Medieval Collections of Antiquities

This head in the Kimball Museum is a late Hellenistic copy after Lysippos' Apoxyomenos, or Athlete (source). It sold for a record price at Sotheby's NY in June 2000, partly because of the quality of the piece, but mostly because of it's provenance.

It was in the collection of Bernardo Nani, a Venetian senator (1712-1761), and that is the first record we have of its collecting history, in his museum at San Trovaso. We know that it had been in a collection for at least two centuries before that, as it was mounted on a bust dating to the 16th century: the bust was made by a sculptor of the Lombardo family, possibly Antonio (1458-1516). It was published in 1761 in Monumenta Peloponnesiaca commentariis explicata a Paullo M Paciaudo, 2, Rome, 1761, pp. 47 and 69, fig. 211 (engraving by B. Bartolotti) which may suggest it came from the Peloponnese, or may be irrelevant.

The Nani collection at San Trovaso was one of the most magnificent collections of antiquities in the region, but there were many others (see this book). This may be because Venice was a great trader, who maintained ties with Constantinople / Istanbul, but also in part must have resulted from her holdings in Greece.

Some antiquities were collected for their artistic values, but many architectural elements came back to Venice as ballast, and where then used in the construction of palazzi (for example elements of the Parthenon; a capital from St Polyeuktos in Istanbul). Most re-use of architectural blocks and spolia is local, but these examples show how far they could travel by sea (much of Alexandria in Troad made the journey up the coast to Constantinople, as foundations for the Byzantine harbour).

So it's not surprising that Vasari tells us that the first collections of ancient sculptures in Italy were formed in Venice, long before ones were formed in Florence or Rome. He also tells us that some, such as the Roman patrician Cardinal Andrea della Valle (1463-1534) not only collected but also inherited a collection formed a century earlier.

Bronzes were more highly prized in Antiquity than marble statues, but tend not to have survived as they were melted down so that their material could be re-used.

One of the few statues we know was never lost is the equestrian portrait of Marcus Aurelius to the left - it survived as it was thought to depict Constantine, the emperor that had converted the Empire to Christianity, as so was venerated as an image of this saint.

Where it stood in his lifetime is unknown, but by the 8th century AD it was at the Lateran Palace; in the Renaissance it became part of Michelangelo's Capitoline complex.

The Campidoglio as it was in 1568 can be seen in this engraving of Étienne Dupérac:

The Renaissance was a 're-birth' of Classical forms and ideas, so Vasari emphasised his study of Pliny, but it's a term that can also suggest that there was no appreciation of Antiquity in the Medieval Period. Ciriaco d'Ancona was an antiquarian who visited Greece, Turkey and Egypt - he recorded many inscriptions, which can still be used to link up sculptures that are still extant ... it's harder to be sure from his drawings, as you can see here, and once they were re-drawn by Giuliano da Sangallo, all I can say is 'hats off' to anyone who immediately recognised these monuments:

(The winner is anyone who said The Philopappos Monument and The Tower of the Winds, both in Athens).

The Colossus of Barletta, a Late Antique emperor, possibly made it's way to the city after the Fouth Crusade (1204), and is first recorded there in 1309 (the source tells us that the Dominicans chopped off his arms and legs and used the bronze to cast church bells).

We know that another colossal statue was excavated in Ravenna in 1231-1232, when Frederick II decided to dig there - but we can't identify it today.

This Late Antique equestrian portrait, assigned to everyone from Septimius Severus to Theodoric survives only in drawings (images). The statue was first in Ravenna according to Petrarch, before it was taken to Pavia, possibly by the Lombards who made the city their capital (568-774). The Milanese attacked, took it to Milan, then it was returned to Pavia in 1335. It was drawn by Leonardo in 1490, recorded there in 1505 in Statuta de Regimie Piatis Civilie, but was finally destroyed by the Jacobins in 1796.

This bronze lamb, after an early Hellenistic original, now in Palermo, was outside the Castello Maniace in Syracuse since the Medieval period (photo source) ... It's pair is now missing, but we know the fort was built in 1038 by the Byzantine general George Maniakes, and rebuilt by Frederick II between 1232-1240.

The castle can be seen in this 1630 drawing, when the two rams would have been in front of it:

We know that Frederick II was an early excavator, having dug at Ravenna and in Sicily at Megara Hyblaea (modern Augusta).

