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Research Focus 2018

Marble on Paper. Early-18th-Century Italian Collections of Antiquities in the Light of Richard Topham’s Drawings Collection at Eton College


Richard Topham (1671–1730) created a virtual museum landscape with the means of his time. After his retirement in 1713, the wealthy English lawyer and politician devoted himself to collecting drawings after antique works of art in Italy. With the help of agents, he commissioned a large number of artists to systematically record the holdings of Roman, Florentine and other Italian collections of antiquities. In less than 20 years, he amassed over 2,200 drawings and watercolours which he bequeathed to Eton College, where they are completely preserved today. They document antique works of almost all kinds of art, mainly sculpture (statues, busts, reliefs), wall painting, objects of the decorative arts (vases, gems, coins), and, to a lesser extent, architecture. Topham’s own related files document that his collection was carefully planned. It aimed for, and partly achieved, completeness. He recorded the names of the artists working for him, identified the objects they had drawn as well as their current place of preservation. The campaigns were carried out by the draughtsmen in Rome, Florence, Venice and elsewhere within a limited timeframe. As a result, some of the collections got their individual graphic catalogue. Considering the mobility of antiques on the art market, already common at that time, and the fact that later on entire collections moved or became completely dispersed, Topham’s drawings are extremely valuable as documentary material. At the same time, his topographical approach, focusing on artworks as parts of a certain collection, differs fundamentally from other great antiquarian enterprises, namely the more prominent and more thoroughly studied encyclopaedic ‘paper museum’ commissioned by Cassiano dal Pozzo in the 17th century. Another peculiarity of Richard Topham’s collecting activities is that he apparently never intended to visit the ancient monuments, whose images he acquired, in person and on site. His desire was, in the truest sense of the word, to have them ‘on file’.

The one-year project, funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, aims to examine Topham’s drawings collection from a scientific and historic perspective, emphasizing its hitherto underestimated relevance for the history of antiquarianism. Since Topham collected graphic reproductions instead of the actual objects, he should be considered as a particularly singular example in the history of material culture and provenance. By aiming to obtain the ‘correct’ image of antiquities rather than the antiquities themselves, Topham’s collecting activities represent a paradigm shift. He commissioned an entire ‘squadra’ of draughtsmen who were trained to copy the antique monuments in a rather sterile and accurate, almost industrial, manner. At the same time, the continuously more scientific approach of collecting and the strive to harmonise and objectify the graphic means of documentation point towards a phenomenon discernible in the course of the 18th century: the repercussions of antiquarian practices on contemporary art. Most of the artists hired by Topham were trained in the classicist schools of central Italy. Their approach to ancient works of art might have influenced the taste of English Neo-Classicism. Therefore, it is even more astonishing that this largest compilation of drawings after the antique ever commissioned has largely remained unstudied both in the history of archaeology and art history.

The project is divided into two parts: Firstly, the genesis of the drawings collection and its unique antiquarian assertive claim will be studied in depth. The study will concentrate on approx. 1,850 drawings after antique sculpture and other moveable objects in Italian collections, leaving aside ca. 380 watercolours after antique wall paintings. They would require a comprehensive study in their own right, due to their common origin in one and the same workshop and their interdependence with numerous parallel copies preserved in other collections. Secondly, the approx. 1,850 drawings will be digitised, catalogued and adequately published for the first time by insertion into the scholarly database of the Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known in the Renaissance.

In a way, Topham’s collection of drawings itself constitutes a Census ‘avant le lettre’. Therefore, its digitisation and entry into a database that already records and correlates visual and written documentations of antique monuments by hundreds of Renaissance artists and antiquarians, is an important contribution to the research history of the ‘Nachleben’ and the transformations of Classical Antiquity. Furthermore, Topham’s collection initiates the bridging between the Renaissance Census and the Corpus of Antique Works of Art Known by Johann Joachim Winckelmann and his Contemporaries, which will be continued by similar future initiatives.

Eton College Library is welcoming the project wholeheartedly and actively supports it by contributing staff and workload to the cooperation.

Kontakt / Contact

Sitz / office:
Georgenstr. 47, 10117 Berlin
2. OG / second floor
tel.: ++ 49-30-20 93 66 250
fax: ++ 49-30-20 93 66 251

census@census.de

Anschrift / postal address:
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Institut für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte / Census
Unter den Linden 6
D - 10099 Berlin

Online-Ausstellung / Online Exhibition

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