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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER III RAPACIOUS ROMAN COLLECTORS
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    Some collectors’ hobbies—Sulla idolized statuette—Verres the most rapacious of Roman art collectors—Mark Antony and his speedy methods—Cicero as an art lover—Pompey the unselfish art lover—Julius Cæsar.

Shrewd and impassive connoisseurs like Sulla also had their hobbies and fancies. Sulla’s particular fancy was a little statue of Apollo he had pillaged from the temple of Delphi. This statue was more to him than all the rest of the precious things forming his unique collection. From this little god, called by Winckelmann “Sulla’s private travelling god,” he never separated. He used to kiss it devoutly and seems to have consulted it in great emergencies. At times he used to carry it in his breast, says Plutarch. We may note by the way that this Apollo was not considered by connoisseurs the best piece of Sulla’s collection, the real gem was his Hercules, a work by Lysippus. The story of this Hercules is told by Martial and Statius, who inform us that it measured a little less than a Roman foot, about nine inches. Notwithstanding its modest dimensions the statuette was modelled with such grandeur and majestic sentiment as to cause Statius to comment, “parvusque videri, sentirique ingens” (small in appearance, but immense in effect). It represented Hercules in a smilingly serene attitude, seated on a rock, holding a club in his right hand and in the other a cup. It was in fact one of those statuettes which Romans called by the Greek word epitrapezios, and which were placed on dining-tables as the genius loci of the repast.

The history of this gem of Sulla’s collection is uncommon, and its vicissitudes most remarkable. The statue was37 originally a gift made by Lysippus to Alexander the Great. This sovereign and conqueror was so attached to Lysippus’ present that he carried the statue with him wherever he went. When dying he indulged in a touching adieu to the cherished statuette.

After Alexander, the little Hercules fell into the hands of another conqueror, Hannibal. It is not known how he came to be the possessor of Lysippus’ work, but it may be explained by the fact that Hannibal, being a collector of art and somewhat of a connoisseur and, above all, as Cornelius Nepos states, a great admirer of Greek art, was a keen-eyed hunter after rarities in art. However, be that as it may, Hannibal seems to have been possessed by the same fancy as Alexander, for he carried the little statue with him on all his peregrinations, and even took it to Bithynia, where, as history informs us, he destroyed himself by poison. At his death the Hercules passed, in all probability, into the hands of Prusias at whose court Hannibal died.

A century later the statue reappeared in Sulla’s collection. Very likely it came into Sulla’s possession as a present from King Nicomedes, who owed gratitude to Sulla for the restitution of the throne of Bithynia.

After Sulla’s death it is difficult to locate this precious statue of his famous collection. Presumably it passed from one collector to another, and never left Rome. “Perhaps,” says Statius, “it found its place in more than one Imperial collection.” The statue reappears officially, however, under Domitian. At this time it is in the possession of the above-quoted Vindex, a Gaul living in Rome, a friend of Martial and Statius and one of the best art connoisseurs of his time.

At Vindex’s death the statuette disappears again, and no mention of it has ever been made since by any writer. What may the fate have been of this chef-d’œuvre of Lysippus which passed from one collection to another for more than four centuries?

Among greedy lovers of art, with a connoisseur’s eye as good as his soul was unscrupulous, Verres takes the prize.38 He had learned the rapacious trade of art looting under Sulla. Later on, not being powerful enough nor daring to go to the length of the Dictator by placing reluctant amateurs on the list of proscribed, he studiously sought to gain his end by all forms of violence and vexatious methods. When in Sicily as proconsul, he actually despoiled and denuded every temple in the island.

“I defy you,” says Cicero in his indictment of Verres, “to find now in Sicily, this rich province, so old, with opulent families and cities, a single silver vase, a bronze of Corinth or Delos, one single precious stone or pearl, a single work in gold or ivory, a single bronze, marble or ivory statue; I defy you to find a single painting, a tapestry, that Verres has not been after, examined and, if pleasing to him, pillaged.”

As for private property, when he heard of a citizen possessing some object that excited his cupidity, to Verres all means of extortion seemed good, including torture and fustigation. His passion was of such an uncontrollable nature that even when invited to dinner by his friends he could not resist scraping with his knife the fine bas-reliefs of the silver plates and hiding them in the folds of his toga. Yet this greedy, unscrupulous amateur, whom Cicero mercilessly indicted in his In Verrem, was such a lover of the objects of his collection that he faced death rather than give up some fine vases of Corinthian bronze which Mark Antony had demanded from him as a forced gift.

Mark Antony, who followed Sulla’s methods in forming one of the finest of collections, was, like his violent predecessors, a type of collector which finds no counterpart in our times. His fine library had cost many victims, his taste being rather eclectic, there seems to have been no security in Rome for any kind of amateur who happened to possess rare and interesting curios. Nonius was proscribed because he refused to part with a rare opal, a precious stone of the size of a hazelnut. “What an obstinate man, that Nonius,” remarks Pliny (XXXVII, 21) most candidly, “to be so attached to an object for which he was proscribed! Animals are certainly39 wiser when they abandon to the hunter that part of their body for which they are being chased.”

Mark Antony was not so good a connoisseur as Verres, but having no less a passion for collecting art and being no less unscrupulous and more in a position to use violence without the risk of being accused before the Roman citizens, as happened to Verres in the end, there was no limit to his schemes. After the battle of Pharsalia he managed to seize all Pompey’s artistic property, as well as his furniture and gardens, and after Cæsar’s murder Antony, to whom we owe one of the finest orations ever conceived, the one he delivered before the dead body of his friend, lost no time in plundering Cæsar’s property and transporting to his gardens all the objects of art Cæsar had left to the people of Rome. The information comes from Cicero with these words: “The statues and pictures which with his gardens Cæsar bequeathed to the people, he (Antony) carried off partly to his garden at Pompeii, partly to his country-house.”

Speaking of this collection, it is believed that the colossal Jupiter now in the Louvre Museum not only belonged to Mark Antony, but was the work of Myron which the Triumvir had stolen from Samos. Should this be so, the pedigree of this statue is one of the few that can be actually traced through the centuries. Brought to Rome by Mark Antony, this Jupiter was later placed in the Capitol by Augustus. The fine statue was then passed from one emperor to another, to sink into the general oblivion of art at the end of the Roman Empire. It reappears in Rome in the sixteenth century. It was then in the possession of Marguerite of Antioch, Duchess of Camerino. The statue was greatly mutilated, having lost both legs and arms. The Duchess presented what remained of this famous Jupiter to Perronet de Granvelle. Subsequently cardinal and minister of Charles V, on his retirement to his native country, Perronet de Granvelle took the Jupiter to Besançon and placed it in the garden of his castle. When Louis XIV took Besançon, the magistrates of the city offered the French monarch what he might otherwise40 have taken, the statue of Jupiter. Transferred from Besançon to Versailles, this magnificent statue which by rare chance had escaped serious damage during the barbarian ages finally met two authentic barbarians in the artists charged with its restoration. To clean off the old patina from the statue—think of it—Girardon had a layer of marble taken off with the chisel, and Drouilly, not perceiving that the god had been formerly in a sitting posture, or more probably not choosing to notice the fact as not appealing to his artistic conception, made the Jupiter a standing statue by adjusting and cutting the parts otherwise in the way for this kind of adaptation. The only part of the statue that does not seem to have suffered any damage is the head.

Even Brutus and Cassius appear not to have been indifferent to the collector passion. Brutus, more especially, used to devote to the collecting of art the less agitated moments of his troubled life. The gem of his collection was considered to be a bronze by Strongylion. Pliny tells us that this statue of Brutus was called “the young Philippian,” Strongylion fecit puerum, quem amando Brutus Philippiensis cognomine suo illustravit (XXXIV, 19).

Cicero may be quoted as a type of the inconsistent art collector. A man of dubious artistic taste and snobbish tendencies but who becomes a true art lover when he specializes in that part of art collecting more closely in keeping with his studies. Thus in his letter to Atticus he reveals his love of books and old Greek works, and how fond he was of good bindings, etc. As a collector of art Cicero leaves one doubtful as to his taste and connoisseurship, qualities to which he seems to lay claim in more than one of his speeches. When he writes to his friend Atticus, his good counsellor, the man charged to buy art for him, he does not express himself either as a real lover of art or a genuine connoisseur. “Buy me anything that is suited for the decoration of my Tusculum,” he writes to Atticus. “Hermathena might be an excellent ornament for my Academy, Hermes are placed now in all Gymnasia.... I have built exedras according to the41 latest fashion. I should like to put paintings there as an ornament,” etc.

