Berlin Wall Memorial Diary

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Part of the original Wall at Bernauer Strasse

Seeing the 220 meters of the original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse during 2018 triggered memories of my first visit to that city, in 1991, when long stretches of the Wall had yet to be taken down. Back then, on a jaunt to Europe after college graduation, I had been amazed at everything I saw in the city. Even though I had done much research about Berlin and the history of the Wall as a student, I saw the Wall with emotional detachment. During 1991, I could not truly realize what the Wall represented. I knew it divided East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989, and I remembered watching the joyous moments of the Berliners climbing the Wall in October of 1989 as a new era was ushered in and no one would look at the Berlin, Germany, Europe or the world the same way again. I knew there had been escape attempts, some thwarted, others successful, some resulting in death, others resulting in new beginnings in the West. But I hadn’t felt the history the way I did this time, at the Bernauer Strasse memorial during 2018.

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Poles mark where the Wall once stood at Bernauer Strasse

Here’s a little background information. The Wall, built in August of 1961, divided East and West Berlin until October of 1989. Some 156.4 kilometers of Wall bordered West Berlin and consisted of concrete walls lined with pipes at the top. There were 186 observation towers and 20 bunkers plus fences built 100 meters from the Wall. The area between the metal mesh fence and concrete wall was a clearing called the death strip, and border guards had a clear view of anyone trying to cross it. The Wall area also included signal fencing, trenches to deter vehicles from trying to cross, barbed wire and beds of nails under balconies of apartments over the death strip.

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Sculpture at the Chapel of Reconciliation

One reason I had a different perspective during 2018 was because I had spent more than 20 years living in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. I had scores of friends who told me harrowing stories of life under Communism – about the physical hardships and especially about the mental hardships of having one’s life inundated with the Communist ideology day in and day out. Looking at that small section of the Berlin Wall and the posts that marked where it had continued up and down Bernauer Strasse, I felt almost as if I knew the pain and anguish of the East Berliners, even though I had grown up in middle class America as a spoiled only child. This time, I could feel the history, and it seeped through my body, almost making me nauseous from my thoughts of life in East Berlin, behind that Wall, where now a group of teenagers gathered as they studied their mobile phones, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings, as if the Wall were nothing more than a wall.

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Another reason the memorial affected me so strongly was the poignancy of the exhibition about the Wall in the Documentation Center. It featured stories of individuals who had tried to escape, worked as escape helpers or served as informers for the secret police. I looked into each face, read each name and felt as if I had met each person.

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Postcard of the Berlin Wall around the Brandenburg Gate

There was Siegfried Uhse, a hairdresser who had resided in the West area of the city since 1960. He became an informant a year later. By pretending to look for an escape route for his girlfriend and her family, he was able to contact escape helpers who believed his lies. Because of Siegfried, five escape tunnels were betrayed from 1961 to 1963. Because of Siegfried, 89 refugees and escape helpers were arrested. Despite all the bad things that had happened in the world during my lifetime, it still amazed me that someone could do something so evil.

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Photo of a line for food in the DDR from exhibition at Documentation Center

One of those arrested was Harry Seidel, a racing cyclist who could not participate in the 1960 Olympics because he lived in East Germany. He made it to West Berlin and even got his wife and baby out as well. Then he wanted to help others gain the same feeling of freedom he was able to experience. He dug escape tunnels in 1962. Once he was almost ambushed; it was a close call, but he made it. However, in November of 1962 he was not so lucky. It was a trap. The secret police were waiting for him at an escape tunnel because of Siegfried’s intel. He was sentenced to life in prison. Before his arrest, he had helped 100 people flee to the West. That, I mused, was what real heroes were made of.

I also learned about Hartmut Richter, a railroad worker who tried to escape in 1965. His hopes were dashed, though, and he was convicted with a suspended sentence. In 1966, he did succeed in escaping. From 1971 to 1975, he was an escape helper. Then, in 1975, he was caught and received a 15-year prison sentence. He only served five years in jail, though, as West Germany paid ransom for his release during 1980.

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A watchtower at the Wall

I also learned about an escape attempt at the Invalidenstrasse border crossing – I had walked down that bustling street on the way to Bernauer Strasse. Eight young Berliners tried to drive a bus through the border. Fate was not kind to them. They were gravely injured by the 138 shots fired by border guards and arrested. They all spent many years in prison.

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Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989 near Brandenburg Gate

I read about the VW Beetle that drove at top speed through the barbed wire fence erected on the first day the wall was built, August 13, 1961. It stopped in West Berlin, and the driver was free to open a new, exciting chapter in his life.

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The Chapel of Reconciliation

Residents of Bernauer Strasse had been very innovative in their escape attempts. Some had jumped into rescue nets of fire engines from West Berlin after making calls to the fire department, others had jumped from their roofs to the West, and still others had slid down ropes from their apartments on the border.

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Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 10, 1989

I saw remnants of the inner wall with green area behind it, a place where youngsters leisurely kicked a soccer ball. I imagined a guard in the watchtower being ready to fire on anyone trying to make a dash for it through No Man’s Land, which afforded the border guards a clear line of fire. I could imagine patrol cars driving by and anti-vehicle trenches preventing cars from crossing. I could almost hear the fierce barking of the dogs, their teeth barred, as they spotted a refugee in the border area.

 

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Interior of the Chapel of Reconciliation

I remembered watching American President Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, on June 12, 1987 and declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I had just graduated from prep school and took the concepts of freedom and democracy for granted. I hadn’t been interested in my Czech and Slovak roots back then. I had never thought about life behind the Iron Curtain. That was some mysterious place I was sure I would never go.

I did not stay as long as I had hoped at the memorial because I began to feel sick as I tried to put myself in the shoes of those East Berliners who had dreamed of freedom. I wound up retreating to a museum in the city center. I hope to go back to the Berlin Wall Memorial and spend more time there on a future visit. There is a lot of history to soak in, and one visit does not do the place justice.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Section of Berlin Wall in Museum of German History

 

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Bode Museum Diary

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Inaugurated in 1904 as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, the building was designed by Ernst Eberhard von Ihne, and construction lasted seven years. In 1956, the museum got its current name, in honor of the first director, William Bode, whose trademark was showcasing a variety of artworks – sculpture, painting, coins, medals, crafts. Indeed, what I liked best about the Bode was the variety – the sculptures, paintings and crafts all mixed together, sometimes even in one room. The collections were full of surprises that made me enthusiastic about each work I came across.

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I especially liked the sculpture collection. The medieval sculptures moved me the most. The large triptychs were overwhelmingly beautiful. Byzantine art played a major role in the collections. The art from Ravenna reminded me of my trip there as I had been dazzled by mastery of the works there. One of the largest collections of sculpture in the world, the pieces date from early medieval times to the late 18th century. Donatello, Lorenzo Bernini, Giovanni Pisano – they were just a few of the creators represented in this unbelievable array of artistry. Architectural sculpture included a Romanesque tribune from Germany. Glazed terracotta was also on display as were small sculptural works from bronze, alabaster and ivory. I also saw mosaic icons and artifacts from Egypt. The museum itself was a work of art with fireplaces and rich decoration hailing from the Italian Renaissance.

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I was intrigued by one display in particular. I learned that the artworks from this museum had been stored in a bunker in Berlin-Firedrichshain during World War II, but a fire broke out in May of 1945, destroying many of the sculptures. I imagined furious flames engulfing so many precious works of art and thought how formidable the collection would have been with even more dazzling sculptures. It was a great loss, for sure.

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I was in awe as I took in all the artifacts from Roman sarcophagi to silver sculpture to Byzantine works from Italy and Turkey to German Late Gothic sculptures. The mixture of different kinds of art from various periods gave the museum a dynamic quality and unique character.

Tracy Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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The Pergamon Museum Diary

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The Ishtar Gate

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Built from 1910 to 1930, the Pergamon Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island is one of the most visited museums in the country. One of its highlights, the Pergamon Altar, is closed for a lengthy period. Still, there’s a lot to see.

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The Market Gate of Miletus

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I especially was enthused by the Ishtar Gate in that dynamic blue color. Originally located in Babylon, it hails from 575 BC. The Market Gate of Miletus, dating from 2 AD, also overwhelmed me. I was very impressed with the wide range of Islamic art, too.

