Classical Classical Copenhagen

I’m just back from a flying visit to Copenhagen. I’d never been to Denmark before, and I’m ashamed to say I know very little about it. Before going, my impressions were formed into two evidently contradictory camps. On on the one hand, there was the impossibly happy country of pastries, Lego, and Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen (in a film that convinced two generations of Anglophones that the ‘correct’ way to pronounce ‘Copenhagen’ was to combine the first two syllables of the normal English pronunciation with the second two syllables of the normal German one, none of which resemble the Danish). On the other hand, there’s the country of Kierkegaard, real Hans Christian Andersen stories, and a cinematic tradition so grimly socially realistic as to make Ken Loach seem like Richard Curtis. Needless to say, these caricatured stereotypes were all hearteningly disproven in the timeworn fashion of all travel writing and coming of age films. Except for the bit about the pastries. That’s definitely true.

But the classicist in me was particularly intrigued by all the references to the classical I saw around me.

The Romans didn’t make it to Denmark, at least not as conquerors. That said, archaeological digs in Denmark revealed an impressive range of Roman goods and coins, some of which are on display in the splendid (and free) National Museum.

A much more visible classical story in Copenhagen is written in its 19th century neo-classical buildings. Frederiks Kirke is often described in guidebooks as ‘Pantheonesque’, although its interpretation of the Pantheon seems to have come via St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London: it looks, in other words, broadly like many other large domed churches throughout the world, and not particularly like the Pantheon. I was more interested in the Our Lady’s Church, which really is reminiscent of a classical temple. There’s even a statue by the celebrated neo-classical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen at the centre, showing Jesus in a manner reminiscent of a Greek cult statue, behind which is a frieze showing the passion of Christ in a decidedly Phidian manner.


Christ as an ancient Greek god, Vor Frue Kirke, Copenhagen.

Surely the most remarkable monument to classicism in Copenhagen is the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which houses one of the most impressive collections of classical and neoclassical art in the world, but which seems to be sadly under-appreciated by non-classicists. It’s a particular treat for me as it houses an astonishing collection of Roman portraits.


Unless you’re a fellow Roman portrait geek, you can’t imagine how exciting this room was for me.

One of the most exciting of these is a bust of Gaius, better known as Caligula (‘Little Boots’, his nickname).It’s still possible to see traces of paint on this with the naked eye and, displayed next to it is a possible reconstruction of how it might have looked painted:

Careful, Caesar, your mascara is showing.

Careful, Caesar, your mascara is showing.


Questions remain: why is this place in Copenhagen, what is a Glyptotek and why is this the New (that’s what ‘Ny’ means) Carlsberg one? The Carlsberg Glyptotek was founded in 1882 by the brewer Carl Jacobsen (yes, it is related to that Carlsberg). Carl had an interest in sculpture bordering  on the obsessive: his third legacy, after the Glyptotek and a rather insipid lager was the statue of the Little Mermaid which is, inexplicably, the most famous site in Copenhagen. He also had plenty of money to spend: brewing was the biggest business in Denmark’s biggest city and Carl ran the biggest brewery.

Carl Jacobsen, brewer, lover of classics, and sculptural obsessive.

Carl Jacobsen, brewer, lover of classics, and sculptural obsessive.

Carl’s collection was originally in his house.  This ‘old’Glyptotek had 19 galleries, which gives you some idea of the size of the house. He eventually ran out of room and built the ‘new’ Glyptotek in 1888.

Why a Glyptotek? Well, the technical answer is that it comes from the Greek words glyphein- (to carve of sculpt) and theke (a storage place). So, a glyptotek is a place where sculptures are stored. What may be more relevant, however, is that the collection of classical sculpture in Munich is also called the Glyptotek (Munich goes one further in having a Pinakotek — painting storage place — as well, or actually three, covering different periods). This original Glyptotek was founded by Ludwig I of Bavaria, a devoted lover of ancient Greek culture. Ludwig’s father Maximilian ridiculed his son’s attempt to ‘make Greeks and Romans out of beer-bellies’. Carl Jacobsen presumably wished to show that people could appreciate both classical antiquity and beer. I’ll certainly drink to that!


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