BMCR 2021.03.54

Beyond art collections: owning and accumulating objects from Greek antiquity to the early Modern period

, , , Beyond "art collections": owning and accumulating objects from Greek antiquity to the early Modern period. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. 269. ISBN 9783110537918. €69,95.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Different people do things differently. People eat differently, worship differently, make love differently, sicken and die differently. Differences are visible across time, geography, culture, and personality. It should thus not be surprising that collectors examined in this volume, ranging from Aratus of Sikyon to Francesco I de’ Medici, viewed and collected art differently from each other and from those who are reading this volume today.

The essays collected in this volume make this point repeatedly—that ancient and premodern activities around art cannot be fully understood in modern terms—in an introductory chapter comprehensively summarizing the historiography of attempts to understand ancient art collecting, and then in a series of case studies on the subject (mostly in the Roman world, with a concluding few examples from Medieval and Renaissance Europe).

In the introductory chapter, Gabriella Cirucci and Walter Cupperi consider the value of discussing historical accumulations of artifacts as “art collections” at all. They convincingly argue that we fail to understand past behaviors and motivations when we impose modern categories of art and collecting onto them. They discuss, for example, the “diverse belongings” of the premodern rulers of Austria, who accumulated and displayed in the same spaces natural history specimens, imported paintings, arms and armor, and specialized tools for making their own curios. If we think of an art collection as featuring only non-utilitarian manmade objects, we cannot understand this assortment as a unified grouping.

Cirucci and Cupperi invite us to expand our conception of what type of artifacts belong in a collection. Our understanding of a collection should be, they argue, capacious enough to include the artifacts that historical actors actually gathered together. Cirucci and Cupperi also encourage us to look in other “places of preservation” that have not generally been recognized as holding “collections,” such as wardrobes, hoards, graves, dowries, armories, and botanical gardens. Most importantly, they want us to pay attention to the motivations of those who formed, maintained, and viewed these collections.

Cirucci and Cupperi’s recommended approach works well in cases where we have the necessary information to carry it out. Thus, Cupperi’s own chapter reconstitutes what he calls the “valuables” accumulated in a specific fortress by Charles V of Hapsburg during the 16th century. These artifacts have usually been discussed separately, divided between scholarly specialties, but Cupperi asks why the emperor would have placed state archival documents, weapons and clothes collected from the Americas, mechanical clocks, and his own portrait by Titian in the same collection. Cupperi argues that the significance of this collection was precisely in its range: the “[a]cquisition, inheritance, accumulation, bestowal and re-use of significant artifacts allowed Charles to emphasize his prominent position, his family ties and his vassal bonds.”

Similarly, Andrea M. Gáldy’s chapter argues that the Tudors, particularly Henry VII and Henry VIII, who accumulated what might seem to be a confusingly heterogeneous assortment of objects, were in fact attempting to emulate the categories of objects collected by the Hapsburgs, the Dukes of Burgundy, and other dynasties whose security of succession they wished to obtain. Valentina Conticelli reconsiders various Italian collections, most interestingly, the Tribuna of the Uffizi. Although it is today regarded as a jewel box of a gallery, holding the most precious artistic masterpieces of the Uffizi museum, Conticelli points out that in the 16th century, the Grand Dukes used the Tribuna as part of a connected series of rooms that housed not only paintings and sculptures but also goldsmithing equipment used by the Dukes themselves. And Susanne Wittekind writes about medieval European church treasuries, revealing their evolution from focusing on liturgical objects to reliquaries to objects connected to specific donors.

The authors of the these chapters use information previously ignored by scholars to come to new understandings of collections. The volume’s other contributors, who discuss various accumulations of objects in the ancient world, face a much harder task. Information on both ancient collectors’ motivations and the contents of their collections is, all too often, simply impossible to recover.

One of the key difficulties with understanding ancient collections is that we rarely have information both about the reactions of collectors and viewers and about the objects to which they were reacting. Much more often, we excavate accumulations of objects without information about whom they belonged to, much less what they thought about them. Alternately, we read ancient texts in which authors describe their reactions to collections without being completely certain which artifacts they were reacting to or where and how they encountered them.

Jane Fejfer faces the first of these difficulties in her contribution, which combines a theoretical discussion of collecting with an analysis of the Villa dei Papiri, where we can reconstruct much of what a visitor would have seen shortly before its sudden destruction. Fejfer reminds us that we cannot understand an ancient collection if we look only at a selection what it contained, such as the artifacts we would currently categorize as fine art. Fejfer also points out that we must take into account the changes in an ancient collection over time, when it passed to different owners or when social conditions changed around it. But, after blocking off so many paths to unsatisfactory interpretations, Fejfer’s careful attention to the villa’s contents culminates in vague suggestions, such as that the stylistic contrast between its shaggy portraits of Greek philosophers and restrained Roman Republican ones “must have been provocative to the viewer.” She does not specify exactly what reactions would have been provoked. Since no information survives about how viewers reacted to the collections of the Villa dei Papiri, all we can do is acknowledge such reactions existed without being able to recover them. But Fejfer’s interesting questions are themselves valuable, even when she cannot provide definitive answers. It is important to avoid the false clarity offered by looking at the past through the lens of the present.

