Fragments and Assemblages: The Display of Ancient Sculpture in the Vatican’s Museo Chiaramonti

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Vos, Koenraad 

In 1805 Pope Pius VII directed the sculptor Antonio Canova to begin organising the Museo Chiaramonti in a wing of the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard. The result was a new museum display of ancient sculpture, the first that included fragments on a wide scale, while at the same time restorations continued to play an important role. It is this duality between fragments and assemblages that is the central theme of this thesis. Founded in a time of anxiety about the loss of Rome’s artistic heritage and more general concerns about the negative effect of the institution of the museum on art, the Chiaramonti confronts both of these problems. In the Chiaramonti fragments enter the museum to an unprecedented extent, while at the same time there is an awareness that museums fragment the objects they display. This interest in fragmentation builds on developments of the preceding decades, when ruins and fragments were objects of great intrigue. The Chiaramonti engages with the display of ruins and fragments in the work of Piranesi and with the artificial ruins of eighteenth-century Rome, not only through the centrality of the visibly fragmented form to its display, but also because it conceived of the function of these fragments among similar lines. In the Chiaramonti fragments inspire the imagination and serve as sources of knowledge, be it artistic or historical. At the same time the Chiaramonti brings those fragments together, both in assemblage-objects such as restored statues and in its display techniques, which assemble fragments into shelves and stack them on top each other. Seen through the lens of the history of restoration and alongside contemporary design practices, these assemblages are another way of creating objects that are true to antiquity. Looking at the image of ancient art that the Chiaramonti creates in parallel with the creation and use of images in Enlightenment natural history highlights how intervention was central to the production and dissemination of truth. Within an eighteenth-century framework interventions such as restoration were thus necessary to arrive at truth and beauty. In light of the growing concerns about the practice of restoration that emerged around 1800, the Chiaramonti experimented with new ways to enact this intervention. Its assemblages continue the framework of earlier restorations, while experimenting with forms that include the visibly fragmentary, thus acknowledging the fragmentation that happens when objects enter the museum.

Van Eck, Caroline
history of collecting, history of restoration, sculpture
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Arts and Humanities Research Council (2115746)