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The Aleppo Room

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My favorite exhibit is the Aleppo Room, a richly adorned red reception room from a house in that city. I had only seen pictures of present day Aleppo in ruins. It was difficult to imagine that something so beautiful had once stood in that city. I realized it was once a city of grandeur, though now, unfortunately, reduced to rubble. I felt the tragedy of the war deeply. Before, I had become almost numb to it, seeing so many pictures of the ruins on TV so many times. The exhibit made the war real, way too real.

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I was also intrigued by the museum’s history. It was damaged during World War II, and, shortly afterwards, Russian soldiers took most of the items in the collection back to Russia. Most of it was returned in 1958 – yes, it took that long!, – but some of the objects are still in Russia. They are on display in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Tracy A. Burns is a proofreader, writer and editor in Prague.

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The Old National Gallery in Berlin Diary

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One of my favorite museums in Berlin, the Old National Gallery has the shape of a temple from antiquity, which appealed to me. The museum opened in 1876. While it suffered damage during World War II, it was renovated and opened again in 1949. From 1998 to 2001 it underwent modern reconstruction.

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I was so impressed with the collection collection of 19th century art, which ranges in style from NeoClassicist, Romantic to Impressionist. Because Impressionism is my favorite period, I was most struck by the paintings of that era, specifically by the works of Monet. I also admired paintings by Manet and Renoir. The museum also is home to the largest collection of paintings by Adolph Menzel, who I had not heard of previously.

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While I was visiting in 2018, there was a fantastic temporary exhibition called Wanderlust. It featured 19th century paintings of landscapes with travelers on foot. I had become a much stronger person from traveling alone, and it reminded me of all my solitary journeys to places unknown. The paintings could represent a person’s journey through life.

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From Wanderlust exhibition

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From Wanderlust exhibition

I was particularly enamored by the Italian settings of Naples and Sicily in several paintings. I thought back to my trips to those places as I had discovered many gems in Italy and would develop a love for Italy almost as strong as my passion for the Czech Republic.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

From Permanent Exhibition

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Wanderlust Temporary Exhibition

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My favorite painting in the temporary exhibition

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Rovereto and the Depero Futurist House of Art Diary

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It was the perfect way to spend the last day of my trip to the Veneto region. I had travelled with arsviva travel agency to Vicenza for an art exhibition and to Padua for some sightseeing. The town of Rovereto, below the Dolomites and near Lake Garda, was even more enthralling than the Palladian villas I had seen. The narrow, picturesque streets and quaint squares gave the place a romantic flair. The town had a distinctive poetic quality. I loved the cafes, where I could have sat all day while sipping cappuccinos and eating paninis. There was a lot to see, and, unfortunately, we only had a few hours before the long bus trip back to Prague.

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The facades of the buildings caught my undivided attention. I especially liked the floral motifs on the façade of the Palazzo Del Ben-Conti d’Arco behind a fountain on one of the main squares. Other facades showed religious decoration. The town had made a name for itself in history, too. Prominent personalities had set foot in Rovereto, especially during the 18th century. Goethe had visited in 1786, Pope Pius VI in 1782. Mozart gave his first concert in Italy there during 1769. Indeed, I could almost hear Mozart’s lively music as I meandered along the charming streets.

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There’s more. The Public Library holds the distinction of being the location of the longest nonstop reading session ever – 53 hours long. There are intriguing churches while a castle housing a military museum looms above the town. The Bell of the Fallen is the largest bell in the world, made of bronze of cannons from all countries that saw action in World War I.

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When we came to the Depero Futurist House of Art (Casa d’Arte Futurista Depero), I took one look at the building and knew I had to go inside. Elements of modern architecture somehow accented the medieval character of the structure. The building reminded me of the House of the Stone Bell (Dům U kammeného zvonu) in Prague, an exhibition space in a medieval building that is seeping with history. This was the only Futurist museum in Italy, and I wanted to familiarize myself with the movement in which Fortunato Depero (1892-1960) had played a prominent role.

