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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER II COLLECTOMANIA IN ROME
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   Collectomania develops—Rampant parvenuism in Rome—Extravagant prices paid for art and curio—Faking arrives—Good and foolish collectors as seen by writers and satirists of the time—Art dealing—The septæ, shops and auction rooms.

Such was the earliest type of the real collector of art in Rome, a first phase in a city where the passion for art was, generally speaking, rarely genuine. This phase led first to the acquisition of what might be styled something between ambition and love of display. Then the trade in objects of art eventually appeared, and as a logical consequence, imitation and fraudulent art finally had their scope. Fictitious masterpieces of painting and sculpture, often signed, as in modern times, with the forged names of noted artists, were already on the market before Cicero’s time. “Odi falsas inscriptiones statuarum alienarum” (I hate the forged inscriptions on statues not one’s own), remarks Cicero, who although somewhat of a collector himself never missed a chance to ridicule the pretentious amateur lost in hysterical ecstasy before imitations supposed to be original works, or of fanning the art lover’s pseudo-enthusiasm for the work of Polycletus, which was extremely fashionable at one time among art collectors.

Thus forgery received a great impulse when art reached its climax in Rome and multiplied the number of collectors, dragging after it in its triumphal march wealth and all the fickle forces of wealth. Taste in art, then, became apparently more exclusive, or rather, according to Quintilian, more25 unstable in its standards. “Nowadays,” says the Latin rhetorician and critic, “they prefer the childish monochrome works of Polycletus and Aglæphon to the more expressive and more recent artists.” Yet, very likely not understanding this not unusual love for the archaic and the odd, so common in collectors of all ages, Quintilian cannot explain the preference for work he considers gross, except by fashion or what we should call to-day a snobbish sentiment. Criticizing the art in vogue, he adds, in fact: “I should call this art childish compared to that of most illustrious artists who came afterwards, but in my judgment it is, of course, only pretension” (XII, 10).

It is evident that with the Romans as with us—the times are not entirely dissimilar; indeed but for art critics, the new modern fad, they might be called identical—prices paid for works of art, or simple curiosities, became freakish and fabulous, going up or down in a single period according to fickle fashion. The momentary passion for murrhines, for instance, tempted a collector to pay for one of these cups of fluor-spar a sum approximating to £14,200. Another mania succeeded, that of tables made of citrus, a species of rare wood, possibly Thuja, grown on the slopes of Mount Athos. Cathegus invested in one of these fashionable tables a sum equivalent to twelve thousand pounds. Then at another time wrought silver becomes the rage, and prices for this article soon reached absurd figures. When Chrysogon, Sulla’s wealthy freedman, was bidding at an auction for a silver autepsa (a plate warmer), people standing outside the auction room imagined he was buying a farm from the high sum he offered.

As might be expected, high prices tempted brainless parvenus. There were many in Rome like that Demasippus of whom Horace said, “Insanit veteres statuas Demasippus emendo” (Sat., 3), the type of a snobbish visionary and sham art-seeker who bought roughly carved statues, supplying their defects with his fancy, and who, in speaking of his historical pieces, stated that to be admitted into his very26 choicest collection a basin must at least have served Sisyphus, son of Æolus, as a foot-bath!

Next to this foolish type of collector of art Rome possessed a great many other characters, who, like those of to-day, might be classified as odd specimens of art lovers.

“Isn’t Euctus a bore with his historical silver?” asks Martial, adding that he would rather eat off the common earthenware of Saguntus than hear all the gabble concerning Euctus’ table-silver. “Think of it! His cups belonged to Laomedon, king of Troy. And, mind, to obtain these rarities Apollo played upon his lyre and destroyed the wall of the city by inducing the stones to follow him by his music.” But concerning this odd type of collector Martial merits quotation. “Now, what do you think of this vase?” asks Euctus of his table companions. “Well, it belonged to old Nestor himself. Do you see that part all worn away, there where the dove is? It was reduced to that state by the hand of the king of Pylos.” Then showing one of those mixing bowls that Latins called crater, “This was the cause of the battle between the ferocious Rheucus and the Lapithæ.” Naturally every cup has its particular history. “This is the very cup used by the sons of Eacus when offering most generous wine to their friend—That is the cup from which Dido drank to the health of Bythias when she offered him that supper in Phrygia.” Finally, when he has bored his guests to death, Euctus offers them, in the cup from which Pyramus used to drink, “wine as young as Astyanax.”

