Care to see a painting of Venice's Grand Canal by Canaletto, a 17th-century key to Windsor Castle's state apartments, a stained-glass image of Henry VIII's heraldic badge (c.1530), fourth-century B.C. Greek vases, models of the Bank of England (c. 1803), an elephant's tooth, a 13th-century B.C. alabaster Egyptian sarcophagus, and many more antiquities, paintings, rare books, architectural fragments, plaster and cork building models, and other curiosities—all in one small museum?
Enter Sir John Soane's Museum
in central London. It's an eccentric amalgam of rooms, staircases, skylights, cabinets, bookcases and nooks and crannies brimming with, well, stuff from all over the world. It all belonged to Soane (1753-1837), who despite undistinguished beginnings as a bricklayer's son became one of the most prominent architects of his day, a professor at the Royal Academy, a hero of classical design, and an obsessive accumulator. The museum owns more than 50,000 objects, including 30,000 drawings.
But what makes the Soane special is its aura. Many collectors start museums, but not all display such distinctive taste as Soane and a few others noted here. As critic Jonathan Jones remarks in a celebratory video tour of the Soane made by the Guardian, available on YouTube: "Everything in his house means something...something we feel and intuit is deeply personal to him."
Because of the pandemic, travel restrictions put the Soane out of reach for many, leaving us to explore it and similarly idiosyncratic museums virtually. That's easy for the Soane. Its YouTube channel offers both shorts, like "Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017 Finalist," and in-depth videos, including "Restoring the Private Apartments." From the Soane website, you also can "fly through" a digital scan of either the crypt with Seti I's sarcophagus or the model room.
Dante's Cabinet, Poldi Pezzoli Museum
Like Soane, an Italian count named Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli (1822-1879) strived to leave a unique physical legacy in his native city, Milan. He created one of Italy's first house museums, commissioning rooms representing various periods in the family villa. "Dante's Cabinet," for example, was outfitted with 14th-century Italian treasures, while the Gold Room, with elaborate Renaissance moldings and beamed ceilings, held his best paintings—by Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Bellini and Botticelli, among others. A biographical video
(in Italian, with English subtitles) on the Poldi Pezzoli Museum's You Tube channel
provides a feel for this man with the "strange idea" of letting the public see his possessions, while a video on the DMajor TV YouTube channel provides more about the collection
. Sadly, all but the Dante study and the grand staircase were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943, and the rebuilt museum is more modern—but you can turn back the clock via 19th-century photographs on the museum's website
. And you may view many of the museum's treasures on Google Arts and Culture
or the YouTube channel of Amicidell'arte Varese
in a good, but non-narrated, walk-through.
Blue Salon, Camondo Museum
When you step into the Nissim de Camondo Museum
in Paris, you'll also immediately intuit the man who lived there, a Parisian named Moïse de Camondo (1860-1935) with the taste of Marie Antoinette. To suit his love for 18th-century French decorative arts, he demolished his parents' home and built a neoclassical mansion mimicking the Petit Trianon at Versailles, which he filled with ornate furniture, marble sculpture, gilded mirrors, tapestries and precious objects, including many owned by royals or made by royal manufacturers. He named it for his son, who was killed in World War I, and opened it to the public upon his own death.
A fast-paced video on the YouTube channel of Musées Parisiens à découvrir is an excellent introduction, with close-ups of artworks deemed by the narrator to be "perfection in taste and French style." Hantang Culture's YouTube channel tells a fuller story in its 20-minute documentary, starting with Camondo's roots in Turkey. Partly in French with English subtitles, it surveys rooms like the gold-and-white drawing room, none of whose marquetry furniture, gilt neoclassical fixtures, or other artworks may ever be moved, except within the same room. Some treasures of this relic in time can also be explored on Google Arts and Culture.
Picture galleries, Galdiano Museum
Google also allows you to see inside the Museo Lázaro Galdiano
in Madrid, a splendid neo-renaissance-style mansion that was home to José Lázaro Galdiano (1862-1947). Lázaro, a banker-turned-publisher, traveled in intellectual circles. His library contains important books and manuscripts, and he collected widely, not just Spanish art but also paintings by other European masters, antiquities and jewelry. His treasures include "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness" by Hieronymus Bosch and Goya's "Witches' Sabbath," plus works by Velázquez, Cranach, Reynolds and many more. The museum
has a YouTube channel—in Spanish, alas—but anyone can view many of the museum's masterpieces, with close-ups, on the one titled "¡Asómate a las ventanas del Museo Lázaro Galdiano!"
The museum's website has an English section where you can download room-by-room information sheets, with some images. The best one for online visitors is Room 8, with 15th- and 16th-century Spanish art. That's because you can view a panorama of it on 360cities.net. Be sure to look up, to see the stunning painted ceilings Lázaro commissioned to make his museum unique.