The Gods and the Machines

After several years of pandemic separation, I went to spend a few days with my sister in Rome. In between the inevitable pizza and pasta, she suggested I might like to visit La Centrale Montemartini, a museum that sits between Via Ostiense and the River Tiber, in the post-industrial south of the city.

La Centrale Montemartini was Rome’s first thermoelectric power plant. Inaugurated in 1912 it burnt massive amounts of fossil fuels to create electricity for the capital until it was abandoned in the mid 1960s.

In the late 1980s it was refurbished into an art centre with a substantial amount of the machinery left intact.

In 1997, when other municipal museum buildings were slated for renovation, a collection of ancient marbles was moved to La Centrale Montemartini for a temporary exhibition titled “Le Macchine e gli dei” (The Gods and the Machines). It became a permanent exhibition in 2001.

Slate grey muscular steam turbines, boilers and diesel engines, pumps, pistons and gyroscopes vie for attention with the grandeur of chalk white ancient statues.

One of the sub-themes of the museum is funerary objects. Two impressive sarcophagi sit majestically in front of a series of pipes and valves.

This second one, from the second century AD, has a central panel depicting Hercules leaving Hades, dragging out Cerberus, the three-headed guardian dog of the underworld. This is the twelfth and final Labour of Hercules, considered the most difficult because vanishingly few mortals who went to hell came back again! I’m not sure if it’s hopeful or frightening to have this on the side of your coffin.

One of the peculiar pleasures of viewing ancient statues in contemporary museum contexts, is to see what has survived, what is missing, and what has been repaired or restored. Restoration practice often changes with fashions. I noticed this particularly with the noses when I visited Glyptotek in Copenhagen where there has been a policy of removing ‘invisible’ repairs and replacing them with ‘obvious’ ones. A lot is left missing in La Central Montemartini but there is also plenty of conjecture in plaster. One restoration that I particularly enjoyed was the sandal on this foot. Comfort and style never go out of fashion.

Impossible to restore but no less charming, was this 3rd Century AD floor mosaic plan, located at the entrance of a bathhouse and explaining the function of various rooms. Green tiles indicate the water pools, blue the water channels, and the red marks in the surrounding walls point to the location of the windows. There’s some disagreement about the meaning of the numbers but most probably they indicate what facilities each room has, or its size. There’s something very evocative about this simple building plan. It’s easy to imagine a 3rd Century Roman taking a quick glance at it before heading off for a bath.

The main hall (Il centro monumentale) is the former engine room. Huge machines are surrounded by busts. This is Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s lover, depicted as the god Apollo. After Antinous’ mysterious premature death (he was no more than 20 years old when he most probably drowned in the Nile) Hadrian was devastated and deified his erstwhile companion. This unusual move established a cult and a plethora of marble likenesses, installed across the empire.

Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus, stares ahead blankly. Perhaps he was tired from all the travelling. He was born in one part of the Roman Empire (Leptis Magna, in present-day Libya, 145AD) and died in quite another (Eboracum, present day York, England, 211AD).

This handsome chap, rolling his eyes at me, is perhaps a bit resentful that his label merely gives: “Male Portrait”.

Three women, all modelled from earlier Greek originals, are, from left to right: an Amazon, a caryatid (an architectural support that takes the place of a supporting pillar), and not a woman at all but the proto-gender-fluid Dionysus, god of ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre, amongst other things.

Casting her watchful gaze over the proceedings is another statue modelled on a Greek original: Athena, city protectress, goddess of war, handicraft, and practical reason (somehow you can see the connections).

I found the conjunction of these two sets of ‘ruins’, separated by millennia, both majestic and surprising. Somehow, both were better for the other. They flattered their neighbour.

If you like, you can explore the museum virtually on Google Arts & Culture.