Trimalcho is so well known that we are dispensed from a detailed illustration. Petronius must have drawn from life this capital character of his Satyricon. Like Euctus, Trimalcho extols the historical merits of his articles of virtu; he has the same mania for inviting people to his table and forcing them to admire his rarities. He talks very much in the same manner as the type quoted by Martial. Thus he informs his guests that his Corinthian vases are the best and most genuine in existence, because they were made at his27 order by a workman named Corinth. As a side explanation of this remark, fearing that the guest might suppose he did not know the historical origin of the metal, he adds: “Yes, yes, I know all about it. Don’t take me for an ignoramus. I know the origin of this metal perfectly well. It was at the capture of Troy, when Hannibal, a shrewd brigand by the way, threw on to a burning pyre all the statues of gold and silver and bronze. The mixture of the metals produced the alloy from which goldsmiths have made plates, vases and figures. From this, of course, comes the name of Corinth to designate this mix-up of three metals, which, of course, is no more any of the three!” Trimalcho also possesses a cup with a bas-relief representing Cassandra cutting her children’s throats. Not content with this gorgeous historical blunder, and forgetting that he is talking of the bas-relief of a cup, Trimalcho adds as an artistic comment that the bodies of Cassandra’s children are so life-like that one might suspect they had been cast from nature.

Continuing our comparison with Euctus we may add that Trimalcho also possesses a rare pitcher with a bas-relief representing Dædalus putting Niobe inside the wooden horse of Troy! When he has finished maiming history, and the guests have patiently listened to his fantastic tales, like a true parvenu, Trimalcho never fails to add, “Mind, it is all massive precious metal, it is all my very own as you see, and not to be sold at any price.”

Except for the wording, a trifling difference—the word “expensive” would play a conspicuous part with the Trimalcho of to-day, decorated, be it understood, with “precious,” “rare,” “unique” and all the rest of the arch-superlatives of modern idioms—such collectors have not been lost to our day.

But there are other types worth quoting. They will certainly help us to understand the part played by art imitations and forgery among the Romans, and how the existence of fraud was in some way justified, that in the end the one chiefly responsible for the existence of faking was28 the collector himself. This understanding will be greatly aided by a glimpse at the septæ, antiquity or simple bric-à-brac shops, that were grouped together in certain streets of ancient Rome like they are nowadays.

Like to-day, too, sales of art were effected by auctions or by private dealing, the latter in shops or through the usual go-between, the so-called courtier of our time.

Public auctions were announced by placards or a simple writing on the walls. An idea of what these announcements were like is given by the following one from Plautus’ Menœchme:

“Within seven days, in the morning, sale of Menœchme. There will be sold slaves, furniture, houses, farms. Every article bought must be paid for at the time of buying.”

As in our days, an exhibition of the goods preceded the auction. These shows were held in appropriate rooms adorned with porticos, called atria auctionaria. In speaking of such exhibitions and commenting upon some special one, Cicero remarks, Auctionis vero miserabilis adspectus (Phil., II, 29).

Curiously enough the auction sales of the Urbs were provided with an employé whose function seems to have survived in the public sales of Paris. The Latin præco is something like the French crieur whose office it is at public auctions to extol and praise the objects offered for sale. It must be said that the præco, however, was not only a simple crieur but at times a sort of director of the sale, thus combining the functions of commissaire priseur, expert and crieur, but it was certainly in the latter function that his ability best contributed to the success of the sale. Some of these employés must have enriched themselves like regular commissaires priseurs. Horace (I. Ep., 7) describes one of these crieurs as indulging in luxury, making money easily and scattering it like water, allowing himself every kind of pleasure and yielding tremendously to fashion. A curious description, suggesting that this Vulteius Menas of Horace must have had the lucky career of some of the Parisian auction employés29 and cannot have been indifferent to that form of gay self-indulgence that Parisians call: Faire la bombe.

Speaking of auctions and the way Romans disposed of their goods to the highest bidder, it is worth while to refer to what Suetonius tells us happened at the sale held by Caligula, who being short of money thought fit one day to put up to auction everything in the royal palace that was either useless or considered out of fashion, quidquid instrumenti veteris aulæ erat. According to Suetonius not only was the Emperor himself present at the auction, but he put prices on the various objects, bidding on them as well. An old prætor, Aponius Saturninus, became sleepy during the sale, and in dozing kept on nodding his head. Caligula noticed it, and told the auctioneer not to lose sight of that buyer and to put up the price each time Saturninus nodded. When the old man finally awoke he realized that without knowing it he had bought at the Imperial auction about £80,000 worth of goods (Cal., 39).

Pliny relates an amusing story, which shows that then, as now, the auctioneer was allowed to group objects.

“At a sale,” he says, “Theonius, the crieur, made a single lot of a fine bronze candelabra, and a slave named Clesippus, humpbacked and extremely ugly. The courtesan Gegania bought the lot for 50,000 sesterces (about £400). The same night at supper she showed her acquisitions, exhibiting the naked slave to the gibes of the guests. Then yielding to a freakish passion, made of him her lover and heir. Clesippus thus became extremely wealthy and worshipped the candelabra with a devotion as though it were his god” (XXXIV, 6).

