Lapidary History of the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli

Compiled by Eugene Dwyer                              



The chance to write history in stone or metal does not come very often, and when it does, unless one is a Roman or a Chinese emperor, the risks are as great as the advantages.  For just as Envy is always present at a triumph, so are the critics and detractors of one who has been privileged to give his account to posterity in the form of a memorial.  Without a doubt, the medium of marble, like bronze, confers a certain authority to an account just as it guarantees a larger readership and a greater longevity than do the more ephemeral media like print on paper.  For just this reason, the composers of lapidary, or epigraphical, histories are advised to be brief, humble, objective.  The cost of production and the limits of available space also encourage these same virtues in a writer.

If the history in question is that of a museum, it might be thought ungenerous to criticize the style or the content of the history, just as the occasion of the writing might be thought to be but an insignificant opportunity for the historian to win fame.  Yet museums represent the enlightenment of regimes, and regimes always seek to capitalize on their benevolent acts.  When J. J. Winckelmann criticized -- in scatological terms -- the Latin dedication of the royal museum at Portici written by Canon Mazocchi:


"Dost thou not see in the very place how the royal power availed

in drawing forth from the jaws of Vesuvius the spoils of the Herculean city?"


he was also criticizing the regime that would employ such a baroque stylist to write its epigrams.[i]

The lapidary history of the Naples Museum consists of two documents -- an inscribed marble statue base of 1821 supporting Canova's statue of Ferdinand I and a set of twelve tablets, also in marble, inscribed with texts undoubtedly written by Fiorelli in 1869.  The statue base, with its colossal portrait of Ferdinand as patron of the arts (Minerva of Velletri), has only recently been restored to a prominent location -- the central niche on the Grand Staircase, where it stood from 1821 to 1884 -- after languishing out of the public=s eye for more than a century:


To Ferdinand  I  Bourbon,


King of the Two Sicilies, pius, happy, August,

unvanquished protector of religion and public safety,

who, after his August father King Charles removed the military base, has raised these halls,

once the home of the sciences, having restored them to the muses in more ample and dignified form and

for the glory of his realm, has ordained to be brought to them and henceforth conserved

an exquisite abundance of paintings from all the schools, all kinds of statues,

books, and works of art together with his inheritance from the Farnese family

of literary works and furniture and the diverse treasure taken from

Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other excavations, and considering above all else

the advantage of scholars, has now and henceforth

given to the museum the name Borbonic of such renown and

has annexed to it the Borbonic Society of learned men, divided into three academies,

the Herculanean, as all know, of ancient times, of the sciences, and of the fine arts,

this portrait of marble with its inscription has been dedicated in the year 1821


The work of Antonio Canova



  The tablets, which give a history of the museum that is somewhat contradictory to that of the inscribed statue base, are arranged on the walls of the staircase and are as they were placed by Fiorelli in 1869.  The first tablet draws from the official history of the museum as it might have appeared in sources of the Bourbon period, such as Giambattista Finati's museum guide.[ii]


I. Don Pietro Giron, Duke of Ossuna, transferred the royal stables here in 1586.  Due to the lack of adequate water, he moved them back to the Sebeto River.  Don Pietro Fernandez di Castro, Count of Lemos, transformed the abandoned building into the Royal University 'degli Studi' and inaugurated it, in its splendid new form, with solemn ceremony on 14 June 1615.


In the second tablet, Fiorelli departs from previous accounts to reveal the museum building=s role in popular uprisings and military occupations of the pre-Bourbon period, closing with mention of the enlightened patronage of the first Bourbon monarch, Charles III:


II. The Royal University, damaged in the uprisings of 1647, and having been further damaged in the earthquake of 1688, remained here until 1701, when the scholars were driven out through the 'conspiracy of the Macchia' and soldiers were lodged there.  Charles III Bourbon repaired the damage to the building and reopened the schools in 1735.


Fiorelli=s third and fourth tablets return to the official Bourbon account, but conflate the earlier expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 with Ferdinand's recognition of the museum as fait accompli after his restoration in 1816.  In these tablets, the Bourbon monarch is made to appear as a founder and patron of the institution.  The sequence of Ferdinand=s benefactions bears some resemblance to the list found on his statue (see above).


III. Ferdinand IV Bourbon expelled the Jesuits from the kingdom in 1767 and ordered the University 'degli Studi' to be moved to the former Jesuit property (Il Gesu Vecchio).  He installed here in splendor the Herculaneum Museum, the Painting Collection, the Library the Numismatic Collection, and the Collection of Ancient Vases.  He also gave rooms to the Schools of the Fine Arts, the Mosaic Workshop, the Royal Printing Works, and the Offices of Engraving and of Restoration.


IV. Giulio Cesare Fontana, Ferdinando Sanfelice, Ferdinando Fuga, Pompeo Schiantarelli, Francesco Maresca, and Antonio Bonucci directed the construction and the restoration of this building from 1611 to 1835.  The last of these transferred by royal command the monuments brought from Rome, from the Museum of Capodimonte, the works of art from the Royal Palace at Portici and those first deposited in the palaces of Francavilla and Caramanico.