Susan Walker’s chapter on the late antique House of Venus in Volubilis shows that careful attention to the whole of a collection can lead to new insights even if definite conclusions remain elusive. Volubilis developed during the reign of Juba II, a client-king of emperor Augustus, but was abandoned by Roman authorities in 285 CE. Walker demonstrates that the decorative program of the House of Venus was installed after this abandonment. Its fine bronzes, including a bust of Juba II, were already antiques by the time they were installed on purpose-built pedestals. Walker shows that these busts must have been important to their owners, since the house’s mosaic floor decoration was designed to highlight them. But why would the house’s inhabitants have wanted, as Walker puts it, to have “conjured up a long vanished status quo ante” of the early imperial kingdom through these busts? Was the person responsible for arranging the art a Miss Havisham, stuck in mourning for the glories of an irrecoverable past, or an optimistic booster hopeful that glory days might come once again? Without more evidence, even the most skilled examination of this site can support opposing interpretations.

In other chapters, Georg A. Plattner and Gabriella Cirucci offer useful surveys of what can be known about the sculptures in the ‘Marmorsaal’ of the Harbour Baths in Ephesus and the display of classical Greek marble votive reliefs in Roman houses. Gianfranco Adornato and Eva Falachi mine literary sources, looking at what collecting might mean in Plutarch’s Life of Aratus and on the Roman art market as it can be understood through hints in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. On a more theoretical level, Alessandro Poggio argues that we should not understand Rome’s public displays of art in Rome as museums, since this would lead us to err in assuming that these ancient artworks were always visible, were protected against touch or modification, and did not move once installed.

None of these chapters on the ancient world can offer as complete an understanding of collecting activities as Cirucci and Cupperi advocate for in their introduction. But this is not surprising. Our difficulty in understanding collecting is not confined to the ancient world. An activity that can combine love, greed, aesthetic pleasure, and social positioning, art collecting is marked by a confusingly wide variety of individual behaviors and motivations. Kenneth Lapatin, for example, has examined the underpinnings of J. Paul Getty’s antiquities collecting.[1] Without Getty’s own substantial writings about his collecting practices, we would have no idea that he selected objects he believed had been owned by Hadrian because he considered himself the emperor of Getty Oil and entertained the possibility he was a reincarnation of Hadrian.

Without evidence beyond merely a record of what someone owned, it is nearly impossible to understand what these possessions meant to them. Take William Randolph Hearst: the billionaire newspaper magnate bought antiquities and other artworks in Europe by the crateful—but many of those remained in those crates, in storage until his death. Were these objects forgotten by him, or did he continue to think of them as full of meaning and undeployed possibility? If so much remains mysterious about modern art collectors, it is not surprising that ancient art collectors will resist interpretation as well. Still, as the examples in this volume show, we can at least be careful to follow the ancient material instead of being led by our assumptions.

Authors and titles

Gabriella Cirucci and Walter Cupperi, “Beyond ‘Art Collections’: Rethinking a Canon of Historiography”
Jane Fejfer, “Displacing Artifacts: Towards a Framework for Studying Collecting in the Ancient Roman World”
Gabriella Cirucci, “Too Ugly to be Collected? Unexpected Greek ‘Originals’ in Roman Contexts”
Eva Falachi, “Collecting and Owning Sikyonian Paintings: Aratus of Sikyon and his Interest for Art in Plutarch’s Perspective”
Gianfranco Adornato, “Ut etiam fictilia pluris constent quam murrina: Art market, Canons, and Archaeological Evidence”
Alessandro Poggio, “Accumulating and Interacting: Artworks in Ancient Rome’s Public Spaces”
Susan Walker, “Memories of Mauretania: A Late Antique Installation in the House of Venus, Volubilis”
Georg A. Plattner, “The ‘Marmorsaal’ of the Harbour Baths in Ephesus and the Avarian Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós: Two Case Studies”
Susanne Wittekind, “Treasures on Display: On the Forms of Exhibition of Medieval Church Treasures”
Walter Cupperi, “Charles V’s Valuables in Simancas: Titian’s Charles V with a Drawn Sword and Other Items with a Controversial Status”
Valentina Conticelli, “Studiolo, Gratta, Cupola e Museum: La Tribuna di Francesco I de’ Medici e le Stanze di Bianca Cappello e Don Antonio agli Uffizi”
Andrea M. Gáldy, “A Material Dynasty: Royal Collections and Collecting in Tudor England, 1485-1603”


[1] “The Getty Villa: Art, Architecture, and Aristocratic Self-Fashioning in the Mid-Twentieth Century,” in Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today, ed. Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 270-85.