Berlin's answer to Louvre opens up its Byzantine treasure trove

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The Independent Online

Berlin's ambition to host a permanent exhibition of priceless artefacts rivalling the Louvre has taken a major step forward with the reopening of the city's neo-Baroque Bode museum which houses a dazzling collections of antique and Byzantine sculptures.

The imposing domed building, which straddles an island in the city's river Spree like the bow of a ship, was formally opened after a €152m (£102m) renovation which has restored the museum to its original, immaculate condition. It had been slowly decaying for 67 years.

Shattered by Allied bombs during the Second World War and neglected during East Berlin's communist era, the museum has not only been structurally revamped.

Hundreds of works that were removed during the war and stored on opposite sides of the city's infamous Wall during the Cold War were finally reunited under one roof.

"Visitors will see that the Bode museum contains one of the most beautiful, largest and most significant collections of sculptures dating from late antiquity [Greek and Roman culture] until around 1800," Arne Effenberger, the museum director, said.

The 1,700 sculptures were brought together originally by Wilhelm von Bode, the museum's turn-of-the-century founding director and were intended as a triumphant demonstration of Prussian cultural enlightenment and prowess. Yet it fell to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who would plunge Germany into the maelstrom of the First World War, to inaugurate the museum in 1904. After 1918, and for much of the Cold War, the building was, as a result, dismissed as a vestige of despised Prussian imperialism.

Yesterday, the museum's complete collection, which includes lavishly ornate door-frames from Venetian palaces, 15th-century Dutch, Flemish and German masterpieces and Baroque and Byzantine sculptures and murals, was open to view for the first time since 1939.

In 60 vast, wood-ceilinged halls floored with terracotta tiles, the amount of space allocated to each exhibit allowed visitors to view each breathtaking artefact in extraordinary close up.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a 15th-century Madonna and child by the Dutch master Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden. After The Second World War and throughout the Cold War, the Madonna stood alone in the Bode Museum while the child remained on display in a museum in capitalist West Berlin. Yesterday the two figures were finally to be seen reunited.

The Bode museum's lavish restoration is part of Berlin's plans to re-establish the city as one of Europe's most significant cultural centres with a choice of museums to rival Paris.

The process began shortly after German reunification in 1990, when Unesco awarded world cultural heritage status to the city's "museum island", the site of the Bode, National Gallery and Pergamon museum. The century-old National Gallery has been restored and there are plans to start rebuilding the Pergamon by the end of the decade.

But the costs of restoring museums, many of which have remained almost untouched since 1945, have been grossly underestimated. Months ago, Germany's Federal Accounts Bureau admitted that the €500m originally earmarked for the rebuilding programme, would have to be trebled if the project were to be completed by the target date of 2015. David Chipperfield, the architect masterminding the museum island project, said: "It may take till 2050 until the project is finished."