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First, I needed some background information about Depero. He grew up in Rovereto, working with marble and creating art, so it was only fitting that in 1919 he chose this town as the location for the museum that would eventually contain as many as 3,000 of his works. Depero made a name for himself as a painter, sculptor, writer and graphic designer. While living in Rome, he wrote a futurist manifesto and created stage sets and costumes. In 1928, he tried his luck in America, settling in New York City, where he designed costumes for the theatre and created covers for magazines. After a stint of several years, he returned to Italy. Depero remained loyal to the futurist movement, even though it was not as well respected in the 1930s and 1940s because many artists working in that style became fascists during those decades. Due to futurism’s negative image, many abandoned the movement. Not Depero. After World War II, he moved back to the USA, residing in Connecticut. In 1949, he returned to his boyhood home of Rovereto, and he would stay there for the remainder of his life. He was ill for two years before passing in 1960 at the age 68.

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Wall decoration of interior

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It wasn’t until I came to the museum that I became familiar with the movement of Futurism, a movement that was born in Italy during the early 20th century. Futurism rejected the past and celebrated modernity and technological advances. Often its artists portrayed urban environments and industrial cities. Cars and airplanes made frequent appearances. Vehicles were shown in motion, not standing still. However, futurists also tended to praise violence and war. Artists of this movement took up diverse fields – painting, sculpture, ceramics, graphic design, theatre, film, literature and others.

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The museum was eclectic with furniture, paintings, tapestries, cloth material, drawings, collages, posters, toys and a film, for instance. I loved the dynamic colors, especially the bright orange of one painting and bright pink hues of others. The works indeed looked as if they were in motion. I could see elements of Cubism in the designs. I especially thought of Josef Čapek’s mechanical figures in his paintings, and I could see characteristics of primitive art, too. I was struck by the way some figures resembled machines. In one sculpture in particular I could see the figures in motion. It was as if the sculpture was not standing still, but, of course, it was.

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There were tranquil scenes, such as a woman with a pink face holding a pot on her head, having stopped to talk to a figure smoking a pipe. Some of the furniture seemed to have designs resembling folk themes. In some paintings I saw a dangerous, impersonal city, sharp as a sword. It was as if the buildings themselves had swallowed up humanity. Of course, these are just my personal impressions. I do not know if they are the impressions Depero wanted viewers to have.

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I liked the unique museum because it had both a modern and medieval character architecturally, and the many artifacts introduced me to a movement I had known nothing about. I especially was drawn to the pastel colors of some of the works. I learned about an artist who never gave up on futurism, even when many others had given up on the movement. It was somewhat ironic to have a museum dedicated to art that stressed modernity and despised anything old in a town of rich historical content. It was interesting that Depero chose a medieval building as the place to exhibit his works. The exhibition’s location stressed that the old was fused into the new and vice versa, not that the new rejected the old.

Perhaps the irony was part of the beauty of it all, too.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Scrovegni Chapel Diary

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One of the highlights of my day trip from Vicenza to Padua was seeing the Scrovegni Chapel, which had been decorated with amazing frescoes by Giotto di Bondone during the 14th century. I was familiar with Giotto’s masterful work. I had toured the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi several times and had been captivated by his masterful creations there.

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Built for Enrico Scrovegni, the chapel, christened Our Lady of the Annunciation, had once been connected to a palace, but it was demolished in 1827. The name of the architect is not known. We had to follow a path outside of the impressive and comprehensive art gallery near the chapel, which stood on its own. It was raining heavily and immediately after taking shelter inside the documentation room, we saw a short, instructive film about the chapel.

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Upon entering the chapel itself, I was overwhelmed by the 38 panels of frescoes covering three walls on three levels. The star-studded ceiling vault in its brilliant blue hue was one of the first features to capture my attention. The blue was so vibrant. Scenes from the Old Testament abounded. Allegorical figures of the Seven Virtues and Vices made prominent appearances. I inwardly celebrated with Mary’s parents when the Virgin was born in a modest cottage. In the Annunciation, I noticed the chiaroscuro effect on Mary’s robe. A comet stood out in the Adoration of the Wise Kings.

