know this painting quite well, and seeing the details close up was very cool. There is a butterfly on Mars‘s leg and a teeny fly (fly size) on his pillow, and I also saw a detail I‘d never noticed before—a piece of Mars‘s discarded armor that is just flying through the air, presumably flung by the little cupids/putti that are playing with the armor. It‘s always hard for me to look at minute details of paintings, but knowing this one so well really made that a possibility. 
  3. The women painters and some portraits of women, including one with a crazy complex hairdo by Botticelli, are just always interesting to me. Some look so generic and boilerplate (including ALL the Italian Marys) while others (for example the Rembrandt portrait of the Young Woman at an Open Door) seem so individualizedAlso the representations of women that are clearly meant to be erotic, like the Botticelli Venus and another Venus by Titian, and also a pretty racy Leda with the Swan with the Zeus-Swan right between her legs, not to mention the Cranach women who “wear” diaphanous veils. But to be fair, there was also a pretty sexy Victorious Amor by Caravaggio, even as other male nudes were clearly not meant to be erotic—at least I hope the St. Sebastians with the many arrows is not turning anyone on! And with all of these, I keep trying to figure out how the traveling, museum-going women in the 19th century, with their “proper” upbringing, would have reacted to those. So hard to tell without many comments in guidebooks and even journals. 
  4. The vast number of Italian paintings in the collection is really quite impressive. All the greats from Giotto and Gentile to Raphael, and the mannerists including Caravaggio, were well represented, and a bunch of not-so-greats as well (only a handful of baroque and rococo artists and barely anyone from the 18th century except Joshua Reynolds). I had Mark take a bunch of pictures, especially of course of the painters Eliot admired—Ghirlandaio, and above all Raphael. There is no Michelangelo here, but then there are not that many paintings by him, anyway; same with Leonardo. But the Raphael Madonnas (3 more here) are all over the place, and there was a Fra Angelico Last Judgment with a lot of bits of angelic gold. 
  5. More interesting, in some respects, was to see some of the Dutch pieces that were like the ones that got the Italians to shift from tempera to oil—there were several Hugh van der Goes pieces and a couple of possible Jan van Eycks, and you can really see the difference between oil and tempera strikingly. So I have a new appreciation for some of the things I already knew “on paper” but couldn’t quite imagine in reality. The same was also true about seeing the two Donatello relief sculptures that they had put in the Mantegna/Bellini exhibit to show how he uses “atmospheric perspective” to produce depth—that was very eye-opening.
  6. I cannot believe how many Rembrandts they had—basically two rooms full. I knew about the massive churning out that happened in Rubens’s shop, but I didn’t think there were that many Rembrandts. I don’t know nearly as much about the Dutch painters as I do about the Italians, so I guess I should find out more, because I do like the way Rembrandt uses light and dark. Although my favorite Dutch painter is still Vermeer, and I am now probably already at the 15% mark of all the extant Vermeers, having seen 3 here in Berlin and Dresden and 3 in Holland. There are so few of them—35, maybe?  
  7. Although I was already quite tired, I did look very carefully at the Holbein portraits that were exhibited, thinking of my friend Ashley and all she taught me about Holbein and his portraits. There is one of a merchant with all his tools of the trade that was really interesting, and I had Mark take a picture of that in honor of Ashley’s teachings. 🙂 

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