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Letters to Miranda and Canova on the Abduction of Antiquities from Rome and Athens

July 2013 (117.3)

Book Review

Letters to Miranda and Canova on the Abduction of Antiquities from Rome and Athens

By Antoine Quatremère de Quincy. Translated by Chris Miller and David Gilks (Texts & Documents). Pp. vii + 184, figs. 17. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles 2012. $50. ISBN 978-1-60606-099-5 (paper).

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Antoine-Chrysostôme Quatremère de Quincy (1755–1849) was the foremost art critic at the end of the Enlightenment and the last of the great “armchair” archaeologists of that era. His interest in classical sculpture and architecture developed after visiting Naples (with Jacques-Louis David) and later Rome. He orchestrated the transformation of Soufflot’s church of Sainte-Genevieve into the Panthéon, France’s national mausoleum. The author of numerous articles and books, his essays on architectural theory epitomized the French Academy’s official stance on the Graeco-Roman style as the only appropriate building type for architects. This volume provides the first English translation of two pseudo-epistolary treatises about the evolving role of a new institution, the so-called universal art museum; Poulot’s comprehensive introduction locates them in their original historical and intellectual contexts and reveals how they still invigorate ongoing debates about cultural property, national claims, and universal beauty.

The Letters to Miranda (1796), supposedly addressed to the future hero of the rebellion of the Spanish American colonies, General Francisco de Miranda, gave expression to the anxiety many felt about Napoleon’s planned transfer of monuments from Rome to Paris. (The looting of Belgium was already a fait accompli.) The treatise forms part of a more general resistance to revolutionary policy, an opposition galvanized by the threat to the papacy and the Catholic Church. Quatremère considered the problem of appropriation from various positions, including historical, legal (with the requisite reference to Gaius Verres), cultural, political, and economic perspectives. He directed his critique of collections and museums against the solitary, specialized admirer who appreciates only the technical qualities of the artist and is exclusively concerned with “museum pieces” of inflated virtuosity. Quatremère shared Winckelmann’s view that the perfection attained by Greek art was predetermined by nature and Greek political society; he also expressed the incipiently Romantic impulse that there is an indissoluble link between a specific region and the works of art inevitably invested with the spirit of the place. Displacement, therefore, hindered the true understanding of art; the loss of context, he argued, also demolished the possibility of scientific interest in the works—the supposedly universal museum, the Louvre, far from embodying the mission of the Enlightenment, actually ensured its extinction. Rather, Quatremère asserted that historical, geographical, and political circumstances had already created the necessary homogeneity in a privileged locale: Rome itself was the true universal museum.

The second set of letters, written to the sculptor Antonio Canova some 20 years later during an 1818 visit to London, has not enjoyed the same reputation as its predecessor and companion piece, despite that in the eyes of historians and artists of the early 19th century it was unquestionably Quatremère’s masterpiece. Letters to Canova, taking up the Elgin marbles, constituted a consummate piece of thinking about art that summarizes Quatremère’s views on “ideal beauty,” the theory of imitation, and the relation of Greek art to religion. Whereas Letters to Miranda focuses on the reception of a series of great canonical works from antiquity and gives a very traditional account of their context, Letters to Canova highlights the artist’s point of view and emphasizes studio procedure: the division of work, the hierarchy of tasks, and the succession of techniques used on the various materials. Quatremère’s absorption with the marbles’ unexpected naturalism and his emphasis on toreutics and polychromy are noteworthy. In the first letter, he describes the task he would devote the rest of his life to: “Describing works of art, classifying them, giving their measurements, hazarding an explanation, and in fine language or picturesque words, attempting to transmit the non-transmissible idea of them ... a work of either patience or scholarship or imagination” (130). As a polemical showcase for Quatremère’s theory of the beau idéal, however, the Letters to Canova says little about the identity of a putative Greek nation or the rights of its people. The two treatises bring together a lifetime of thinking about the destiny of great art of the past and the best use to be made of it in the present, with the second revealing a change in attitude to Quatremère’s thinking about the preferred destination for works of art. He held two successive positions, in situ vs. transfer, a contradiction apparent even in his own day.

Poulot’s perceptive introductory essay, “The Cosmopolitanism of Masterpieces,” considers Quatremère’s texts within the patrimonial disruption initiated by the French Revolution and subsequent competing nationalisms. Although Quatremère had been dismissed throughout much of the 20th century as a disciple of Winckelmann and French architectural classicism, Poulot examines how his role has been reassessed since the bicentenary of 1789, when new readings positioned him as a defender of the intellectual and perceptual authenticity of artworks (as opposed to their ideological mobilization) and as an advocate of tradition in disputes concerning cultural legitimacy. The Letters to Miranda now transcends its original circumstances to become a key critique of the expansion of universal museums and museum art; Quatremère’s “vision of artistic authenticity allows us to see in it the first denunciation of the age of spectacle and the fetishization and commodification of the work of art,” and also an early argument for a “contextualized approach proper to contemporary social science and perhaps even a first statement of the ecology of cultures and images” (12).

As with other titles in the Getty Research Institute’s Texts & Documents series (which also provide new English translations of works by Winckelmann, Le Roy, and Piranesi), this volume is handsomely illustrated on high-quality paper, yet its softcover format makes it affordable for students and scholars; the layout includes wide margins that invite old-fashioned note taking. In addition to Poulot’s insightful essay, there are translations of two petitions to the Directoire signed by artists and scholars and the foreword to the 1836 edition of the Canova letters. Thorough notes and indexing make these historically significant essays accessible to a new generation of Anglophone readers. Quatremère’s examinations of shifting definitions of cosmopolitanism and nationalism and their impact on the concept of cultural heritage, universal or particular, remain relevant today.

Peter J. Holliday
Department of Art
California State University, Long Beach
Long Beach, California 90840-3501

Book Review of Letters to Miranda and Canova on the Abduction of Antiquities from Rome and Athens, by Antoine Quatremère de Quincy

Reviewed by Peter J. Holliday

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 3 (July 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1173.Holliday

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