Friday 20 May 2016

Statues of Copenhagen

I paid for my accommodation in Copenhagen, and was given assistance with museum entry and public transport by Visit Denmark.

Last Sunday I was looking to kill some time before joining a walking tour of Christiania, Copenhagen's famous counter-culture neighbourhood. It was a cold, drizzly day and I didn't want to be wandering around outside until I absolutely had to.

Flicking through a list of museums, I noticed one on the route between my hotel and Christiania: the Thorvaldsen Museum.

On paper, it didn't seem that appealing: an old-fashioned museum full of the plaster models of statues created by a Danish sculptor who was resident in Rome in the early 19th century.

It turned out, however, to be something special.

For a start, its building was purpose-built for Thorvaldsen's works, bequeathed to the state after he returned to Copenhagen in retirement. Opened in 1848, it was the first ever public museum in the Danish capital.

Inspired by ancient Roman architecture, it's an elegant square building with attractive corridors and halls, something of an artwork in itself. This is what its great hall looks like:

As you can see, it's lined with full-sized models of the statues he created for clients across Europe. Although they're made of plaster rather than stone, they contain every detail of the final products, and they allow you to see all the sculptor's work in one place.

There's also a marvellous sense of immensity, if I can put it that way - emanating from all these figures at mythic size arranged next to each other:

The middle photo of the above three is Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press - if you look closely at his right hand, you'll see he's holding some pieces of type.

As for the gent on the horse, he's Józef Poniatowski, an Polish commander who fought the Russians in the late 18th century and later as part of Napoleon's forces. 

The statue has an interesting story: commissioned in 1817, by the time it was finished in 1832 the Russian tsar (then ruling Poland) blocked it from being installed in Warsaw. 

It was shuffled around the Russian Empire, spending decades in the city of Gomel, until it was finally erected in the newly independent Poland in 1922. It was then destroyed in an explosion set by the occupying Nazi German forces in 1944. 

A tragic end - except of course, the original still existed in the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copehagen. As a result, a new copy of the statue could be cast, and was donated to Poland by Denmark. In 1952, it was erected in Warsaw. It's still there today, in the courtyard of the Presidential Palace. 

Surprisingly, Poniatowski was not the only notable Pole I was to encounter in the museum. I also recognised this statue, of the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus:

This statue I know well, from seeing it in the streets of Warsaw. It stands in a prominent position on the Royal Way, at the beginning of ul Krakowskie Przedmieście.

I assumed, given the fate of Poniatowski's statue, that the Copernicus statue in Warsaw must also be a modern copy.

However, though the Nazis intended to also destroy this statue, they only got as far as removing it to Silesia before they had more pressing concerns to deal with. Brought back to Warsaw, it was re-erected after the war.

Beyond this hall, there were alcoves and corridors containing smaller works with the same fine detail, and often with a dash of Thorvaldsen's sense of humour.

For example, this is Mars and Cupid, having exchanged weapons - Cupid leans on the war god's sword while Mars seems to be judging the heft of the arrow of love: 

This is Mercury, looking like he's had a refreshing drink or two:

And finally, here's Thorvaldsen's interpretation of Lord Byron in somewhat thoughtful mood:

I wonder what Byron is thinking? Perhaps something like: "To do: 1. Write poem; 2. Take new mistress; 3. Liberate Greece."

We shall never know. But Thorvaldsen's take on the great poet lives on... in Copenhagen.

The Thorvaldsen Museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday at 2 Bertel Thorvaldsens Plads, Copenhagen. Admission $10, see

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