BMCR 2020.10.50

Antiquities in motion: from excavation sites to Renaissance collections

, Antiquities in motion: from excavation sites to Renaissance collections. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2019. Pp. 292. ISBN 9781606065914. $80.00.


The scholarship on Renaissance antiquities has been approached mainly from the collectors’ perspective, tending to avoid critical questions on the social and economic aspects of collections, and focusing instead on uncovering art historical and intellectual aims of collecting. With this beautiful book, Furlotti remedies this situation. With her ‘bottom up’ approach she unveils the complex of sociocultural contexts of the antiquities from the time when they are dug up from Roman soil until they enter a collection. In so doing, Furlotti unveils hitherto understudied actors in the antiquities trade: the vinediggers, peasants, dealers, restorers and lawmakers, who all had a role to play in the making of a marketable antiquity. Two main actors in Furlotti’s study are the Stampa brothers, who were central movers and shakers in the antiquities market of Rome during the Seicento. Furlotti’s methodical and meticulous reading of the sources —contracts, court papers and letters— allows us to access and understand the complex world of the antiquities trade in 17th-century Rome across a wide range of the sociocultural actors.

Furlotti begins her narrative not in Renaissance Rome, but with a range of current events that illustrate how our dealings with antiquities are always fraught with so much more than innocent scholarly or aesthetic appreciation. These events range from the total moral bankruptcy and criminal abuse of the past that is the illegal trade of antiquities from the Middle East and North Africa blossoming in the last decade and funding terrorist activities across the globe. They include also the more innocent transgressions of Northern European tourists, who apparently have developed a taste for the sampietrini of the Roman streets and with surprising frequency attempt to smuggle in their luggage their illegally obtained souvenirs. Furlotti argues that we should approach the antiquities trade in Renaissance Rome with a similarly critical perspective in order to fully understand the complex world of this earlier practice.

The book is beautifully published and its rich illustrations provide the reader with a visual layer of information that enhances the experience of engaging closely with the people and the city of Rome in the Seicento. Furlotti builds her argument through a logical narrative that follows the antiquities’ voyage from excavation to collection in eight chapters, each ending with a summary conclusion.  An appendix provides transcriptions and translations of the archival documents that formed the basis of Furlotti’s research.

Chapter 1 discusses the social structures surrounding the excavation and brokerage of newly unveiled antiquities which facilitated their travels from the hands of vinediggers, laborers and peasants to dealers and middlemen. Drawing on legal documents, Furlotti demonstrates the keen interest in regulating the rights to excavate, move and trade antiquities found on private and public properties, thus highlighting the impact of the antiquities trade on Roman economic and social structure across the board: from the papal court over the city to the private citizen.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 follow the movement of the finds into the world of dealers, rummagers and shopkeepers, showing how this shift in physical and socio-cultural context endowed the objects with new economic value, cultural status and meaning. We are here introduced to the many agents in the antiquities trade: merchants, antiquaries, artists, restorers and agents, who spin a web of significance around the items. Furlotti highlights the role of companies, the commercial partnerships of individuals who joined forces to gain a foothold on the antiquities market while sharing financial responsibility, thus minimising the risk of ruin in a volatile economic landscape. In particular, Furlotti’s analysis of the identity and conceptualization of the antiquary in 17thcentury Europe from the vantage point of the antiquities market adds nuances to our understanding of this figure in a context that goes beyond the scholarly world of the humanists. Here the detailed analysis of the Stampa family, especially the brothers Vincenzo and Giovanni Antonio, provides an engaging portrait of the dealer-antiquarian “in the flesh”, and demonstrates the complex and precarious role of the middle-men who facilitated the movement of antiquities from the marketplace to the collections.

Through archival case studies of individual sculptors who also acted as restorers Furlotti shows how their collaboration with the dealer-antiquarians added marketability to ancient objects through cleaning, restoration, modification and additions. Furlotti rightly points out the scarcity of ancient documentation and modern research on restoration practices in the Renaissance and our need to develop a methodology of restorations-studies. A more extensive discussion of this very interesting topic could have enhanced the aspect of material culture in Furlotti’s explorations of the antiquities trade. Likewise, the extremely relevant topic of the identity of the antiquary could have been developed further. However, Furlotti’s thoughtful insights into our understanding of these pivotal elements of European art history serve however as solid arguments for further studies.

Chapters 5 and 6 tackle the complex process of the valuation and pricing of the antiquities as they moved through the different contexts of their market. This analysis shows how prices were affected by timing and demand, and were negotiated across several actors, all having an interest in defining and modifying the value of an object. Different technologies of dissemination—reports, drawings, casts, displays— were instrumental in this process involving a range of artists, agents and craftsmen. The exchange of money and objects was more than just an economic transaction, but affected social status and relationships, careers and reputations in a social context where much more than simply monetary value was as stake.

This line of inquiry is continued in chapters 7 and 8, documenting in detail the vast web of actors involved in transporting antiquities from Rome to their new owners—again a practice where illegal activities were normalized. Many practicalities and risks were involved in the transport and Furlotti stresses the central place of these activities in the antiquities trade. While neglected in modern scholarship, this analysis is particularly effective at showing the vast context of material culture and people involved in a trade that encompassed wide social contexts, from carpenters to cardinals.

While the mobility of antiquities and the consequent changes and re-valuations of them both in terms of economy and identity politics have been subjected to a fair amount of investigation focussing on the ages of the Great Excavations and later,[1] this perspective is most welcome in a Renaissance context. Unique is Furlotti’s attention to the contemporary written sources and people who inhabit this complex field in Seicento Rome, thus setting an example to follow for further research along this vein. The role of technologies and media in today’s antiquities market suggests important parallels and questions on the role not only of the objects themselves, but that of agents—human and material—in the valuation of antiquities across time and place.

Furlotti in her introduction (p. 3.) does say that her book will develop theoretical perspectives on the ontological and economic transformations of the antiquities as they pass through shifting socio-cultural contexts— yet this aspect remains underdeveloped.  It remains unclear which theoretical framework Furlotti applies and seeks to develop. This lack, however, does not detract from the fact that this book is essential reading for any scholar in the field of Renaissance collections and provides crucial insights into the complex socio-cultural context of the antiquities’ trade in s Rome during the Seicento.


[1] E.g. S. Dyson, In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts: A History of Classical Archaeology in the 19th and 20th centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006; B. Jezernik, “Constructing Identities on Marbles and Terracotta: Representations of Classical Heritage in Greece and Turkey.” Museum Anthropology 30.1. (2007): 3-20. E. Marlowe, Shaky Ground. Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman art. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.