The Cassiano dal Pozzo Project has been based at the Warburg Institute since 2003, but it is more than 30 years since it was first conceived as a cataloguing project by the Royal Collection under the joint direction of Francis Haskell and Jennifer Montagu (then Curator of the Institute’s Photographic Collection). The ‘Cassiano industry is in full swing’ declared the August 1989 editorial of the Burlington Magazine in which the Project was announced, although it was not until 1996 that the first of the planned 37 volumes of the catalogue raisonné appeared. As the series reaches its conclusion in the next two years – with the publication of the final five volumes – an exhibition at the Barber Institute in Birmingham serves as a timely reminder of the riches of the collection.
The ‘small and perfectly formed’ exhibition (Art Newspaper) runs to 1 September 2019 and has been curated by students of the University of Birmingham’s MA in Art History and Curating programme, the second exhibition resulting from a partnership between Royal Collection Trust (which holds the largest surviving portion of the Paper Museum) and the Barber Institute. It brings together a group of 18 seventeenth-century Italian drawings on loan from the Print Room at Windsor Castle with a few judiciously chosen items from the University of Birmingham’s own collections.
Showcasing the scope and breadth of the Paper Museum – an encyclopaedic collection of c.7,000 drawings and 3,000 prints – in the Barber’s modestly sized special exhibitions space was never going to be an easy task, but the students rose to the challenge with impressive aplomb. During repeated visits to the Print Room they gradually whittled down the list of 167 mounted items and two albums that had been made available to them, first to a long-list of 40 items, and finally to the 16 mounted drawings and one album that have made it into the exhibition (the album is displayed open on a spread with two mounted drawings).
They chose to focus on the natural history and antiquarian drawings rather than the prints, and through their panel texts, labels and accompanying booklet, on bringing to light the tensions and contradictions inherent in the documentary scope of the collection. The wondrous observation and detail evident in the drawings of a pelican’s head or civet cat, for example, both drawn from life, are compared with the ineptitude and misunderstandings found in the drawing of a sloth that was copied second-hand from another image (with no conception that it wouldn’t have been able to stand up as depicted, no sloth having made it alive to Europe at that time). Likewise the accuracy evident in two drawings after the antique, drawn actual size and showing two views of a recently discovered Samnite triple disc breast-plate and a Roman boxer’s hand (taken from a statue), is contrasted with the more imaginary and hypothetical origin of two drawings reconstructing an ancient amphitheatre and a banquet, both copied from the sixteenth-century Codex Ursinianus and based on reconstructions by Pirro Ligorio.
The ‘veracity’ of the banquet scene was enhanced with further antiquarian detail by Cassiano’s copyist through the addition of drinking horns and the figure of a dancing lar, not present in the original Ursinianus sheet but taken instead from actual antiquities in Cassiano’s collection and drawn elsewhere for the Paper Museum. Unexciting as these copies of reconstruction drawings are in technique and style, their antiquarian and information value is paradoxically far richer than that found in the marvellously observed, beautiful materiality of a study of rusty shackles – whose primary interest lay in their claim to be the chains of an Early Christian martyr. Other sheets of equal artistry depict a ‘fingered’ lemon and an apple sporting a human face, both suggestive of the oddities and lusus naturae prized by collectors of the period. The tiers of geological specimens found on yet another drawing recall similar arrangements in curiosity cabinets, which the students have brought to life in a display cabinet with matching specimens from the University of Birmingham’s geological collections.
The closeness of the two great branches of learning in Cassiano’s time, antiquarianism and natural history, fields which are now so separate and distinct, is nicely encapsulated in the exhibition through two cross-over images of ancient mosaics featuring nature and wildlife. One shows a detail from the famous Nile mosaic at Palestrina, which was later illustrated in Bernard de Montfaucon’s 15-volume illustrated encyclopaedia of the ancient world, L’Antiquité expliqueé et répresentée en figures (1724). A copy of this publication from the University’s collections bookends the exhibition, a fitting tribute to the legacy of the Paper Museum.
The Paper Museum: the Curious Eye of Cassiano dal Pozzo is on at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham until 1 September.