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Revisiting Ancient Rome in Beijing
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Revisiting Ancient Rome in Beijing

On July 10, an exhibition on the origins of Italy opened at the National Museum of China (NMC). Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian President Sergio Mattarella sent congratulatory letters to the opening ceremony of the exhibition titled “Tota Italia: Origins of a Nation.” This exhibition has particular significance as its holding coincides with the reopening of China-Italy Year of Culture and Tourism and the 110th anniversary of the founding of the NMC. It embodies the mutual respect and mutual learning between the ancient civilizations of China and Italy. As a shining example of the close exchanges both cultures enjoy, it also exhibits the strong bond which exists between the two peoples.

Ancient Rome in 503 Exhibits

“Look here, this is a measuring tool that was used in the construction of Pompeii’s aqueduct system,” a woman surnamed Wu told her daughter while walking through the exhibition, showing her daughter information about the tool she had just found on the internet. The items on display, from a land thousands of miles away, offer visitors, including Mrs. Wu and her daughter, a fascinating immersive experience on thousand-year-old Roman civilization.

“Spanning a long and eventful period of history – from the fourth century B.C. to the first century A.D., this exhibition recounts the Romanization process of the Italian Peninsula,” said Pan Qing, the exhibition’s co-curator from the NMC. Its corpus, consisting of 503 precious artifacts from 26 museums across Italy, helps reconstruct the process of the political and cultural unification that took place on the peninsula, and reveals the richness of Italian culture.

The exhibition has 11 theme units. The first four units show Italian culture before Italy was unified by Rome from diverse perspectives of society, language, and religion; the following six units chronologize the expansion of Roman Republic that made Italy to emerge as a unified country in geographical, political, and cultural terms; and the last exhibit unit introduces viewers to Roman currencies, expounding on the impacts which the creation, evolution, and circulation of currencies had on culture.

The exhibition starts with an altar depicting the founders of the city of Rome – Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who, according to a Roman myth, were raised by a she-wolf. “This artifact points to the divine lineage of Roman or Italian people,” said Pan.

At the unit expounding Roman expansion, a visitor surnamed Wang gazed at a plate decorated with war elephant figures. “Look at this young elephant behind the adult animal. This most likely was a scene from the Battle of Beneventum, the last battle of the Pyrrhic War. A calf wandering about the battlefield in search of its mother threw Pyrrhus’ troops into dire confusion. This helped the Romans win the day,” the history buff explained.

At the concluding part of the exhibition, Wang Bei examined the currencies used in different periods of ancient Rome. “Going through this exhibition has been a worthwhile experience. I feel like I have been sailing along the river of Roman history,” the woman said delightedly.

Such responses are what the curators expected. “Rome was not built in a day. Its construction stretched over a long period of time. With scant historical records, we are unable to fully reconstruct the whole process. But through Roman religious traditions, linguistic evolution and integration, and artifacts that reveal the borrowing of elements from different cultures, we can gain insights into the coalition and expansion process of Rome,” said Zhuge Yingliang, a designer of the exhibition from NMC.

The objective of the designers of Tota Italia is to put on a dynamic display of the expansion process ancient Italy passed through in its move toward unification and eventually an era of glory. By means of juxtaposing exhibits with texts, graphics and other forms of information, they help viewers get a fuller understanding of the past.

“Visitors love looking at the exhibits. But if they would spend a bit more time here reading through the background information including the maps on different periods and subjects, they would have a better grasp of the given time and space, as well as understand the painstaking efforts we put into recounting this history,” said Zhuge.

Cultural Bonds Run Deep

In his congratulatory letter to the exhibition, President Xi lauded China and Italy as outstanding representatives of Eastern and Western civilizations, respectively. He also mentioned how the two ancient countries created splendid civilizations over a long history of human activity, leaving a wealth of intellectual and cultural treasures.

Friendly exchanges between the two countries date back more than 2,000 years. The Book of Later Han, which covers the history of the Han Dynasty from 25 to 220 A.D., includes writings about the Roman Empire. History books of ancient Rome, on the other hand, describe Chinese as tall people who enjoy longevity and have a strong sense of justice and filial duties. The Travels of Marco Polo greatly aroused the interest of Italian people in the ancient Oriental country. A few centuries later, the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci introduced advanced European technologies into China, and translated Confucian classics into Latin, which exerted tremendous influence on the Enlightenment.

These are telling examples of the fruitful interaction between the two civilizations, which has forged our shared faith in mutual respect, mutual learning, and mutual trust, and laid a solid groundwork for a lasting friendship.

The NMC has maintained close cooperative ties with cultural institutions in Italy. They have jointly organized a number of events in recent years, including the 2018 exhibition, Embracing the Orient and the Occident: When the Silk Road Meets the Renaissance, and the 2019 exhibition, The Journey Back Home: An Exhibition of Chinese Artifacts Repatriated from Italy.

This year, China and Italy resumed their year of culture and tourism and have stepped up bilateral cultural exchanges despite the obstacles imposed by the pandemic. As a proof of their strong friendly ties, Tota Italia: Origins of a Nation celebrates the shared values of humanity and helps advance inter-civilization communications.

“This is the first NMC exhibition designed in three languages. In recent years, the museum has made strenuous efforts to become a cultural venue for international events and a diversified audience,” said Xu Wenjun, another designer with the NMC. “The meeting of the two great civilizations of China and Italy at the NMC showcases our shared vision of equality, mutual learning, dialogue, and inclusiveness.”

An ancient Chinese thinker once said that nothing, even mountains and oceans, can separate people who share the same vision. The cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and Italy are continuing to expand in the new era.

Innovation and Mutual Trust

Tota Italia: Origins of a Nation is the first international exhibition NMC has put on in Beijing since the outbreak of COVID-19. Due to the pandemic, earlier talks on several international events yielded no results. “But our friendship with the cultural institutions of Italy has made this extraordinary feat possible amid the pandemic. Though we are located tens of thousands of miles apart, we are close at heart,” Pan said.

At first, the NMC and the Italian Ministry of Culture had planned to jointly host an exhibition on cultural connections between the two countries in 2020, but then had to postpone it due to the pandemic. This makes the success of Tota Italia especially important for the China-Italy Year of Culture and Tourism. With this understanding, both sides have adopted many innovative measures to cope with restraints caused by the pandemic.

“The Italian side did not send anyone to escort the antiques to China or oversee the preparation of the exhibition. This responsibility was instead handed over to my colleagues at the NMC,” Pan said. For the first time in the NMC’s history, exhibits were examined by Chinese and Italian experts via video links and were later set up for exhibition in Beijing with help of Italian partners watching through webcams. Cooperation in this unprecedented way would not have been possible without strong mutual trust between the two sides.

“To adapt to the working hours in Italy, the NMC team worked from 3:00 p.m. to 12:00 p.m. for eight grueling days. After traveling a long distance, the exhibits showed some ‘minor issues’ when being installed for the exhibition. But we solved them through timely consultation with our Italian partners,” recalled Wang Chenyan, a designer with the NMC. “When the lights were turned on, and the finished exhibition presents in front of us, we feel all efforts are worthwhile.”

Staff of the two sides maintained close communication and collaboration during the whole process. The NMC team devised brackets for the items in fragile condition. The Italian counterparts loved them so much that they hoped China would send them back with the exhibits. “We are glad to give this gift to our Italian friends,” Pan smiled.

China TodayGu Yetao

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