Here Be Monsters!

When we heard that monsters were loose in Rome, we despatched our most experienced monster-hunter, in the intrepid shape of Gavin Baddeley, to investigate post haste. He returned with the following report…

This summer, Italy’s National Rome Museum is playing host to a temporary exhibition dedicated to Monsters: Fantastic Creatures of Fear and Myth, featuring over a hundred artefacts depicting mythical beasts drawn from the Ancient World, from the lethally seductive Sirens to the grotesque, snake-haired Gorgons. ‘Monsters are part of the myths of every culture, every civilization,’ the exhibition’s co-curator Elisabetta Setari told Art Daily. ‘They have characterised our civilization from the dawn of time until now.’ Housed in a gallery constructed to resemble a Minotaur’s labyrinth, each twisting shadowed corridor leads you to a chamber dedicated to a different example of the many curious and fearsome entities to be found in classical folklore and legend.

Clear, informative plaques fill you in on the background to each imaginary beast, from their birth – usually the progeny of unholy couplings between mortals, gods and animals – to their ultimate fate, conventionally slain by a valiant hero. Some monsters enjoyed diverse reputations in different times and places – for example, the sphinx was regarded by the Ancient Egyptians as a benevolent guardian, but dreaded by the Greeks as ‘the strangler’ who despatched and devoured all who failed to answer her fiendish riddles. ‘Monsters are aggressive creatures,’ explains Setari. ‘They are part animal so they have an animalistic force. Monsters in antiquity were above all protectors, for example of tombs where they appear on gravestones.’

The exhibition has borrowed pieces from over 40 collections – mostly from Italy, but also from as far afield as the USA’s J. Paul Getty Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each artefact is skilfully displayed to bring out its unique character – some are beautiful, others whimsical, a number still somewhat sinister – they reflect changing attitudes to the monsters they depict. We have always enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with monsters – somewhere between fascination and dread, between hatred and pity – that’s evoked powerfully in this captivating exhibition.

Monsters: Fantastic Creatures of Fear and Myth is only on until June 1st, so time is running out for anyone hoping to explore the labyrinth at the National Roman Museum. For further information,
click here.