Magazine article The Spectator

Amid the Alien Limbs

Magazine article The Spectator

Amid the Alien Limbs

Article excerpt

Amid the alien limbs

THE PLEASURES OF ANTIQUITY: BRITISH COLLECTORS OF GREECE AND ROME by Jonathan Scott Yale, L40, pp. 340, ISBN 0300098545

In 1882 the German archaeologist Adolf Michaelis published his authoritative Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, a book which is still in use by scholars. 'No other country in Europe/he wrote, 'can at this day boast of such a wealth of Private Collections of antique works of art as England, which in this particular recalls the Rome of the 16th and 17th centuries'. The English collections of ancient sculpture have continued to fascinate scholars, particularly archaeologists, from Germany, America and Britain.

Jonathan Scott's account is fresh and lively. Having been for ten years chairman of the Reviewing Committee for the Export of Works of Art, he is quite at home with 18th-century methods of getting past the Papal Antiquary at Rome by 'presents' or wangling. His is a historian's, not an archaeologist's approach. The book is primarily about the collectors, and secondly about their collections. Architecture and sculptural quality come third and fourth.

The first of the British collectors was the Earl of Arundel, whose accumulation in the 17th century was vast, though, it seems, rather indiscriminate. Some of it was bought by the 8th Earl of Pembroke, who made a massive collection from distinguished sources. His enthusiasm was greater than his knowledge, and Michaelis was scathing about 'the large number of spurious pieces, the abominable restorations, and the absurd nomenclature'. The same could be said of most of the dilettante collections, but that would not be fair. Fakes and false names came from the dealers at Rome, and a complete restoration of missing limbs was accepted practice before 1800. Since then, archaeologists have removed alien arms, legs, heads, and even noses. Contrariwise, historians often prefer to see them in place, and at the Vatican the 16th-century arms of Apollo Belvedere have actually been put back.

In 18th-century Rome there were always plenty of rich young Englishmen making their grand tour. The few who wanted objects or knowledge necessarily had to go to the antiquaries, who were usually also restorers, dealers and skilful salesmen: Cavaceppi and Piranesi, and the British Thomas Jenkins and Gavin Hamilton. Jenkins, the most active, was famously economical with the truth and made a great deal of money. …

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