As stated above, other sales generally took place in various parts of Rome where antiquaries and bric-à-brac dealers had assembled their shops. A great many of these merchants had gathered in the Via Sacra or the Septa of the Villa Publica, or Septa Julia.

Those parts of Roman streets called Septæ, where antiquaries and bric-à-brac dealers had their dens, were the30 amateur’s fool’s paradise and trap, and very likely they were as inviting and picturesque as similar places in modern European towns to-day.

These shops and shows, it is said, offered real rarities at times, such as bronzes of Ægina by Myron, Delos bronzes by Polycletus, genuine rarities in Corinthian bronze, marvels in chiselling signed by Boethus or Mys. The septæ not only exhibited artistic pieces but also sham rarities that had won public appreciation in a moment of fashion. Among these was a certain kind of candelabra shaped like a tree with one or more branches. Concerning these candelabras which were almost made to supplant the more artistic ones by a fad, Pliny remarks, “Arborum mala ferentium modo lucentes” (like trees bearing shining apples), and states with caustic humour that although their name bore a common etymology with the word candela (candle), a cheap means of lighting, they were sold at prices equivalent to the yearly appointment of a military tribune (Plin., XXXIV, 8).

Speaking of candelabras, it may be stated that the finest ever seen in Rome belonged to Verres, being part of the vast plunder of Sicily he accumulated when stationed there by Rome as proconsul. This fact prompted the sarcastic remark in Cicero’s indictment of the proconsul, that Verres had in his triclinium a candelabra casting light where darkness would have been more appropriate. This rich candelabra must have been of a statuesque style, the kind Lucretius describes:—
Si non aurea sunt juvenum simulacra per ædes Lampadas igniferas manibus retinentia dextris (II, 24). (Figures of youths holding lighted lamps in their right hands.)

Naturally it was not only a single speciality, valued through fashion or fad, that was to be found on the market, it was a regular emporium of antiquities in art, and of all kinds of bric-à-brac. Besides murrhines, tables of citrus and other specialities there were paintings of all schools and sizes, down to miniatures, an art not unknown to the Romans. There31 were also sculpture, ceramics, fine pieces of Rhegium and Cumæ, Maltese tapestries, Oriental embroideries, etc. In fact, mixed with a good deal that was dubious, these places also offered fine treasures, as Martial says:—
Hic ubi Roma suas aurea vexit opes. (Here where golden Rome brought her treasure.)

It is easy to understand that the people moving in this milieu were not dissimilar from those who indulge in articles of virtu in our enlightened times, or who are somewhat of a victim to the collector passion. Such a milieu, not to be found in Athens where the passion for art was genuine and essential, was quite consistent in Rome where improvised Crœsuses and rich parvenus abounded; parvenus who, like many of the collectors of our times, took to buying objects of art as a fad or hobby. This type of collector is easily recognized and in its grotesqueness is not essentially different from some of our modern society.

It is true that Rome also produced many genuine lovers of art, many first-rate connoisseurs and collectors such as Agrippa, magnificent collectors of the calibre of Cæsar, keen, intelligent, lovers of art, as greedy as unscrupulous, such as Sulla, Verres and Mark Antony, but as in America to-day, the magnitude of quickly-made fortunes, the impetus of a passion suddenly aroused without any previous preparation, produced only a few types of the true collector. As in America now, for one Quincy Shaw, how many a—Trimalcho and Euctus.

Needless to say, the art market generally follows the inclination of the client, it tries to meet his taste, whims and fads, it may be scrupulous or unscrupulous according to circumstances and, particularly in art and antiques, these circumstances chiefly depend upon the great despotic ruler of all markets, the client.

Thus in the septæ, side by side with Firminius, Clodius and Gratianus, dealers enjoying an undisputed reputation in the sigillaria (image market) and other quarters where antiquary32 shops were gathered, there were to be noted types like the Milonius of whom Martial says:—

“Rare stuffs, chiselled silver, cloaks, togas, precious stones, there is nothing you don’t sell, Milo, and your clients invariably carry their acquisitions away with them! After all your wife is the best article in your emporium, always bought and never taken away from your shop” (VII-XII, 102).

The whole gamut of oddities with which the collecting mania abounds were really to be found in the septæ.

There was the particular collector who has no eyes but for one certain thing, no enthusiasm but for the objects specializing his particular hobby, as Horace remarks in his “Satires” about people who have either the passion for silver pieces or bronzes:
Hunc capit argenti splendor, stupet Albius are. (This one the glitter of silver holds, Albius stands dumb before bronze.)

