Museums And Collections Of Antiquities In Rome (1800-1815)

Hélène Dufresne (translation Elli Doulkaridou)

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the museums and collections of antiquities in Rome presented a very particular panorama. Following the Italian Campaign and despite the restoration of the Papal States, the confiscation of artworks decreed by the Treaty of Tolentino was well underway since 1797 and aimed above all at antiquities. The most beautiful works of art were sent to Paris in convoys where they were received with great pomp as veritable trophies. They were integrated into the collections of the Louvre, and presented to the public in the Hall of Antiquities of the Musée Napoléon as early as 1800.

Roman museums appeared therefore deprived of their finest artworks. Only a few works survived in the Pio Clementino museum, which habitually held the antiquities collection of the Vatican, such as gems and coins that had been carefully hidden and therefore escaped confiscation.

The rooms were almost empty except for the occasional fragments of statues, subjects of partial confiscation, or casts made ​​after the originals before being sent to Paris. Modern works suffered the same fate, and the Galleria dei Quadri bore many empty frames. The Capitoline Museum, which held the antiquities of the Commune, had not been spared either, and many famous works such as the Capitoline Brutus, the Dying Gaul (Galatian), and even the Spinario (Boy with thorn), one of the highlights of the museum, had been sent to Paris.            

The Treaty of Tolentino had also allowed the looting of private collections. This is how the entire Albani collection was transferred to Paris and why only a small part of the Braschi collection remained in Rome. 1807 marks the year when the major part of the Roman sculptures of the Borghese family were sold under duress by Camillo Borghese to his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, along with the rest of the collection. The financial crisis also forced some families to sell their collections, such as the Giustiniani family, who gave away part of their collection to Lucien Bonaparte, and deposited the rest as security for a loan to the Banco Torlonia.

Even if it was impossible to prevent the spoliation imposed by his predecessor, Pius VII (elected Pope in 1800) responded to these confiscations with an aggressive policy. Indeed, he did not cease to replenish the encumbered Vatican collections, allocating funds for the systematic purchase of ancient works on the market, thus turning the Vatican into the most important buyer of antiquities in the beginning of the nineteenth century. He also directed and funded new excavations on Roman soil in order to fill the museums with new, unknown works. Implemented by Antonio Canova, Ispettore Generale delle Belle Arti (General Inspector of Fine Arts) for life, this policy bore its fruit and the opening of an additional museum that would accommodate all the works – estimated at about 1000 pieces – became quickly necessary. This is how, after two years of (construction) work, the new Chiaramonti Museum, after the family name of Pius VII, opened its doors to the public in 1807.

At the fall of the Napoleonic Empire the Vienna Congress agreed on the restitution of works taken/looted during the French occupation, and the first convoys of works brought back under the vigilance of Canova began returning to Rome from 1815 onwards.


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