Visitors, Display, and Reception in the Antiquity Collections of Late-Renaissance Rome*

By Stenhouse, William | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Visitors, Display, and Reception in the Antiquity Collections of Late-Renaissance Rome*


Stenhouse, William, Renaissance Quarterly


The elaborate and spectacular collections of antiquities developed in Renaissance Rome were a feature of the city that contemporary observers recognized as distinctive, characteristic, and hence worthy of their attention. Sixteenth-century guidebooks recommended that visitors start taking notice of these new displays of old material, along with Christian shrines and classical buildings. From these guidebooks, and from inventories and drawings, it has been possible to determine the contents of many Roman collections and to reconstruct how the objects were displayed in considerable detail. (1) On its own, however, this information does not convey the experience of the viewer in the collections. What other factors affected how visitors looked at antiquities? By exploring this question, this article argues that although most scholars have assumed that visitors had free and casual access, important evidence shows that they usually saw Roman collections in carefully controlled circumstances, and that these circumstances changed in the course of the second half of the sixteenth century. In this period, collections became more open to guests, inaugurating an important stage in the history of collecting: the shift from the idea of a private collection to the idea of a more public institutional museum. This shift helped to concretize the Renaissance notion that it was important to preserve and present objects. (2) Although collecting practices developed elsewhere as well, Rome's centrality in Renaissance eyes meant that visitors' experiences in the collections there were likely to have played an important role in creating a model against which to compare other examples. For example, Gabriele Simeoni (1509-75), one of the travelers who recounted his experiences of antiquity collections in the city, was hired shortly after his visit to Italy to create a display of antiquities near Paris. (3) In some respects--most notably in the widespread display of antiquities in gardens--collections at Rome were unlike any others, but the city's visibility and influence make it an excellent case study for the emergence of a wider phenomenon.

It is only from ca. 1550 onward that enough evidence for visitors' experiences in collections survives to draw some general conclusions about how they were received, although the habit of collecting antiquities at Rome was well established by then. This evidence usually takes the form of casual accounts of visits, some details of which can be confirmed by the architectural structures in which antiquities were displayed, rather than formal guidebooks (before ca. 1800, guidebooks tended to provide names of places and things to see, with little practical information about how to do so, although there are some exceptions which will be examined below). (4) Roughly speaking, sixteenth-century accounts fall chronologically into two groups, those from between 1550 and 1565 and those from 1580 to 1600. After considering collections and their social and political functions in general, this essay will examine the two groups separately. The period as a whole was a turbulent time for antiquity collections at Rome. Large numbers of antiquities were exported from the city; the cardinals (the most important collectors of antiquities at this time) saw their practical power and influence decline as that of individual popes grew; and defenders of Catholicism during and after the sessions of the Council of Trent began regularly to question cardinals' public personae. At the same time, it was during this period that new methods of displaying art and other cultural products were developed on the Italian peninsula and beyond. A comparison of the experiences of visitors between 1550-65 and 1580-1600, therefore, is able not only to illustrate the growing accessibility of collections, but also to connect this development to wider cultural and ecclesiastical changes.

1. THE PHENOMENON OF THE ANTIQUITY COLLECTION

Beginning ca. …

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