Mi dispiace,” said the middle-aged woman with a sympathetic look in her eyes. “E chiuso.”
I’m sorry, it is closed. These are words that any traveller to Italy should expect to hear more than once while visiting the country’s mostly downtrodden cultural institutions. Last weekend, it was the National Archaelogical Museum of Naples, one of the finest museums in the world, that played fast and loose with my intentions to see some of antiquity’s most distinguished works of art.
The woman noted my distress, and relented. She reopened the door she had begun to close, which led to the extraordinary finds from Pompeii’s Villa of the Papyri. She would give me five minutes. She said she was sorry, but there wasn’t enough staff to keep the gallery permanently open. She also warned that, by the way, I only had half an hour to zip across to the Temple of Isis before it, too, closed.
As I rushed around the emptying rooms, the exquisite bronze statues salvaged from the villa seemed to be mocking me: there was “Hermes at Rest”, the swift-footed messenger god in repose; a semi-drunken satyr pointing to the sky; a couple of life-sized nude ephebes about to break into a sprint. They, at least, appreciated the urgency of the situation.
Things failed to improve once my five minutes were up. I explored further, only to find that two of the museum’s finest pieces had been similarly hidden behind locked doors: the Farnese Cup, a uniquely ornate, onyx-crafted masterpiece produced at the Ptolemaic Egyptian court, and the double portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife, the justly world-famous Vesuvian wall painting that tells us so much about the upwardly mobile pretensions of the Roman middle classes.
All these works would feature among the museum’s top 20 highlights. Yet here we were, on a Sunday afternoon, denied access. You could only feel sorry for the museum’s management, having to balance the proud wish to satisfy visitors with the need to deal with a brittle financial climate. As in most European countries, culture in Italy is shouldering spending cuts. And goodness knows how the museum copes with its local government: the curlicues of Neapolitan politics would send you racing to drink with the satyrs.
It is an alarming sign when museums start to close their galleries. How we treat the study of the past is a clear indicator of who we are in the present. But it is a far from simple equation. Some of the greatest promoters of national heritage have turned out to be some of the most odious characters in history. The past is plundered furiously for propaganda.
Few possessed a greater desire to uncover the riches of Pompeii than Mussolini. Roman glory was equated with Fascist supremacy. But his excavations were insensitive, aggressive, ultimately ruinous. “[They] wreaked more destruction than all the Austrian captains of fortune, the arrogant Spanish, the drunken custodians of the early Risorgimento, and the thieving bandits of Vesuvius,” writes the historian Judith Harris. Spookily, the volcano itself seemed to find Mussolini’s aggrandisement unpalatable: it began to spew in molten fury in 1943.
We must proceed carefully in the glorification of past cultures, never more than when they happen to have flourished within irrelevant present-day national boundaries. All the same, Naples has a very special museum, and its highlights should be accessible to all. The city has reached an accommodation with the volcano that looms with menace over its spectacular bay. Now it needs to make amends with the flux of the present.
We are luckier in London. Nowhere in the world are museums better marketed, nor their missions clearer. Next year, the British Museum is to hold a blockbuster exhibition on domestic life in Pompeii. It is borrowing much from Naples’ museum, including that compelling double portrait. Advance sales are such that the museum is already considering extended opening hours. Such are the appeal and advantages of the encyclopedic museum in the globalised metropolis.
But it is equally important, at the very least, to display and appreciate these masterpieces as close as possible to their own homes. Geographical context can be as resonant as historical. Notwithstanding its well-documented social and political problems, Naples is a city of great civic pride. You can feel its mischief and energy bouncing off the cobbled streets. Its soul resides with those satyrs.
“It’s a good thing they no longer exist,” says an Italian guide to Ingrid Bergman in a scene shot in the museum in Roberto Rossellini’s masterful 1953 film Viaggio in Italia. The startled look on her face suggests she knows otherwise.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden