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Belltower: Best museums of Paris, Rome and Naples

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From page A4 | November 05, 2012 |

Two years ago the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, specifically the de Young, had blockbuster shows of Impressionist art and Post-Impressionism from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The shows were scooped up by San Francisco when the Orsay was being redesigned and rebuilt.

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We have never been to the Musée d’Orsay, so this past June we added it to our list of things to do in Paris. I was not impressed with the redesign, even though I hadn’t seen the original design. The rooms with the Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings were dark for the most part and the passage from one gallery room to another was rather small. In other words, anyone with those talking phone guides stuck on their ears would just stand in the narrow passageway listening to their guides, completely oblivious to the people behind them wanting to get through the passageway to see what’s on display in the room. Sheesh, just buy the book at the gift shop.

Another design flaw, as far as I was concerned was using the central atrium area for sculpture on a small series of steps. The sculpture was not memorable and the space would have been put to better use by adding an escalator. Instead there was one elevator in the rear and a bunch of stairs that people trudged up and down to see the different levels.

Speaking of stairs, once a person takes the escalator to one portion of the Louvre there remain about five miles of walking and stairs to get to the various parts of that section. This was my third time for the Louvre. Each time I wind up in a different section. And we had already walked a couple of miles just to get to the Louvre. Be there when it first opens, because the line to the ticket window gets long fast and the atrium gets impacted in a couple of hours.

By accident we took a train from the airport and then transferred to Gare St. Lazare, which turned out to be two blocks from our hotel. That was the same Gare St. Lazare that Claude Monet painted and we featured on the cover of our Weekend page. After that I soon got the subway system wired, something I had avoided and feared in the past. It got even easier after my wife got a map with larger type. We  took the subway to all kinds of locations and museums. We even took the subway to Versailles.

The absolute best museum in Paris is the Musée Marmottan Monet. I could not find it on any of the maps I had, so we took a cab to and from it.  Originally a house and art collection of Paul Marmottan, it was bequeathed to the Academie des Beaux-Arts in 1932. The collection grew in 1957 with the gift of another inheritance of a collection of Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley and Renoir paintings. Then in 1962 Claude Monet’s second son, Michel, died and left his inheritance to the museum, making it  the world’s biggest collection of paintings by Monet.

The museum includes a well done annex to the house that displays the Monets on two levels, including a bigger collection of lily pond paintings than the Musée l’Orangerie in the Tuilieries.

It was a fantastic experience.

The same Gare St. Lazare is where we caught the train to Giverny to see Monet’s Garden, also a bequest of Michel Monet, but actually revived and run by Americans. The last time we saw it in a light drizzle and that gave all the colors a flat but intense saturation. This time it was sunny and getting there early was key. Unlike 12 years ago when we visited, it has become very popular and is crowded by 11 a.m.

In Rome the Vatican is the Italian equivalent to the Louvre, but competing against the Vatican is the Villa Borghese, built by the nephew of Pope Paul V, Cardinal Scipione. It has fabulous painted ceilings, sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Dosso Dossi, to name a few. The first time we visited we came in through the front door. Now entrance is downstairs through the rear and one needs a reservation time.

But the most intriguing museum in Rome is the Palazzo Doria Pamphilij. It includes a Hall of Mirrors to rival that of Versailles. It also has paintings by Annabale Caracci, Jan Breugal the Elder (lots of Bruegals), Claude Lorrain (lots of Lorrains) , Franceso Albani, Dosso Dossi, Rembrandt, Giovanni Bellini and two Titians.

The palazzo, built in the 17th century, is privately owned, though operated by state museum authorities, who kept a sharp eye on me and my camera. It is owned by the descendents of a Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria, who worked for the French and sailed against pirates at the age of 84. One of the descendents became a pope. The Italian ocean liner, the Andrea Doria, was named after the admiral. The Andrea Doria was famous for sinking in 1956 after being struck broadside by the MS Stockholm. Because it immediately listed to one side half the lifeboats were inaccessible. Nevertheless ,1,660 passengers and crew were evacuated and only 66 died as a result of the collision, which is the worst naval disaster in U.S. waters.

We traveled south of Rome to visit the ruins of Pompei. The next day we went to the Archeological Museum in Naples. Afer entering the museum we realized we could have skipped the ruins and gone straight to the museum. All the good stuff had been removed from Pompei, including frescoes and mosaics, and was on display at the museum. It is a world-class collection of astounding ancient artwork and huge statues. This is one Italian museum, besides the Vatican, where you can photograph freely (without flash, except on the statuary). And being in Naples it is not on the tourist pilgrimage route and so is not crowded. Naples is a raucous city of hustlers. It was my least favorite port stop when I was in the Navy. As the Taxi driver in Rome said, “Bad people in Naples.” The museum’s entry fee seemed reasonable and there was no charge to check one’s bags. And when exiting, there is a taxi stand right across the street. No waiting. Making a quick entrance and exit from Naples is important.

Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat. His column appears biweekly.

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