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Italian masters educate me on the rights of the lord and lining up

Updated: 2012-08-02 10:34
By John Clark ( China Daily)

Italian masters educate me on the rights of the lord and lining up

There was a loud altercation at the head of the line. A big Chinese chap was shouting angrily and stabbing his finger at museum attendants. Everyone turned to look and I thought a fight was going to break out. Our Chinese friend explained the man was protesting about someone cutting in line.

We could appreciate his annoyance. We were at the very end of the line, which snaked up and down the National Museum of China. We were all waiting to see the latest exhibition, Renaissance in Florence: Masterpieces and their Protagonists.

Several hundred people, mostly young Chinese, were ahead of us in the line, which hardly seemed to be moving.

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People stood patiently or rested on benches between intervals of shuffling ahead a meter at a time. A group of four people sat playing cards on a bench. Were they in the line or simply enjoying the air-conditioning on a sweltering July day?

A huge child lolled on his mother's lap. His father stood in the line with the baby's stroller. An elegant young woman in a green dress sat on the bench to rest. Her toenails were painted gold. She was busy on her two mobile phones. "One for work, one for personal calls," our friend murmured.

It's funny what you notice while lining up.

After an hour the attendant announced that those near the head of the line should go to the desk and buy entrance tickets, price 10 yuan ($1.57).

Immediately a second line formed. Us British are used to lining up like sheep and have a word for it, queuing. I've noticed that Chinese people have a more cavalier attitude and will push right in whether shopping at 7/11 or getting on or off buses.

Personal space doesn't come into the equation. Unless you are right up close to the person in front, someone is going to squeeze in front of you.

We debated whether or not to seek a refund and come back another day. After all, the exhibition runs until April next year. We decided to tough it out.

After 90 minutes we were almost at the head of the line. But someone said the exhibition closed at 4 pm and it was 3.40 pm. The next 10 minutes dragged by, and then we were in. We learned the gallery didn't close until 4.30 pm.

Now, I'm not an art critic, but the canvases were breathtaking. The colors were so bright they were luminous. How can paintings nearly 500 years old retain their vivid colors?

Aside from photos, I had never seen works by Botticelli or Raffaello. Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of a young woman's head was perfection. A bronze of two wrestlers, Hercules and Anteus, was powerful and lifelike. Michelangelo's David-Apollo was sweet, although most women would probably consider him not well endowed. A portrait of Leonardo shows him with long hair and a gray beard down to his chest. There's a mad glint in his eye, or is it genius?

We realized why we had to wait so long. The gallery space was too small. You had to squeeze past people to read the explanatory notes on the paintings and sculptures. While the overall effect of the exhibition was stunning in its concentration of masterpieces, it needed more space to allow people to mill around.

After 25 minutes I slipped out of the gallery and sat down on a bench with my wife. There were probably still 50 people in the line, even though the museum was about to close.

Just then a party of about a dozen Westerners led by Chinese museum officials breezed past the line and entered the exhibition via the exit. People looked on, dumbfounded. "Probably embassy people," remarked my wife.

I said it shouldn't be allowed. Our friend said it made her angry. Minutes later there was an announcement that the gallery was closing. Outside, in the bright sunshine three vehicles were drawn up: an ambassadorial limousine with a flag, another car and a people carrier.

I strolled across to examine the flag. It was a tricolor in green, white and red - the Italian national flag. The phrase droit du seigneur - "right of the lord" - comes to mind.

Contact the writer at clark348@btinternet.com.

For China Daily

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