We know that the Parthenon sculptures were collected long before Elgin, but we tend to forget how dispersed some of the slabs from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus were: some were built into the Castle of St Peter in Bodrum, one made its way to Istanbul, another into an Ottoman house in Rhodes, yet another to the Villa di Negro in Genoa. In the early 1500s Fra' Sabba da Castiglione wanted to ship the entire structure to Mantua, but only got his hands on the heads of some Amazons (he acted as an agent for Isabella d'Este).

Anyone that has been to Pisa cannot fail to observe how influential ancient art was on the Medieval arts of that city - not just ancient coins on their medals, but also the many sarcophagi collected in the Camposanto. See Sheppard's Classicism in Romanesque Sculpture in Tuscany (JSTOR) or Markham Telpaz's Some Antique Motifs in Trecento Art (JSTOR). We all know Renaissance artists picked out Classical motifs - but so did Medieval ones.

We may identify antiquities thefts with looting of museums today, or Romans carrying off the best sculptures from Greek sanctuaries, but there also examples of Medieval warlords doing so. Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia and Calabria (c. 1015 -1085), according to the Chronicon Romualdi Salernitani, took gates, columns and capitals from Palermo (7.1.188: in AD 1072, and from Bari in 1071) to embellish his capital Troia in Apulia.

Perhaps the best example of how little we appreciate Medieval collecting is the case of the Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. It has been on the Capitoline since 1471, and was long believed to be Etruscan or Roman with 'modern' twins created by Antonio del Pollaiolo in the late 1400s. Recent tests have suggested that it might have been made in the 13th century, although these remain contentious. There was a famous sculpture of the She-Wolf described by Pliny (in the Forum) and Cicero (struck by lightning in 65 BC on the Capitoline), and many romantics would like to see it as the same sculpture surviving to our day. As early as 1878 Wilhelm Fröhner argued for it being a Carolingian work of art, since Charlemagne was famous for his interest in Antiquity (most copies of Vitruvius that survive are from his reign), and some scholars have continued to believe this, with an increasing number arguing that it was a Romanesque creation.

What's interesting is that there are several accounts from the 10th century onwards that described a bronze wolf outside the Lateran Palace, and one must wonder why this wolf disappears to be replaced by a 13th century copy: "In porticu etiam ante hiemale palatium domini pape" (Gregory, 12th century). In de mirabilibus urbis Romae, Magister Gregorius describes the wolf as being place as if stalking a bronze ram from whose mouth ran water ("ante palatium prefatum aquam abluendis manibus ore emittit") - water also came out of the wolf's nipples! It strikes me that the Palermo ram has an open mouth, and could have been used for this purpose, in which case this might be where it stood before it was moved to Syracuse? The wolf's teats will need further examination, to see if they were closed up when the twins were added. By the 12th century, Gregory informs us that the legs of the wolf had broken off ("Lupa etiam quondam singulis mammis aquam abluendis manibus emittebat, sed nunc fractis pedibus a loco suo divulsa es") - a flaw in their casting has been one argument for a Medieval date, and it may well be that these legs were later repairs.

Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai saw what he described as a "lupa pregna" outside the Lateran in 1450, along with an "altra figuretta di bronzo" ... Assuming that the Lateran and Capitoline statues are one and the same, this is the last record of it at the Lateran. The earliest mention of it was in the Chronicon of Benedict of Soracte in  AD 968, who writes about "the place of the Wolf" outside the Lateran as being where trials and executions took place ... The Lateran Palace had been destroyed in the earthquake of AD 896, and re-built by Sergius III (904-911), so where the Wolf stood before then, who knows.

This image (source) is a later copy of a contemporary fresco that was in the Lateran Basilica (until 1587), showing the execution on the 12th September 1438 of Capocciolo and Garofolo for having stolen precious stones from the High Altar. I feel that Rucellai confused pregnancy and lactation, and that this is indeed the Wolf that had stood outside the Lateran since the 10th century, and which was moved to the Capitoline in 1471, and which survives to this day.

When Sixtus IV moved the Wolf to the Capitoline in 1471, he also moved several other bronzes to the hill. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius had previously stood between the Lateran palace and basilica. The so-called Camillus (seen to the left), was also brought there from the Lateran. As was the Spinario, or Boy with Thorn, seen by Gregory and Benjamin of Tudela in AD1166 at the Lateran (JSTOR), and which was widely copied in the Renaissance. And a colossal head, and a colossal arm, and ...

The happy ending to this story is that although the equestrian statue was not of Constantine, the colossal head and hand - described by Benjamin as 'Samson' and which once stood on pillars outside the Lateran - were of Constantine (images below, source).

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