The Restoration of Antiquity

Gregory DiPippo

Today marks the anniversary of the birth in 1463 of Cardinal Andrea della Valle, a scion of an old Roman noble family, named for St Andrew, on the vigil of whose feast he was born. Many years after his death, a major church dedicated to the Apostle was built in a part of the center of Rome named for his family, and hence called in Italian, by a happy coincidence, Sant’ Andrea della Valle.

After entering the clergy at a young age, he had an ecclesiastical career very typical for his era. He was appointed bishop when he was only 33, and served in various administrative positions; for two years, he held the highly important role of director of the Roman curial chancery. He participated in the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Lateran from 1512-17, and was made a cardinal shortly after its conclusion. As such, he participated in two papal elections, the first in late December and early January of 1521-2, and the second in October and November of 1523. He died at the age of 70 in August of 1534, about 6 week before Pope Clement VII.

In those days, ancient sculptures were literally coming up out of the ground in Rome, and the market for them was saturated by enterprising excavators (and, to be sure, by forgers as well!) Having inherited a collection of such pieces from his family, Cardinal della Valle added a great many new items to it, and then hired a Florentine sculptor called Lorenzo Lotti (1490-1541) to arrange them within the garden of his Roman palace. (Lotti is generally known by the nickname “Lorenzetto – Little Lawrence”, and is not to be confused with the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto.) Of course, being made of naturally brittle marble, such sculptures were never found intact, and Lotti’s job was not just to arrange them, but also to repair them where they were broken.

Prior to this project, such restorations had only been done occasionally for certain very specific commissions. In his Lives of the Artists, the art historian Giorgio Vasari describes the arrangement of the collection, and notes that Lotti’s fixing of broken sculptures began a trend which would be systematically imitated by many others. This practice of completing ancient fragments with newly created additions continued from the High Renaissance until fairly recent times; the results of it can still be seen all over the museums of Europe.

“(I)n architecture, (Lorenzetto) made the designs for many houses; … in the Valle, for Cardinal Andrea della Valle, the inner façade, and also the design of the stables and of the upper garden. In the composition of that work he included ancient columns, bases, and capitals, and around the whole, to serve as base, he distributed ancient sarcophagi covered with carved scenes. Higher up, below some large niches, he made another frieze with fragments of ancient works, and above this, in those niches, he placed some statues, likewise ancient and of marble, which, although they were not entire – some being without the head, some without arms, others without legs, and every one, in short, with something missing – nevertheless he arranged to the best advantage, having caused all that was lacking to be restored by good sculptors.

(The Della Valle collection in an engraving of the mid-16th century.)

This was the reason that other lords have since done the same thing and have restored many ancient works; as, for example, Cardinals Cesi, Ferrara, and Farnese, and, in a word, all Rome. And, in truth, antiquities restored in this way have more grace than those mutilated trunks, members without heads, or figures in any other way maimed and defective.”

This collection became quite famous, and was frequently studied and imitated. Fifty years after the cardinal’s death, however, it was purchased by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, who moved most of it to his family’s Roman villa, but sent several pieces to Florence, where they are can still be seen to this day in the various sites of their vast collections such as the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace.

The word “museum” derives from the Greek word “muses”, the goddesses of artistic inspiration, and the point of a museum in those days was not to preserve ancient pieces merely for the sake of preserving them, but to provide inspiration for working artists. The standard of that age was that a complete work was by definition more beautiful than an incomplete or broken one, and therefore, more inspiring. Hence it was only natural that people would rather have a collection of complete but only partially ancient statues, rather than a collection of only partial but completely ancient statues.

Without condemning men of the past for failing to live by the standards of a later age, the fixing of ancient sculptures by adding the missing parts ex novo was not an unmixed blessing for the preservation of Roman antiquities. Many of the “restored” pieces were restored very wrongly, the most famous case being the Laocoon group, now in the Vatican Museums. For over four centuries, it was displayed, studied and imitated with a restored arm pointing in entirely the wrong direction. And in many cases, including the Laocoon, the restorers actually changed the original sculptures by cutting off intact parts in order to complete them more in keeping with how they thought they ought to look.

(The Laocoön group; note the two cuts on the raised arm. The section between the arm and torso was sawn off by a restorer in the 16th century in order to give the figure an arm raised straight above the head. The raised arm with bent elbow was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, and reattached together with the sawn-off shoulder in the 1950s.)  

Nevertheless, were it not for the diligence of men like Cardinal della Valle, we would not have many of the artistic and literary treasures that survive from the ancient world, and for this, we owe them our deepest thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *