Leo von Klenze, the chief architect of the Glyptothek, Munich’s famous museum of classical sculpture, declared upon its opening in 1830 that it would move and inspire visitors even a thousand years hence, when it would lie in ruins. He was too optimistic: little more than a century would pass before the museum would be devastated by bombs during the Second World War.

When the war began, the Nazi authorities in Munich had the forethought to stash away in monasteries the city’s precious collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. But nothing could be done to protect the magnificent nineteenth-century building in which they were housed. The museum was blown apart during the summer of 1944, its intricate frescoes obliterated and marble halls reduced to rubble. Today, autumn leaves gather under the white-painted metal chairs of the open-air courtyard in the reconstructed museum, an area that once held the extravagant Assyrian Hall but where one can now enjoy an apéritif in the cool afternoon.

None of the great museums of antiquity carries the same feeling of bitter tragedy as the Glyptothek.

Each of the great museums of antiquity has its own character: the royal-turned-republican grandeur of the vast Louvre, the long imperial legacy reflected in the British Museum, the New World extravagance of the Getty Villa. Outside the Museo Archeologico Nazionale the people of Naples holler; women hang laundry on balconies above crumbling façades. Greece’s National Archaeological Museum and its rich halls stand just across the street from the old polytechnic, where the protests that felled the military junta began in 1973, and part of which is now occupied by squatters. But none of these institutions carries the same feeling of bitter tragedy as the Glyptothek.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria had the museum built in 1815 to house his magnificent collection of ancient sculpture, as part of a plan to make Munich, of all places, into a modern Athens. The capacious Königsplatz, which on the day I visited witnessed simultaneously a wedding procession and a sparsely attended political rally, is also the location of Ludwig’s Propyläea—a monumental city gate constructed in imitation of the Athenian Acropolis—and another museum, in the Corinthian order, which houses smaller classical artifacts.

In the era before Greek independence, Lord Elgin and his agents were busy sawing the sculptures off the Parthenon and shipping them to Britain, where they remain today. King Ludwig, meanwhile, arranged to have the sculptures adorning a temple on the island of Aegina shipped to Bavaria. I first heard about the Glyptothek one summer on Aegina, where the Greeks were less than happy about having to settle for plaster casts of classical figures in the Afea, their museum on the site of the temple’s ruins, high above the bright blue Aegean. A year later, with a week to spare after being paid to complete some archival work in Lisbon, I traveled to Munich and found myself stepping out of a cold October afternoon near the base of the Alps into the reconstructed halls of the Glyptothek.

Obsession with Greek culture in Europe was a fever that peaked in the nineteenth century and once served as a bourgeois pastime, source of literary inspiration, and fount of political legitimacy. Britons and Germans, especially, once took part in a sort of classical-history arms race, creating modern historical and archaeological methods in the process. To lay claim to the Greeks, as both the British and the Germans strove to do, was to gain an edge in the contest for power. Lord Byron fought in the Greek war of independence and penned poetic odes to his classical heritage, while J. S. Mill described the Victorians as the cultural and intellectual heirs of the Greeks. In an odd historical twist, Bavaria sent a son of its royal family to serve as the new king of Greece after the country won independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Glyptothek was once Munich’s pride, guaranteeing Bavaria a place on the European cultural map.

When the Glyptothek reopened nearly thirty years after its near destruction, it was no longer the ornate monument to Bavarian classicism that Klenze and King Ludwig had constructed.

Philhellenism, the love of Greek culture, had ebbed considerably by the twentieth century, along with general levels of interest in classical study. The timetable of Munich’s reconstruction efforts illustrates not only the scale and expense of the task after the carpet-bombings of the Second World War, but also the priorities of the citizens and authorities of post-war Munich. The city’s world-famous Hofbräuhaus beer hall was rebuilt by 1958; the doors of the Glyptothek did not open again until 1972. Now the Glyptothek is closed again until 2020 for further renovations.

When the Glyptothek reopened nearly thirty years after its near destruction, it was no longer the ornate monument to Bavarian classicism that Klenze and King Ludwig had constructed. The marble halls were rebuilt in bare brick, the walls left a naked white in marked contrast to the original blue and gold frescoes, the mosaic floors, and the patterned designs. But these can still be seen in the watercolors made by museum patrons that hang in the doorways connecting the halls and inspire in visitors a profound sense of loss and melancholy.

The Barberini Faun at the Glyptothek. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The stated reason for the minimalist reconstruction was a desire not to distract from the items in the collection. But the developments also certainly served to cut costs, and, perhaps in contradiction to its stated goal, they seem only to accentuate the particularity of the space that holds the artifacts: what it once was, what it is now, and—the elephant in the room—what it was that caused that difference. Munich, of course, cannot claim innocence in the circumstances that led to the destruction of the crown jewel of its classical inclination: the city was, after all, the site of Hitler’s first failed coup, the Beer Hall Putsch, and was dubbed “the capital of the movement” by the Nazis.

All of this does not distract from the collection, but rather lends it a sense of urgency and sorrow. On the Athenian funerary reliefs, the dead are depicted clasping hands with their living relatives. A caption reminds the viewer that while the dead and the living are shown touching, in fact this is the opposite of the truth.

The miraculously well-preserved pediment sculptures from the temple on Aegina soak up the wan sunlight that filters through the window onto the courtyard. The west and east pediments, constructed in succession, succinctly illustrate the shift from the archaic to the classical style. On the west pediment, a stricken Trojan seems almost to smile and present himself to the viewer. On the east pediment, however, the dying King Laomedon strains to support himself as he stares at the earth; his arm is beginning to slip from the strap of his shield.

It is hard to resist feeling a sense of the fragility of civilization when transitioning from the hall in every museum of antiquity that holds the busts of Silver Age Roman emperors to that which contains the alien, amateurish busts of late antiquity, with their vacant half-moon eyes. But in the Glyptothek the sensation is especially acute. The sterile but elegant halls convey a sense of living in an age that, if undoubtedly comfortable—especially with the intellectuals and the tourists outside in the courtyard drinking tea and Campari—feels distinctly latter and lesser, more modest and workmanlike than the age of King Ludwig, when Munich was Athens on the Isar.

Sculptures from the Western pediment  of the temple of Aphaia at Aegina, now at the Glyptothek. Photo: Nick Burns.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.