In the fifth tablet Fiorelli mentions in a very simplified manner the consequences to the museum of the Bourbon flight to Palermo and the French occupation of 1799, details omitted from the Bourbon histories.


V. Ferdinando IV Bourbon, fleeing Naples on 21 December 1798 and again in January 1806 carried with him to Palermo the most famous monuments collected in this place.  Others of them were carried off in the name of Liberty by the foreign conqueror in 1799, but these treasures were fortunately brought back here in 1801 and 1817.


In the sixth tablet, Fiorelli credits Joseph Bonaparte with opening the museum and setting up its administration and Joachim Murat with expanding the collections with material excavated at Pompeii and elsewhere and with the purchase of the Borgia Collection of Egyptian antiquities.


VI. Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte ordained and opened the Museum.  He established its administration.  He associated with it the General Suprintendency of Excavations, gave a place in the same building to the Suprintendency of the Herculaneum Papyri and to the Royal Academy of History and Antiquarian Studies which, having changed its name through the new statutes promulgated in 1817 was subsequently known as the Royal Borbonic Society.


VII. Joachim Murat, by means of the excavations rapidly carried out in Pompeii and elsewhere, increased the wealth of the Museum, discovered the Greek necropolis which is contiguous with the building on the north side.  He added to the Museum the Borgian monuments from Velletri and the bronze horse's head, the ancient emblem of the city of Naples.


Fiorelli's eighth tablet enumerates the collections added to the museum under the Bourbon restoration.  Although a very similar list is given by Stanislao d'Aloe in his guide of 1854, Fiorelli's intent here is evident in juxtaposing the list of benefactors with the Bourbon monarchs= claim to the museum as their own personal property independent of the crown.


VIII. Ferdinando I, Francesco I, and Ferdinando II Bourbon, who augmented the Museum with the collections of Noia, Vivenzio, Daniele, Ficco, Cervone, Falconet, Lamberti, Rispoli, Piccanti, Di Gennaro, Genua, Forcella and Gargiulo, and with the gifts of Poli, Arditi, and Sangiorgio, declared the museum and its collections to be their personal property independent of the crown, giving to it the name "Royal Borbonic Museum."


The ninth tablet notes Garibaldi=s nationalization of the museum and the excavations and his patronage of both.  Fiorelli also notes Garibaldi's opening of the Pornographic Collection.


IX. Giuseppe Garibaldi, Dictator, declaring national property the Museum and the Excavations,  to the latter, he increased the funds allocated to them so that they might proceed uninterrupted and expedited the discovery of Pompeii.  He ordered the permanently fastened doors of the "reserved rooms" be reopened, rescuing from inevitable ruin precious monuments of painting and of sculpture.

Tablets ten and eleven record the patronage of Vittorio Emanuele II, in particular the disposition of collections and the relocation of the schools and societies whose presence in the Palazzo degli Studi had not always been compatible with its function as a museum.


X. Vittorio Emanuele II ordered the rearrangement of the National Museum, revised the administration, legislated that the museum have custody of the Cumaean collection of the Count of Syracuse, donated by the Prince of Carignano, the Santangelo museum acquired for the benefit of the public by the city of Naples, the tapestries given by the Marchese del Vasto, the Palatine [Farnese] collection of prints, the medallic collection of the royal mint, and the historic furnishings of the monetary workshops.


XI. In order to render more splendid the installation of the ancient monuments, at different times were located elsewhere the Royal Society, the Workshops, the schools of Fine Arts.  Here, for its fundamental importance and for the fame of its collections of books and manuscripts remains the National Library, which has here its home together with its own separate administration.


The last tablet is a colophon.


XII.  These texts were posted in 1869 to record the origins and the ensuing changes in the historic building which holds them.  The new arrangement and the restorations begun in 1861 bear witness to the magnificent improvement done to the National Museum after the abolition of the monasteries, of the cenobium of S. Teresa degli Scalzi and of the monumental Certosa di S. Martino.




Although they tell a long story in brief and concise phrases, both monuments are ideologically charged and represent the way in which their respective creators wanted the museum and its dependencies and the regime in general to be received by the public.  Because both documents express themselves in such a durable medium as inscribed marble and because both have been prominently displayed, they have each had remarkable success in promoting their side of the story.  It is not difficult to find paraphrases and derivations in numerous, more ephemeral, accounts of the museum and its history.

