Each object is a journey

Wandering pottery

Many 18th-century Venetian collectors could exhibit ancient vases from afar in their museums. The large quantity of material that, then, from central-southern Italy poured in large number into the antique market made ceramics very coveted objects also in Veneto. In the first half of the 18th century, the numismatist Onorio Arrigoni possessed vases of Campania production, purchased during trips outside the region, some of which are today in the Civic Archaeological Museum of Bologna. The Arrigoni vases, in Campana red-figure ceramic, which was rare in other Venetian collections, therefore appear to be a purchase on the antique market in Rome. In the 2nd half of the century, the Venetian patrician Angelo Querini also boasted a series of ancient vases among the numerous antiquities of his rich collection, exhibited in the villa of Altichiero. The contemporaries defined them as Etruscan, as they called Greek and South-Italian ceramics at the time.


Girolamo Zulian, former Venetian ambassador in Rome and Constantinople, owned around one hundred and fifty vases, bequeathed to the Serenissima Republic in 1795 together with classical marbles, pieces of Egyptian art, bronzes, and gems. The collection was the result of over fifteen years of purchases, influenced by the travels and contacts deriving from his diplomatic activity and by the advice of the famous sculptor Antonio Canova. The dense correspondence between the two friends gives various references to ceramics bought in Rome in the early 90s of the 18th century. Thanks to these letters, we can reconstruct the route followed by the Zulian antiquities: having left Rome, they traveled by land, passing through Foligno, up to Pesaro, and then arrived in Venice by sea from there.


In the lagoon city, the Gradenigos and the Nanis of San Trovaso had Greek and South-Italian vases of Dalmatian origin. The footnotes to the watercolors by Giovanni Grevembroch, made for Pietro Gradenigo in the mid-18th century, and the foot of the engravings in the catalog of Nani antiquities, drawn up in 1815 by Abbot Francesco Driuzzo, stated it. These last two collections exhibited the pottery from the other side of the Adriatic alongside Greek pieces found in Adria. In fact, A rising interest in antiquities and local history accompanied the curiosity for new discoveries, as evidenced by the Bocchi and Silvestri collections in Polesine as well as the excavations conducted in Este, during the 18th century, by Tommaso Obizzi to enrich the collection of the Catajo castle.


When dealing with ancient ceramics, the place of production and of origin often do not coincide. Furthermore, the place where they are today is sometimes the arrival point of a fascinating journey in stages, faced in different periods of their long existence as valuable objects, first for use and then for collection. As far as South – Italian pottery is concerned archaeologists wonder whether the vases arrived in Veneto in ancient times along the Adriatic trade routes or whether the collectors purchased them directly on the 18th-century antique market. So when and how many times have these ceramics traveled? From one side of the Adriatic to the other, as the Gnathia vases (Apulian production of the 4th and 3rd century BC) arrived in the 18th century to Venetian collectors from the Dalmatian coast.


Even in the case of the Zulian collection, about which we know many things, there is room for doubt. It is a rather heterogeneous set. It includes pottery dating from the 9th century BC to the 5th century AD, such as four Villanovan cineraries and vases in thin Bucchero, Etruscan red-figure pottery up to Christian oil lamps made in central Italy. Among the Greek and South-Italian vases, we find pieces of Ionic pottery from the 6th century BC, Attic pottery with black figures and black varnish, South-Italian pottery with black varnish, and Gnathia ceramics. Among the red-figure vases are examples of Apulian, Paestan, and Campanian production (almost all datable between 340 and 320 BC) and Etruscan production (late 4th – early 3rd century BC).


It is reasonable to think that the superb Villanovan cineraries and the elegant Bucchero vases from the Zulian collection came from the antique market in Rome. We may say the same of some South – Italian pottery, which perhaps attracted the attention of the buyer due to the accuracy of the decoration. However, the modest dimensions of most of his vases, especially when compared with what the market could offer at the time, seem to suggest his limited economic resources and a local provenance of some vases. We can say local in the broad sense from Venetian Dalmatia, as in the case of the ceramic vases of Gnathia of the Gradenigos and of the Nanis, or local in the strict sense from the lagoon or the Venetian hinterland.


Perhaps, the journey was, in these cases, shorter than usually supposed. Perhaps, Zulian was referring to this in a letter to Canova in 1789, when saying he had been lucky in procuring «Etruscan vases» to set up a small room of his museum. The presence of these ceramics in Veneto would then tell of other journeys.



Photo: Campanian red figure bell-krater, 330-320 BC, currently on display at the exhibition “Clays. Stories about Journeys” Vicenza – Gallerie d’Italia, Palazzo Leoni Montanari; from 29 September 2022 to 18 June 2023



For quotes and insights:

De Paoli, Antonio Canova e il ‘museo’ Zulian. Vicende di una collezione veneziana della seconda metà del Settecento, in Ricerche di Storia dell’Arte, 66, 1998, pp. 19-36; Collezioni ceramiche di fine Settecento e inizio Ottocento al Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia, in Eidola. International Journal of Classical Art History, 10 (2013), 2014, pp. 121-133; F. Driuzzo, Collezione di tutte le antichità che si conservano nel Museo Naniano di Venezia, divisa per classi e in due parti, aggiuntevi le classi di tutte le medaglie, Venezia 1815; I. Favaretto, Le “antichità profane” di Giovanni Grevembroch: disegni dall’antico nella Venezia del xviii secolo, in Aquileia Nostra, LVII, 1986, coll. 597-616; Ceramiche antiche nelle collezioni venete. Lo stato del problema e il punto sulla questione, in Studi sulla grecità in Occidente, a cura di L. Braccesi, «Hesperìa» 14, 2001, Roma, pp. 157-169; Arte antica e cultura antiquaria nelle collezioni venete al tempo della Serenissima, Roma 2002.

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