A chill wind was blowing along The High Street this morning, the sky was gray, and except for the daffodils, it might well have been winter. A siren wailed, a three-legged dog ran down the street, and an agitated old man at a bus stop looked straight at me and said, “Nobody knows where they’re going.”
I agreed with him in an existential sort of way, but at this moment we knew exactly where we were going: the Print Room of the Ashmolean. A guard named Manfred had suggested it to me as I wandered about the museum the week before. Manfred was the opposite of what one would expect in a museum guard. He urged me to unfurl the red covering to view the tapestries beneath, to walk behind a glass showcase to examine the carving on the back of a violin, to take my time and get up close to things. His demeanor was that of an enthusiastic host.
“If you’re going to be here for a few days,” said Manfred, “you should make an appointment to go to the print room. I think you’ll find it worth your while.”
And so it came to pass that Monte, Miranda, and I knocked at a locked door tucked away in an upstairs corner of the museum and were welcomed by a young woman with a French accent and dangly earrings. After we removed our coats and stashed our bags, she led us into a room lined with bookcases, cabinets, and catalog drawers. It was a hushed and church-like place that smelled of old wood. The only evidence of time’s passing was an antique clock on a shelf above a desk. We sat an oak table across from a sign that instructed us to Please Converse Quietly.
“What would you like to see?” asked the lovely French woman.
“Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Pissarro…” I replied, as though I were ordering from a restaurant menu. Maybe a little Degas for dessert? The Print Room of the Ashmolean houses an extraordinary collection of European prints and drawings from the fifteenth century to contemporary times. Easily damaged by light and humidity, these fragile works do not lend themselves to public exhibition, but an up-close and intimate look is offered here, and there are literally thousands from which to choose. I figured we couldn’t go wrong starting out with Michelangelo.
Wearing white gloves, the woman took a large flat box from a drawer, carried it to where we were sitting, placed it on a green cloth spread out on the table in front of us, removed three mounted prints from the box, and set them on easels before us. She also placed a thick hard-covered book on the table-- a catalog listing and annotating the collection of drawings of the Italian schools -- then walked away to let us look.
Thus began our encounter with several drawings by Michelangelo, starting with a 'brazen serpent' (in which ‘a mass of small writhing figures struggle against the fierce serpents attacking from above’), an 'ideal head' in turban-like headdress (‘with expression suggestive of brooding melancholy’), and a giant muscular Samson betrayed by a disproportionately small but chunky Delilah seen beckoning to the Philistines.
In the course of an hour, we viewed various sketches by the Italian masters, scenes by Rembrandt, a ballerina study by Degas, and glimpses of a bucolic world by Pissarro. We could have lingered, returned after lunch, visited daily for years, I suppose. It's all there, and all set before you with white gloves, whether you're a scholar, an aristocrat, or just a curious American come in from the cold and the bustle outside.