Seneca informs us that in his time there was an amateur with the hobby of collecting rusty fragments, another who had gone so crazy over small vases of Corinthian bronze that he spent his days handling the pieces of his collection, taking them down from the shelves, putting them back again and continually arranging and rearranging them (De Brev. Vit., XII).

Martial tells us of a man who made a collection of pieces of amber containing fossilized insects, and of another collector who boasted that he had a fragment of the ship Argo among the rare pieces of his collection. There was also Clarinus, a debauchee, according to Martial, who vaunted himself upon possessing samples of all the goldsmith’s art of his time. “But,” remarks Martial, “this man’s silver cannot be pure!”

Another type noted by Martial makes one realize that there is a species of collector that will never die. Of “Paullus” Martial, observes: “... his friends, like his paintings and his antiques: all for show” (XII, 69).

Codrus, quoted by Juvenal, is the needy collector. He33 keeps his books “in an old basket where mice allow themselves the luxury of nibbling the works of divine Greece.” He sleeps “on a pallet shorter than his little wife.” His collection and furniture are all in his bedroom, the only room he has for living and sleeping in, and conspicuous are six cups, a small cantarium on a console with a figure of Chiron the Centaur below it (III).

Eros is another type, that of the mournful collector. This is the way Martial describes this not unusual type:—

“Eros weeps every time he comes across some fine murrhine of jasper or a finely marked table of citrus. He sighs and sighs from the bottom of his heart, for he is not rich enough to buy all the objects of the septa.” And here Martial comments, “How many are like Eros without showing it, and how many banter him for his tears and sighs and yet in their hearts feel like him!” (X, 80).

Mamurra, another type handed down to us by the inexhaustible Martial, never misses a day without visiting the septa. “Spends hours in gadding about, reviews the rows of young slaves which he devours with the eye of a critic, not, if you please, the common ones but the choicest samples, those that are not on show to every one, not to common people like us,” adds Martial. “When he has had enough of this show, he goes to examine the furniture; there he discovers some rich tables (orbes, round tables) hidden under some covering; then he orders that some pieces of ivory furniture he wishes to examine be taken down from the highest spot; afterwards he passes on to examine a hexaclinon, a couch used in the triclinium, with six places, veneered with tortoise-shell, and measures it four times. What a pity it is not big enough to match his citrus table! A minute later he goes to smell a bronze: Does it really smell of the Corinthian alloy? Of course he is ready to criticize even your statues, O Polycletus! Then those two rock crystals are not pure, some are a trifle nebulous, others are marred by slight imperfections. Ah! here’s a murrhine. He orders about a dozen to be put aside. He goes to handle some old34 cups as if he would weigh the merit of each one, more especially that of Mentor. He goes to count the emeralds on a golden vase, and the enormous pearls we see dangling together on the ears of our elegant ladies. Afterwards he goes to look everywhere on every side for real sardonyx; his speciality is to collect large and rare pieces of jasper. Finally, about the eleventh hour of the day, Mamurra is completely exhausted, he must go home. He buys for an as (less than three farthings) two bowls and takes them with him” (IX, 59).

Tongilius is the ponderous, important collector. He goes through the places where the antiques are sold in an over-sized palanquin and with his cortège and train of followers upsets everybody and everything. Juvenal, by whom his character is handed down to us, remarks rather sarcastically:
Spondet enim Tyrio stlataria purpura filo, Et tamen est illis hoc utile (Sat. VII).

Licinius is the type of the lunatic lover of art. He has a fine collection, is wealthy and can buy the most expensive objects of virtu, but he is far from happy. His mania is the fear that his rarities may be stolen or become the prey of fire. He keeps hoards of slaves watching his precious curios, night and day. “At night,” says Juvenal, “a cohort of guardians sits up with buckets of water ready to hand in case of emergencies; the poor man is in continual fear for his statues, his amber figures, his ivory and tortoise-shell veneered furniture.”

Naturally, in contrast to the foolish type of collector who seems to have kindled the verve of Roman satirists, the true amateur was to be found, and most select collections of art were known in Rome. Among these also the city afforded all the types of the true collector, the selfish one who never showed his collection to anyone, and the man who gathered objects of art chiefly to share the enjoyment of them with others. Some of these latter wished the public to have the35 benefit of their purchases, and adorned porticoes and public places with their collections.

According to Statius, Vindex is the real connoisseur. “Who can compete with him,” remarks the poet in his Silvæ, lib. IV, “who possesses so sober an eye? He is deeply versed in the technical procedure of all the artists of antiquity, and when a work bears no signature he can decide at sight to which master it belongs. He will point you out a bronze that has cost the learned Myron many a day’s and night’s work, the marble to which Praxiteles’ untiring chisel has given life, the ivory polished by the hand of Phidias, the bronzes of Polycletus which seem to breathe life on coming out of the furnace, he can see the artistic line, the true mark of all authentic Apelles.”

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