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In the Flight into Egypt, Mary was holding Jesus so tightly, so protectively while Joseph glanced behind him at the family for which he felt a fierce love. The white bodies of the dead babies were chilling in the Slaughter of the Innocents. In the Kiss of Betrayal, I could feel my body tense as I noticed the look between Judas and Christ. In the Weeping over the Body Christ, a solitary tree with bare branches captured my attention. As an architectural buff, the six Gothic windows in the Pentecost panel intrigued me.

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The Vices and Virtues also made a lasting impression. Ire was violently tearing her robe apart, exposing her chest, and I saw a serpent slivering out of the mouth of Envy.

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My favorite part of the frescoes was the Last Judgment. Christ, of course, took up a central position. Giotto even put himself in the fresco. Enrico presents the Virgin Mary with a model of the chapel. Then there is Hell, with a dancing, consuming fire as the tormented, writhing figures descend toward Lucifer, a monster feeding upon the damned. I could feel the torment of the figures.

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Soon, though, it was time to leave, and it was difficult to say goodbye to such a masterful work. I could have stared at Giotto’s magnificent frescoes for hours, analyzing each one. I had felt the same way in the basilica in Assisi.

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I would see more impressive sights in Padua, such as the Basilica of the Saint, a vast structure dedicated to Saint Anthony and the stunning Hall of Justice. Still, whenever I think of my time in Padua, the first images that comes to mind are the riveting frescoes in this chapel.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Palazzo Leoni Montanari Diary

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My visit to the Gallerie d’Italia in the Palazzo Leoni Montanari of Vicenza proved to be one of the most enthralling art experiences I have ever experienced. The gushingly Baroque palace was built in the 1670s, commissioned by Giovanni Leoni Montanari. The combination of statuary, stucco and fresco decoration in the building enhanced my great interest in the exhibitions. Owned by Intesa Sanpaolo bank and opened in 1999, the gallery houses a collection of vases from Attica and Magna Graecia, 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century Carrara marble sculpture and the most impressive collection of Russian icons I have seen outside of the Russian Museum and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In this post, I am concentrating on the interior of the gallery itself and the exhibition of Russian icons as well as a temporary show of Soviet era icons.

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While the palace is by no means as vast as the Hermitage or Prado, it certainly made an everlasting impression. In fact, its size allows for an intimate atmosphere in which the visitor can become well-acquainted with its displays without feeling overwhelmed, though the gallery is by no means small.

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This definitely is one of my favorite art galleries in the world, ranking up there with the Doria Pamphilj in Rome or Lazaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid. The Baroque palazzo is a work of art itself. Indeed, the palace ornamentation is unbelievably rich. The inner courtyard with loggia features a superb statue of Hercules clubbing a monster to death. Just looking at the statue makes one feel imbued with the mythological character’s strength and determination. I was reminded of the theme of Hercules that was promoted in the Teatro Olimpico, an architectural gem designed by Andrea Palladio and a breathtaking sight I had visited earlier that day. In addition, in the palace courtyard I saw five frescoes sporting classical themes.

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Sculptural adornment greets the visitor in the entrance hall as dragons and hideous creatures make appearances in stucco forms. One space near the main staircase is designed as a sort of grotto with exquisite painting decoration. The Hall of Apollo celebrates that deity as well as Hercules. It features tapestries and stucco portrayals of protagonists from The Iliad, too. The Room of the Old Testament and the Room of Ancient Rome have stunning friezes.  The Room of the Four Continents prominently displays stucco figures of America, Africa, Asia and Europe above the entrances. Frescoes take on historical themes, such as Aristotle mentoring a young Alexander the Great in geography. Allegorical statues also add eloquence to the space.

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The Gallery of Truth is the room that most amazed me. I could not look away for a long time, as I was so mesmerized with the stucco and fresco decoration that covers the entire ceiling. The central fresco celebrates the triumph of truth. Nine muses are represented, too. Putties and garlands abound, and grotesque creatures join in the exuberant fray. The paintings show the feats of Hercules. In this room, I saw him slaying serpents, freeing Prometheus from the rock and holding up the world for Atlas.

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While ceramics are not usually my cup of tea, this collection did feature an impressive 500 items, many unearthed in Ruvo di Puglia, a town in Puglia I had visited the previous year and one of the most tranquil places I had ever seen. It brought back memories of that astounding trip to Apulian Romanesque churches and tranquil settings without hordes of tourists. Puglia had given me a sense of serenity and a feeling of peace. I was reminded of those feelings, as I better comprehended the ancient history of Ruvo di Puglia.

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The 18th century Venetian paintings brought back memories of my trip to Venice, just one of many places in Italy to which I longed to return. The 14 paintings of everyday life in the society of the Venetian nobility by Pietro Longhi triggered thoughts of a Prague exhibition of works by Rococo painter Norbert Grund, who was a masterful observer of his era. Yet Longhi did not only paint common scenes. I also admired his portrayals of exotic animals surprising and enthralling an audience.

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I was entranced with the works of Canaletto and his contemporaries. The Venice landscapes spoke to me. I recalled the exhibition of Canaletto’s works I had seen in Aix-en-Provence a few years earlier. I also thought of the Canaletto painting that I had admired in Nelahozeves Chateau and later in the Lobkowicz Museum in Prague.

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In a room punctuated by stucco decoration, I admired the unique sculpture “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Agostino Fasolato, created in the 18th century. Shaped as a pyramid, the sculpture features 60 intertwining figures, all twisting and turning, carved from one piece of Carrara marble. Once on display in Padua, the plethora of figures exhibit a great attention to detail as masterful as that in paintings by Pietor Brueghel the Elder. I was entranced with the dynamic sense of movement attained by the sculptor. The sculpture, indeed, seemed to be in motion as figures wiggled and writhed.

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The Russian icons enthralled me so much that I was just as astounded by this gallery as I was by the comprehensive Van Gogh exhibition at the Palladian Basilicata with its elegant arches and arcades. At this gallery I saw 140 icons ranging in age from the Middle Ages to the 20th century and giving a superb overview of the history of the icon in Russian society throughout the centuries.

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The icons boast various themes. They are inspired by the Bible, legends, liturgical hymns, theological texts and feasts, for instance. The Mother of God and Saint Nicholas are featured in some of the artistic creations. Icons of saints and monks, some with monasteries in the background, make many appearances. I also saw frames and covers for icons made with precious materials. A mastery of the goldsmith trade also is illustrated in some items. The schools represented include Moscow, Novgorod and Vladimír. The icons are organized by subject matter, which was helpful and intriguing.

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I also found the temporary exhibition of Soviet icons by Grisha Bruskin to be very impressive. A monumental painting called “The Fundamental Lesson,” created in 1945, features 256 white figures. The painting stresses the significance of statues in the Soviet Union as each person represented has an ideological meaning. Instead of a celebration of saints, Madonnas and monks, I saw workers, pioneers, athletes, functionaries, astronauts, soldiers and doctors exalted onto ideological pedestals. Small sculptures of these figures are also displayed. There are 25 porcelain pieces and 49 renditions in bronze.

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“The Fundamental Lesson”

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I remembered how, as a child growing up in America, I had been taught by society that Russia was the enemy, all Communists were bad people, and everything was black-and-white. Russia was evil, we were good. I had wondered what life was like in a Communist country. Did people ever cry with joy or truly feel happy and at peace with themselves and with the world? I wondered what people ate, what people wore, what people were thinking about.

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Overall, I was most impressed with this exhibition because it exposes the dangers of Soviet ideology. It impressed upon me how Soviet society had been inundated by the ideological myths represented by the painting and small statuary.

More Russian icons from the permanent exhibition:

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I came away from this gallery with a heightened appreciation of having grown up in a free, democratic society. I had attained a deeper understanding of the art of Russian icons. I had seen a unique sculpture carved with precision. The visit had triggered golden memories of Venice. I had examined Venetian society in the 18th century thanks to Longhi. I had seen artifacts from one of my favorite Apulian towns, Ruvo di Puglia and had thought about that unforgettable trip. I had experienced all this in a building that was a masterful work of art, the Gallery of Truth being my favorite space.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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