In Paradoxa, a collection of philosophical thoughts called Socratic in style by Cicero, in which he says he has called a spade a spade, Socratica longeque verissima, Cicero has the courage to write the following paragraph in defence of Carneades, who maintained that a head of a Faun had been found in the raw marble of a quarry at Chios:—

“One calls the thing imaginary, a freak of chance, just as if marble could not contain the forms of all kinds of heads, even those of Praxiteles. It is a fact that these heads are made by taking away the superfluous marble, and in modelling them even a Praxiteles does not add anything of his own, because when much marble has been taken away one reaches the real form, and we see the accomplished work which was there before. This is what may have happened in the quarry of Chios.”

The gamut of art collectors would not be complete without quoting a few samples of worthy art lovers who either understood art, like the Greeks, as a means of public enjoyment, or in some way showed genuine and most praiseworthy qualities as true collectors of art.

It is doubtful whether the great Pompey really felt any pleasure in collecting art pieces, or whether he simply did it to ingratiate himself with the public. But as a matter of fact his attitude towards the enjoyment of art was certainly of a most unselfish character. Though he very sumptuously embellished his gardens on the Janiculum, this was nothing compared with the public buildings he enriched with rare statues, paintings, etc. His theatre was a magnificent emporium of art of which we possess some samples in the colossal Melpomene of the Louvre Museum and the bronze Hercules excavated under Pius IX, now one of the finest pieces of the Vatican collection. Both these statues were found buried on the spot where once the monumental theatre of Pompey had stood.

But the artistic glories of this theatre were perhaps even42 surpassed by the interminable portico Pompey constructed and adorned for the benefit of the public. This spot, which was called the Promenade of Pompeius, became one of the fashionable walks of Rome.

“You disdain,” asks Propertius of his lady love, “the shady colonnades of Pompey’s portico, its magnificent tapestries and the fine avenue of leafy plane-trees?” (IV, 8). And in another place Cynthia forbids her paramour this promenade with the words: “I prohibit you ever to strut in your best fineries in that promenade.”

Pliny (XXXV, 9), says that Pompey had some famous paintings in his galleries and seems to have been more especially struck by a work by Polygnotus, representing “a man on a ladder,” and a landscape by Pausias. Curiously enough the characteristics that seem to have attracted Pliny in the two works do not point to the noted writer as a great art critic. He says that the remarkable side of Polygnotus’ painting was that the beholder could not tell whether the man on the ladder was ascending or descending, and that the main characteristic of Pausias’ work consisted in two black oxen outlined on a dark landscape.

Cæsar, who showed himself to be a better connoisseur than his rival Pompey, and who, being of a more refined nature, would not, as did Pompey, have indulged in the gratification of parading the chlamys of Alexander the Great in a triumphal car drawn by four elephants, spent considerable sums on the embellishment of Rome with art. He also, like many collectors of art, had his hobbies, carrying with him through his various campaigns an endless number of precious mosaic tables, and always keeping in his tent a fine work of a Greek artist, a statue of Venus, with whom he claimed relationship. Though he showed eclectic taste in his gifts to the town and temples, he was in private, like a true connoisseur and refined lover of art, somewhat of a specialist, being extremely fond of cameos and cut stones. Of these he had six distinct collections that held the admiration of all the connoisseurs of the city.

43 He was, however, not only a passionate seeker after antiques, most boldly acquiring precious stones, curiosities, statues, pictures by old masters (gemmas, tereumata, signa, tabulas operis antiqui animosissime comparasse), as Suetonius tells us, but also the ever-ready patron of modern art. In this character he paid 80 talents (about £16,000) for a painting by Timonacus. Damophilus and Gorgas, painters, sculptors and decorators, worked for him to embellish the Arena he built in Rome, an edifice capable of holding 2500 spectators. Many artists worked at his Forum, a monument to his name for which he paid a sum equivalent to twenty million liras for the ground alone. Meanwhile he was also busy embellishing other cities of Italy, Gaul, Spain, Greece, and even Asia. Suetonius states that Cæsar sent a company of artists and workers to rebuild destroyed Corinth and to replace its statues on their pedestals.

Being a most unselfish kind of lover of art, Cæsar was one of the few who did not yield to the momentary fashion that led patricians to send their art pieces out of Rome, to embellish and decorate their country houses and magnificent villas.

This peculiar fashion that exiled so many fine statues from Rome, leads us to speak of another noble type of collector, Marcus Agrippa, who, like Cæsar, not only set a good example by keeping all his treasures of art in Rome, mostly for the enjoyment of the public, but protested against the new custom, and held meetings and lectures to dissuade wealthy Romans from sending away from the city their chef-d’œuvres.

Such was the spirit characterizing Agrippa as a lover of art.


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