It is even more useful to compare Fiorelli's historical account with that printed in the guidebook to the museum written by the author of the first authoritative guide to the museum, Giovambatista Finati, who wrote under the Bourbon regime, but did not have the foresight to engrave his words in stone.  A comparison of the two accounts shows that most of Fiorelli's account is present in more detail in Finati's history.[iii]  To the latter's account, however, Fiorelli has added the references to the building=s role in the popular uprisings in 1647 and in the conspiracy of Macchia in 1701, when, as a consequence of its discovery, Spanish soldiers were garrisoned in the building and the scholars were evicted.[iv]

Fiorelli's version of the creation of the Museum is also interesting for what it omits.  According to Fiorelli, Ferdinand is credited for bringing together the Museum Herculanense, the Painting collection and the Library, both from the Farnese inheritance, as well as the numismatic collection and the antique vases, but not with contributing the sculptures of the Farnese collection.  Fiorelli does not hesitate to record the fact that Ferdinand=s public spirit was sadly deficient when he fled Naples on 21 December 1798 and again in January 1806, taking with him, on both occasions, the choicest pieces from the collections.  When the Museum was opened finally under Joseph Bonaparte, it was without many of its treasures.  Finati, writing in 1842, described the events differently.  According to Finati, the Museum was already a fait accompli, when events took a turn for the worse:  "The Farnese objects having arrived in Naples, the King made arrangements for the organization of the Museum.  All the materials were ready, and the wonderful work was being undertaken with passion when the turbine of war exploded, which demanded all of the King's attention before any other concern; so that after the desired accumulation of so many precious objects one had the displeasure of seeing them piled up for some time..."  Finati goes on skillfully arguing that the Neapolitans had no choice but to open the Museum in the King's absence, tactfully reflecting the tone of the Museum's policies under the Bourbon Restoration.

The document that best reflects the era of the Restoration is, of course, Canova's statue of Ferdinand and its inscription.  Here the monarch's generosity is recognized in retrospect, even if it was left for others like Joseph Bonaparte to make the Museum a reality.  In utter and convincing simplicity,  the paintings, statues, books, and other works from the Farnese collection are associated with the works from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the other archaeological sites to form a monument for the glory of the realm (patriae gloriae) in the name of the "Museo Borbonico."  Although he had already mentioned some facts that cast Ferdinand I in a bad light, Fiorelli saved his most damning facts for the successors of Naples' most popular king.  In his eighth tablet, Fiorelli juxtaposed with a list of private collections absorbed into the Museum, the declaration of the last Bourbon monarchs -- including Ferdinand I -- that the Museum was to be their own personal hereditary property, independent of the property of the crown.  This bald declaration, which was in fact the law, was in conflict with the spirit of reconciliation and public spirit evident in the Canova portrait, and defied logic in view of the fact that the Museum had been augmented by many additional collections as Fiorelli noted.  It provided the note of hubris that justified the history that followed.

Fiorelli's ninth tablet is no doubt the one closest to being from his heart.  Garibaldi's nationalization of the Museum put an end to the whims of kings, and his enlightenment in opening the collections sealed up for hypocritical reasons deserved commemoration among the great events in the Museum=s history.  Anyone who reads these tablets in order will feel the spirit of Liberty inherent in the event.

The intention of Fiorelli's tablets was not only to interpret history leading up to the nationalization of the collections, but to have some measure of control over the future of the Museum as well.  Fiorelli was intent on creating a museum that would be a model for others in the logical organization of its collections as well as in its administration.  The tenth and twelfth tablets authorize Fiorelli's reorganization of the Museum, begun in 1861, through the decree of Victor Emanuel II.  These tablets conferred considerable authority upon those directors who would follow Fiorelli, but they also privileged Fiorelli without naming him.  In this regard, they were a mixed blessing. 




[i].  See Winckelmann, J. J., Sendschreiben von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen (Schriften und Nachlass, Band 2: Herkulanische Schriften Winckelmanns, Teil 1), Stephanie-Gerrit Bruer and Max Kunze, Eds., Mainz, Philipp von Zabern, 1997, pp. 128, 283-284.  See below, Appendix, Herculanense Musaeum, 1.  In the same work Winckelmann found fault with Mazocchi's  even more fanciful inscription for the bronze horse, the sole surviving part of the famous quadriga from Herculaneum, exhibited in the museum's courtyard.  See also pp. 82, 169-170.


[ii]. Finati (1842) vii-xii.  The two sources differ in assigning a date to the Count of Lemos' installation of the University in the Reggia degli Studi (i.e., the Museum).  Finati gives the year as 1616, while Fiorelli gives the year (correctly) as 1615.  Both dates can be found in subsequent historical summaries, suggesting the existence of separate traditions.


[iii]. Finati (1842) vii-xii.  The two sources differ in assigning a date to the Count of Lemos' installation of the University in the Reggia degli Studi (i.e., the Museum).  Finati gives the year as 1616, while Fiorelli gives the year (correctly) as 1615.  Both dates can be found in subsequent historical summaries, suggesting the existence of separate traditions.


[iv]. This event is mentioned by another chronicler of the Museum who wrote under the Bourbon regime, Stanislas d'Aloe (1854) v.  D'Aloe gives the date as 1705, however.