Theft is Property

Antiquities were high stakes and high profit in 16th-century Rome, and no one was above breaking the law for loot.

During the 16th century, the Roman market for antiquities became highly competitive. Competence and money were crucial, but so were unscrupulousness and a fighting spirit. In the words of Cardinal Giovanni Ricci, who acted as a Medici agent in Rome in the 1560s, antiquities were ‘a prey which many dogs were ready to catch’. Like many of his contemporaries, Ricci perceived the process of procuring artworks as a hunt performed against other voracious contenders. In such a battlefield, misbehaviour was the rule and collectors and their agents often circumvented papal legislation in order to achieve their goals.

Given that theft was the most common crime in 16th-century Rome, it is no wonder that antiquities were stolen and then sold illicitly. Many people were involved in this: diggers and stonecutters; restorers and antiquarians; and – perhaps surprisingly – cardinals and princes. Cardinal Ricci once again offers an example of how fluid the concepts of legality and illegality were. In 1569, he informed the Medici court that, among the antiquities he was going to send to Florence, there was a ‘beautiful head, that I suspect might have been stolen, because the man who has shown it to me by night wanted to be well paid for it and wanted to be assured that I would take it out of Rome’. The nocturnal negotiation and the request that the stolen head should leave Rome were clearly precautionary measures to avoid them being tracked down. But such suspicious provenance was not enough of a concern and Ricci did not hesitate to conclude the deal.

Antiquities’ high visibility and easy accessibility encouraged theft – if there were any need for encouragement. Ancient and modern marble blocks, temporarily left near building and excavation sites, stored under porches and in courtyards, or simply piled up along the street, were extremely tempting. Ancient sculptures displayed in public places or in easily accessed private gardens were also an irresistible attraction. As revealed by trial papers, for instance, in 1569, Vincenzo Stampa, a leading Roman antiquarian who dealt with princes and cardinals, commissioned the theft of a tombstone from the facade of the church of San Lorenzo fuori le mura and of a sculpture from the garden of a certain Manicola, who, ironically, was the former head of the Roman police. The abundance of ancient items in collections, on the facades of churches and palaces, in gardens and even along the streets, and the lack of surveillance and protection meant thefts passed unnoticed, unreported an mostly unpunished. In the violent environment of 16th-century Rome, papal justice had far more urgent problems to deal with than the occasional disappearance of an ancient bust from a neglected garden or a tomb slab from a suburban church. Unsurprisingly, Stampa was never prosecuted for his theft.

For every buyer eager to acquire objects with uncertain provenance, there was a collector eager to protect his or her beloved belongings from the very same thieves. Indeed, collectors’ fears and defensive counter-manoeuvres are heavily documented. We know, for instance, that the best pieces of some collections were often kept under lock and key and that, at times, access was limited to a very select audience to avoid unwanted attention. Aristocratic residences, however, were by their very nature extremely permeable places because of the continuous comings and goings of servants and occasional visitors; as such, they were highly exposed to the risk of theft, no matter how attentively court officials guarded their lord’s possessions. In 1582, for instance, all the ancient coins were stolen from the study of Fulvio Orsini, the erudite librarian of the Farnese family and a keen collector, who lived on the second floor of the Farnese palace in Rome. The event left Orsini ‘gloomier than hell’. The loss was evaluated at several thousand scudi, but he most feared that the thief would melt the coins rather than sell them off in their original form.

The pressing demand for antiquities, the outrageous prices that collectors were willing to pay, the relative ease of stealing them and the awareness that thefts were rarely punished all fuelled the traffic. Acquiring ancient pieces, albeit stolen, to satisfy the desires of one’s master was perceived as more important than complying with current papal legislation, even from a cardinal’s standpoint, as Cardinal Ricci’s example suggests. In this panorama, what role did collectors themselves play? Did they connive with their agents to acquire antiquities by whatever means necessary, or did they leave the matter completely in the agents’ hands, preferring to ignore the details of the process and just enjoy its outcome? Although it is impossible to give a general answer to these questions, it is nevertheless interesting to highlight that, in many cases, 16th-century collectors were ready to tacitly endorse the intrigues of the art market. This awareness forces us to reconsider a certain idealised notion of the practice of antiquarian collecting as fashioned by decades of scholarship: a grand and noble activity, appropriate to wealthy, ambitious and cultivated people. When this notion is set against the backdrop of the 16th-century Roman art market, it becomes clear that it represents only part of the story – and the most superficial one at that. While sophisticated aesthetic choices, complicated iconographic programmes and accurate display are no doubt important aspects of the practice of collecting, issues that might undermine the positive image of collectors should not be overlooked. Indeed, to delineate a more rounded and realistic profile of 16th-century collectors of antiquities, it is necessary to investigate their activity from every perspective, whether positive or not, including discussing their actual role in the illegal acquisition of antiquities.

Top Image: 'Finding of the Sibylline Books and the Tomb of Numa Pompilius', workshop  of Giulio Romano with Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio, c.1524-25 © Bibliotheca Hertziana, Max-Planck-Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Rome`


Barbara Furlotti is the author of Antiquities in Motion: From Excavation Sites to Renaissance Collections.