Modern art meets Ancient Rome in Canonbury exhibition

mastroianni curvilinear in Ostia Antica exhibition

mastroianni curvilinear in Ostia Antica exhibition - Credit: Archant

A visit to Rome is no guarantee of aesthetic satisfaction, as the Russian traveller Vasilij Zinov’ev discovered in 1785. “When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, because they are all the same,” was his jaundiced verdict on the paintings he had viewed. Fortunately my experiences of Roman culture have been otherwise with few more thrilling than seeing the ruins of the port of Ostia.


fishes - Credit: Archant

The astonishingly intact archaeological finds, at the mouth of the Tiber a half-hour train ride from Rome, give a vivid picture of what life was like when Ostia was a cosmopolitan harbour city with theatres, baths, bakeries, bars, shops and a communal toilet.

A fine selection of antiquities from Ostia Antica is on display at the Estorick Collection in Islington. Roman Ostia: Ancient Ruins, Modern Art pairs classical statuary and mosaics with works by modern artists: Ettore de Conciliis’s poetic landscapes and Umberto Mastroianni’s abstract sculptures and “cardboards”.

Monumental in scale, de Conciliis’s paintings depict the atmospheric play of light across Ostia’s ruins and along the Tiber.

Mastroianni is best known for sculptures commemorating the Resistance, in which he fought. Initially working in a figurative style, he began to employ abstract forms in the early 1940s.

temple of hercules for Ostia Antica exhibition

temple of hercules for Ostia Antica exhibition - Credit: Archant

You may also want to watch:

The bronzes shown here are dynamic compositions recalling machinery now abandoned. The “cardboards” – pastel, tempera and ink images scratched on card – explode with energy.

Director Roberta Cremoncini suggests that this exhibition may seem a deviation from those typically associated with the museum, which specialises in Italian Futurism. But she believes it generates a “conversation” not only between the archaeological finds and works of the two featured artists but also between the ancient art and pieces in the museum’s collection. “All artists, especially those from Italy perhaps, are required to confront their cultural and artistic heritage – even if they reject it, as the Futurists were to do at the beginning of the 20th century,” she says. She also thinks Roman Ostia is an opportunity to highlight an archaeological site which is not well known in the UK.

Most Read

Until December 21 at 39a Canonbury Square, N1. Visit

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter