The Story of a Room

The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation:Vol. 1: Federico da Montefeltro’s Palace at Gubbio and Its Studiolo

Olga Raggio
222 pp.

The Gubbio Studiolo and Its Conservation: Vol. 2: Italian Renaissance Intarsia and the Conservation of the Gubbio Studiolo

Antoine M. Wilmering
262 pp. Metropolitan Museum of Art, two-volume boxed set, $125.00

Once there was no limit to the ambitions of museum directors, when it came to the acquisition of works of art removed from the sites for which they had been designed. In 1868, the director of the South Kensington (later the Victoria and Albert) Museum, Sir Henry Cole, wrote a letter from Padua to Sir Henry Austen Layard, the discoverer of Nineveh. “My dear Layard,” the letter begins,

We have been busy all day, alighting on unknown things & new ideas. Here is an idea.

Giotto’s chapel is badly kept & going to ruin. The Custode says it is private property and belongs to the Conte Gradenigo at Venice. If so, why not ask him to sell it & so preserve it? If sold to the State, it will be better kept. If sold to the S.K. museum, it will be best kept. Is this practicable? and worth inquiry?

The purchase of the Scrovegni or Arena Chapel would indeed have put South Kensington on the map, for it would have netted a large proportion of Giotto’s total surviving oeuvre. Nor was it, perhaps, as totally unrealistic a proposal as one would hope it to have been. Astonishing coups were pulled off in those days.

Only the next year, 1869, the South Kensington Museum was offered the rood screen from the Cathedral of St. John in Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), in southern Holland. This large Renaissance work, while in no way comparable to the Scrovegni Chapel, was a salient feature of the otherwise Gothic cathedral, but it was said against it that it blocked the congregation’s view of the high altar. The cathedral authorities removed the screen at a cost of 2,000 francs and sold it to a dealer, thereby defraying a mere 60 percent of the costs, 1,200 francs. Clearly they were not in it for the money—the authorities simply hated that rood screen, and put a low value on it. But they were not necessarily typical of their age. For indeed there was an outcry in Holland (too late) which led ultimately to the foundation of the Rijksmonumentenzorg, the state body responsible for the protection of ancient monuments.

In other words, it was not the case that Holland in this period was devoid of people who put a value on their national heritage. Similarly it was not true of Italy, and Sir Henry Cole could not for a moment have believed it to be true that Italy was devoid of people who valued the works of Giotto. What was indeed the case—and remains the case today, although legislation has completely transformed the situation—was that the conflict had not been resolved between the interests of the private owner of a work of art, or the institutional owner (in the Dutch example, the cathedral authorities), and the nation-state as guardian of the cultural heritage.

The conflict is unresolved because it can never be fully resolved—because it is a conflict. To whom does the ancient …

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