Exquisite Ancient Worlds: Basel’s Ancient Art Collection

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Museum of Ancient Art and Ludwig Collection, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, Basel, Switzerland

Recently, Sister-Chickpea asked me why I’d never ended up writing up a post about the Basel Museum.  Honestly, it’s because I’ve had such a backlog of posts to write, I’d forgotten about it.  Then I found out that they were closing many of the galleries to be revamped anyway, so I thought I’d leave it.  But then Sister-Chickpea pointed out that the same objects may not be put on show.

So I decided to write this after all.

Museum of Ancient Art and Ludwig Collection, Basel, Switzerland

The galleries that are closed are the ones displaying objects from Egypt, the Orient, Cyprus and early Greece.  That means the Roman and later Greek galleries are still open, and they are rather lovely.  However, it was actually these now-closed galleries that were the most fascinating for me, and as you will see if you scroll down, this was because of the exceptional quality and variety of works on show.

The museum is also the only one in Switzerland that is devoted to ancient art and culture and it was created in 1961 from the collection of objects that had hitherto been scattered elsewhere in the city.  The basis of the collection is from the Amerbachkabinett, which was purchased by the city in 1661 – much like the paintings in the Basel Art Museum.  The reason for its current long-winded name is due to the fact that in 1981, the German industrialist, Peter Ludwig, donated 200 antiquities to the museum, as well as giving various objects on permanent loan.

We started our tour downstairs, and the first room we entered was filled with funerary reliefs from Phrygia in Turkey.  It’s not often that you see so many of these in one place, so it was interesting to see the stylistic and cultural trends: for example, so many of the monuments depicted whorls and writing tablets.  They made a good counterpoint to the Palmyran memorials, which are so unique and wonderful and all the more precious with everything that’s happened in Syria in the last few years.

The Roman section wasn’t actually that big, which surprised me, but the quality of the works was fantastic, particularly the sarcophagi.  To see the the dramatic and theatrical story of Medea killing her children told across the front of the sarcophagus was interesting.  It’s beautifully done and there are many dynamic figures who look genuinely pained.  It’s also an interesting choice for a burial because usually sarcophagi show positive scenes – like a Bacchic procession – while this is not a happy tale and not something I’d choose to be buried in.  Unless I’d killed my children.

Moving on to happier themes, I’m a massive fan of the terracotta figures produced in the Hellenistic world, and Basel has got an extraordinary collection.  These figures, mainly from Tanagra in Greece, show wonderful details from everyday life, and I find them particularly evocative because of the natural and elegant way the women are depicted.

The gallery that looked at objects from the Near East basically led into Cyprus and early Greek civilisations.  Some of the items from Iran were incredible – like the silver rhyton – but there are some typically cute Cypriot objects on show too.

For me, the finest gallery looked at the Egyptian world.  What a fantastic range of objects – from make-up palettes to artists’ palettes, from scroll paintings to painted coffins.  Even Mama-Chickpea, who is not so interested in Ancient Egypt, was totally absorbed.  For me the highlights were the papyrus paintings, and the vase with the jumping cows.

By the time we got to the Greek gallery, we were approaching closing time and had to dash about a bit.  They have an exceptionally fine vase collection, and it was great to see some vases by the Darius Painter, an artist whose work we’ve admired in the Genevan Museum of Art and History.  

So In Summary

Even though I invariably enjoy any museum which is filled with ancient stuff, I found this museum in Basel to be particularly good.  They had a fine collection, and presented the works in an attractive and un-flashy way.  I thought the galleries that are currently being redone were already pretty darn smart, so I’m fascinated to know what they are going to do there.  I’m sure it will be excellent.

Further Information

The museum has a website in English, which gives you all the important information you may need: www.antikenmuseumbasel.ch

The museum also hosts cool exhibitions and has a neat shop.

A famous collections of plaster casts of ancient sculptures can be found in the Skulpturhalle Basel, which is a separate building.  I didn’t feel the need to visit it, but it is free to enter.

How To Get There

Basel is quite an easy town to walk around, and you can make your way from the central train station.  The museum is opposite the Basel Museum of Art.  You can get details of how to get to the museum via their own website or you can consult the public transport website for Basel (in English!): www.bvb.ch


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