The Mediterranean lands in the 18th and early 19th centuries must have been like the Klondike – only this semi-lawless stampede was not for gold but for Classical antiquities. Wealthy collectors and aristocrats vied to own the most beautiful marbles, ceramics and precious metals created by the Greeks and Romans and numerous adventurers were only too happy to provide them by fair means or foul – and certainly by methods that bring modern archaeologists out in a cold sweat.
I knew about the early excavations at Pompeii (where plundering the finest art works was the aim) and about Giovanni Battista Belzoni who ruthlessly uncovered so many Egyptian antiquities ( using explosives while he worked). On the receiving end of these treasures were men like Sir William Hamilton, husband of Nelson’s Emma and a prolific and discerning collector. His collection was famous and his vast array of vases included the famous Portland Vase, copied by Wedgwood and still reproduced today. (A Wedgwood copy, below) Lord Elgin, who secured the Parthenon’s “Elgin Marbles”, was another immensely rich collector.
In the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas in Palermo, Sicily I came across Robert Fagan (c.1761–1816), an Irish artist and excavator responsible for many early digs and for amassing a substantial personal collection.
Fagan moved to Rome in 1781 and ingratiated himself into aristocratic and court circles and began dealing in antiquities as well as painting portraits of wealthy visitors. (His portrait of Miss Emily Manley, below) With backing from British patrons he started excavating sites around Rome and in 1793 had the good fortune to come to the attention of the visiting Duke of Sussex, Prince Augustus Frederick. The Royal Duke secured permission from the Pope for Fagan to export antiquities which he obtained by dealing and by excavation.
The French occupation of Rome meant that Fagan had to flee to Naples in 1797, then to Florence, but he returned to Rome and managed to retrieve his art works. In 1807, in financial difficulties, he moved to Sicily where he rapidly gained favour with Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily. In 1809, he was made British Consul General in Sicily.
In 1812 he began excavating at the necropolis of Tyndaris, much to the alarm of the custodian who was fighting to keep the finds from the site intact and in Sicily and who had heard rumours of Fagan’s unscrupulous methods.
Fagan (above, in a self-portrait with his second wife Maria Ludovica’ Flajani depicted ‘à la Greque’ 1803) eventually fell out of favour with the court and found himself increasingly in debt. He returned to Rome and in 1816 committed suicide by jumping from a window. His widow managed to sell his Roman collection to the Vatican museums but in Sicily the authorities seized his possessions to prevent their export. In 1819 the “Fagan Marbles” were purchased by the Museum of the Royal University and remain as an intact collection, now in the Palermo museum. As the display in the museum today notes, this was a turning point in awareness of the importance of retaining materials from different sites together and raised the consciousness of Sicily’s archaeological treasures.
It was fascinating to see the collection of an individual all together, but it is very noticeable to modern eyes that all that was deemed worthy of collection were art works, not everyday or utilitarian objects. (A few of the objects from his collection, above.)