Those wishing to escape crowds this summer need not avoid Europe. With minimum planning, you can view some of the most spectacular but still privately owned properties and collections in Great Britain and France. Exhibitions in Arles and Barcelona explore intercultural exchange with profundity and elegance.
Secrets of Great Britain
Savvy travelers to Great Britain can visit nearly six thousand objects and works of art of outstanding historical or aesthetic interest as well as numerous buildings, estates, and parklands that remain in private hands. The owners of these rarified places and items have been granted a "conditional exemption" from paying inheritance taxes by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs office (HMRC) in return for offering interested members of the public access to them upon request.
Despite this legal requirement, the list of items with a "conditional exemption" was, until recently, notoriously difficult to obtain-relegated, one imagined, to a dusty drawer in a back office of the Victoria and Albert Museum, of which the public at large had no knowledge.
Times have changed. The HMRC Web site now offers the entire roster on a database with multiple search options, allowing enthusiasts of antiques, architecture, and fine art to research particular artists and craftsmen, periods, or mediums, as well as entire estates and collections by region. Owners who refuse to respond to visitation requests in a timely manner can lose the exemption on some or all of their property. Under the newly strict enforcement of this policy, fourteen have done so since January 2005.
The list of objects and properties that may be visited by this means dazzles. Although some, such as the magnificent Palladian palace Holkham Hall, have opened their doors regularly, many stunning, if lesser known, stately houses and collections did so rarely, if ever. For example, the Waldegrave Estate's collection, kept at Priory Farm in Chewton Mendip, Somerset, which covers three centuries of portraits of the Waldegrave family, including works by Angelica Kauffmann, Thomas Gainsborough, and Allan Ramsay, as well as English and continental furniture with links to Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill, normally goes on view only for English Heritage Days (which in 2009 fall on September 12 and 13). Similarly, in 2009 Lord and Lady Dalhousie opened Brechin Castle in Angus County in northeastern Scotland with their collection of English and Scottish furniture, silver, medals, and portraits only from May 30 to June 28, and will not open it again until next summer. Despite this, a brief letter or phone call suffices to gain entry at other times agreed to by mutual arrangement. Even such a venue as accessible as Holkam Hall holds exquisite works that are not on display, such as its extensive drawings collection and fine examples of English furniture; but with an advance arrangement, those interested may see them.
Undiscovered French Monuments
The Centre des monuments nationaux de France welcomes the curious to any building it has aided
The Centre des monuments nationaux, under the direction of the French Ministry of Culture, not only provides an online database of many properties that fall under its auspices, but has also published an even more encyclopedic guidebook, organized by region, to twenty-five hundred sites and monuments that the public may visit, many of which might appear off-limits to the uninitiated. Last updated in 2002 but still in print and ostensibly current, Ouverts au public: le guide du patrimoine en France, in addition to offering reliable information about the peculiar opening times to various French museums and public monuments, excels in its listings of privately owned châteaux and buildings that have received public funds to assist with their renovations and/or maintenance, and which are thereby required to allow the public to visit by appointment. Many open their doors, at least partially, during the summer. For example, the late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Château des Bories in the Dordogne schedules public visits from July through August, although those seeking to get in would do well to note their long (and not atypical) closure for an extended lunch hour. Under the terms of the benefits it has received from the French government, the château may also be seen by appointment during the rest of the year.
Others, such as the imposing Château de Budos in the Gironde, rebuilt in the first decade of the fourteenth century by Raymond Guilhem de Budos, have no official hours and might therefore be overlooked altogether. However, an advance request is all that is necessary to unlock its doors at any season. The guidebook to monuments provides the secret words necessary to visit France's equivalents to Ali Baba's treasure-filled cave. It would take a lifetime to see them all.
A contemporary take on ancient cultural exchange in the Mediterranean
The Network Euromediterraneo Interculturale (NEI) is hosting a jewel-like exhibition in Arles of contemporary photographs by Olivier Roller of ancient Roman sculpture from throughout the Mediterranean. Most focus on imperial portrait busts, hauntingly evoking the souls of those rendered in stone so many millenniums ago. Throughout, their monumental dignity lends a living voice to the silent past.
Highlighting strains of cultural exchange across the far-flung contours of the Roman Empire, the exhibition juxtaposes images of portrait busts of Roman emperors in the Louvre, which the museum commissioned from Roller last year. These new photographs capture almost forgotten antiquities from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari in Sardinia (where NEI is based) and the Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi de Marsala in Sicily, as well as examples from Arles itself. Among the most gripping in the series, Roller's image of the idealized portrait bust of Julius Caesar that was dis-covered in a well in 2003 on the island of Pantelleria, fittingly pays
tribute to one purported to be of the same emperor, that archaeologists retrieved from the Rhône River at Arles last year. The latter goes on display in the exhibition César, le Rhône pour mémoire: 20 ans de fouilles dans le fleuve à Arles at the Musée de l’Arles antique, along with other discoveries exhumed from the river, from October 24 through September 2010.
Ostensibly organized to run in tandem with the fortieth anniversary of the Rencontre d’Arles, one of the most important international photography fairs in the world, Roller’s assembled photographs invite the viewer to contemplate the nuanced dissemination of political imagery throughout the Mediterranean while simultaneously testifying to the fact that the dialogue between ancient and contemporary art remains vibrant and puissant today.
Olivier Roller, Figures romaines · Atelier du Rhône–Espace NEI, Arles · through August 30 · www.a-nei.it · César, le Rhône pour mémoire: 20 ans de fouilles dans le fleuve à Arles · Musée de l’Arles antique, Arles · October 24–September 2010 · www.arles-antique.cg13.fr.
Ancient coins offer a window into Iberian culture and society
The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya examines early Iberian society through coins minted on the peninsula between the fifth and first centuries BC. In many cases these objects provide the sole evidence of the cities that existed there before the arrival of the Romans and the Carthaginians, and of the magistrates who governed them.
An inscription engraved on a piece of lead from Pech Maho (Aude) from the middle of the fifth century BC describes the acquisition of goods from Empúres by Iberians near the northeastern and eastern strip of the peninsula, recording that these needed to be partially paid for in silver coins. If this records the Iberians' earliest known encounter with minted currency, examples from the late fourth century BC produced in the highly developed city of Arse (Sagunt) document the introduction of local minting there. Later pieces offer clues about Iberian beliefs, values, and culture.
The show explores how minting spread, especially as a result of Iberian participation in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) between the Romans and the Carthaginians, while highlighting the warrior culture revealed by the designs of these coins, which commonly depict a mounted rider carrying a shield and spear or a palm frond on one side.
Stylistic similarities and differences point to relationships between local communities and interactions among the Iberians and Celtiberians, as well as their encounters with foreign lands. Dolphins, horses, deities, and portraits (sometimes recording the names of the sitters) on these coins are examined for what they reveal about the people who minted them.
The Iberians, Culture and Coinage • Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona • through May 2, 2010 • www.mnac.cat.
Images from above: Holkham Hall, Norfolk, designed by William Kent (c. 1685–1748) for Thomas Coke (1697–1759), Earl of Leicester, built 1734–1764. Below is a view of the kitchen at Holkham Hall. Photographs by courtesy of Holkham Estate. Photograph of a bust of Julius Caesar (100–44 bc) in the Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi de Marsala, Sicily, by Olivier Roller, 2009. © Olivier Roller and NEI. Reverse of a one-unit Càstulo coin, Iberian, late second century BC. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.