Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.08.56 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.56

Mette Moltesen, Perfect Partners: The Collaboration between Carl Jacobsen and his Agent in Rome Wolfgang Helbig in the Formation of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek 1887-1914.   Copenhagen:  Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, 2012.  Pp. 279.  ISBN 9788774523307.  129.90 kr.  


Reviewed by Ingrid Edlund-Berry, The University of Texas at Austin (iemeb@austin.utexas.edu)

For most visitors to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the museum represents a well-organized display of beautiful and interesting artifacts from the ancient world, including Egypt, Greece, Rome and Etruria, as well as Danish and French art, all housed in a spacious building in the center of Copenhagen. Less often, perhaps, do we stop and reflect on the origin and history of this and other museums and collections.

The history of collectors and collections has recently gained much interest, and Mette Moltesen's presentation of Carl Jacobsen in Copenhagen and Wolfgang Helbig in Rome serves as a masterful example of the breadth and depth of her research on people and objects. Although limited to one volume of text and Illustrations, the contents range over many different fields, and provide an intriguing view of many aspects of European cultural history at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

The key figures in this book are the Danish businessman, Carl Jacobsen, whose father had started the Carlsberg Brewery, and Wolfgang Helbig, a German archaeologist who lived in Rome. Both father and son Jacobsen were patrons of the arts, and both were keen on creating and displaying what they purchased from Italy and elsewhere. In 1882, the younger Jacobsen created a small museum to exhibit part of his collection, and with this the concept of the New Carlsberg Glyptotek was born.

Wolfgang Helbig enters the scene a few years later, and for the next twenty-five years he and Carl Jacobsen collaborated in creating much of what became the highlights of the present museum. On the basis of the numerous letters between the two men and the records concerning the creation of the museum and its collections, Moltesen has been able to provide a detailed analysis of Jacobsen's passion for collecting and his goal to develop a splendid museum thanks to the services of Helbig who acted as his agent in tracking down desirable antiquities in Rome and negotiating their sale.

Both Jacobsen and Helbig were very influential figures in their respective societies, but Moltesen also paints the picture of the many links between individuals and their family connections as well as the locations that determined their success. Not only was Jacobsen influenced by his father's interest in the arts and the financial support he provided, but he also very much benefitted from the presence of his wife, Ottilia Jacobsen, who stood by his side even when she doubted the wisdom of his mania for collecting. Likewise, Helbig, who was trained as a scholar of the Classics and Classical Archaeology, married a Russian princess, Nadejda or Nadine Schakovskaia, who was in charge of the household, but who also opened many doors to other aristocratic families in Rome and elsewhere. Nadine was a scholar in her own right, and copied many inscriptions that were to be included in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. She and Helbig entertained colleagues and friends from many countries, especially at their home in the Villa Lante on the Janiculum, and she was also a great animal lover. One can only speculate on the variety of topics that would have been discussed among the guests, and the influence they may have had on future archaeologists, including King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, who as a young boy visited there with his mother, Queen Victoria.

Moltesen skillfully incorporates the biographical information about the two main subjects of her book into a broader context, ranging from the growth of Rome as the new capital of Italy and the many excavations conducted there, to the discovery of many of the statues that eventually were sold to Carl Jacobsen and other collectors. Thus the lives of individuals and their families are woven into the complex history of the creation and growth of the Italian archaeological administration, its national museums, and dealings with excavators, as well as contacts with foreign scholars and museums, including rights to excavate and to purchase antiquities.

Depending on the reader's personal interests, each topic covered in this book would almost merit a separate monograph or long article. The chapters on “Rome, the Capital of Unified Italy” and “Archaeology in Rome in the Years after Unification” open up new perspectives on the topography of Rome and the discovery of key monuments (such as the Servian wall) as well as destruction of villas and parks in the city. The sometimes dramatic discovery of individual objects is discussed in chapters such as “Masterpieces from Rome” and “Sculptures Found in Rome – The ‘Horti Sallustiani’,” and provide a useful and fascinating lesson in how to create or recreate find contexts even where many pieces of the evidence are missing.

Throughout the book, the darker sides of archaeology and collecting, that is, illicit sales and purchases and deceptive forgeries, are placed in a cultural, historical, and political context. As Italian archaeologists and museum directors were trying to establish their own identity, laws about excavating, buying and selling of antiquities were either not enforced or insufficient, and buyers and collectors such as Jacobsen in Denmark, Edward Warren in the United States, and John Marshall in Britain provided a flourishing market for antiquities dealers and agents in Italy, regardless of the legalities involved. Considering the sometimes very negative picture of Helbig that has arisen in connection with the discussion on the authenticity of the Prenestine fibula, it is helpful to get a sense of the cultural life of Rome where collecting and connoisseurship, and sometimes money and prestige took on different priorities depending on the individuals involved.

To fully understand what could be referred to as Jacobsen's mania for sculpture and Helbig's role as agent but also as scholar, Moltesen provides analyses of individual objects and their history from the time of discovery until they reached the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Thus famous pieces such as the portrait of Pompey the Great, the Niobid statues, and the bronze statue of Hercules become links between the past and the present, with Rome in the late 19th century as an important intermediate connecting point.

The layout of the book is pleasing, and the many illustrations add to the clear and carefully documented presentation of the topics discussed. The index and bibliography aid the reader in locating information for further study.

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