When the Altes Museum was founded at the beginning of the nineteenth century, many people believed in Winckelmann’s theory that only the ancient Greeks had been able to create truly great art, and that the only way for artists to become equally great was to emulate them. If a nation wanted to inspire its subjects with great works of beauty, it needed a good museum, something comparable to the Vatican. The British managed to obtain the Elgin Marbles, the French were proud of their Venus of Milo, and the Prussians got the Altes Museum.
The architect, the great Karl Friedrich Schinkel, designed a building that opened itself to the visitors as a Greek stoa, but in fact was a Pantheon-like round room surrounded by two stories of rectangular rooms. This was to be the place where Prussia educated its artists – and it was a success, because within a generation, the Alte Nationalgalerie had been added, where nineteenth century artists showed how they had taken inspiration from the Greek classics. Later, the Pergamon-Museum was added, with finds from the Ottoman Empire; the Bode Museum has a Byzantine and Medieval collection; and the Neues Museum contained everything else – Egypt and the prae- and protohistory of Europe.
The Altes Museum is still a splendid, traditional museum of classical art. I was lucky, because when I visited the place last month, the Greek department on the lower floor was still open, and I could see everything from Cycladic idols to the hellentistic Prometheus group. The collection also contains statues and weapons, vases, and so on. This time, I could visit the newly reopened upper floor, where I saw famous busts of Caesar, Cleopatra, and Caracalla. The Hildesheim Silver Treasury now has a very large display. I really loved the new Etruscan department.
Other museums in Berlin may be more interesting; personally, I am always impressed by everything related to the Wall and during this visit I was especially surprised by a tour though the “Berliner Unterwelten”. However, the Altes Museum is easily the most beautiful museum in Berlin.