Collecting Art & Antiquities

On the Hunt for Treasure

“…were all the copies sold here for the last thirty years, placed side by side, they would reach from London to St. Petersburgh at least…” – B. Spence, 1852, The ‘Lions’ of Florence

During the 18th century, Europe was obsessed with collecting – influenced by the Enlightenment and the need to gain a ‘complete’ knowledge of the world; many wealthy Europeans started the collections that would later fill many of the world’s museums. For the Grand Tourists in Italy, this meant a craze for antiques – Roman sculptures and other Italian works were sold and shipped back home. Foreign buyers were so insatiable that Italians became worried they would lose too much of their heritage. In order to combat the loss of Italian cultural heritage, some states enacted laws preventing the sale of such artworks and began amassing their own collections.

Saunterings in Florence (dragged) 12
Art Dealers and Furnishers

As a result, many of the well-known museums in Italy, including the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, and the Palatine Galleries, were opened to the public and re-categorized by object type (history, art, and natural history). These institutions – now open to the middle-class travellers of the 19th century – became centres for artistic study and admiration. They also became the inspiration for forgeries, replicas and souvenirs desired by tourists.

“We will suppose that you have come to Italy and Florence with the full intention of purchasing and bringing home, not a mere copy of Madonna in the blue mantle… no…a true and undoubted original” – B. Spence, The Lions of Florence, 1852

Some travel guides were written specifically to instruct visitors on the basics of art collecting, restoration and preservation. Many artists, art historians, and antique dealers advertised their services in guidebooks to capitalize on this trade. Wealthier aristocrats often found dubious ways around the art laws and continued to collect original works, while the middle-classes more often spent their money on replicas or images.

A Perfect Picture

At the beginning of the 19th century, advances in lithography and photography changed the way Europeans saw the world. Previously using only drawings and engravings, guidebooks slowly began to include better quality images for tourists – allowing them a heightened understanding of the place or thing being described by the text. But this also changed the expectation of what there was to see. Images took away some of the mystery of places and things unknown, but this did not deter tourists from coming to see the places and things first hand; in fact it actually increased the desire to travel.


Photographs were not only used in guidebooks to illustrate words – they were also taken home as souvenirs. These images were mementos brought back by those who could not afford a replica – or the real thing. Universities and art historians also used them to teach and study art, particularly in Europe or North America. Pictures were both aides to illustration and objects to invoke memory – a small piece of Florence.

“It is impossible to overestimate the value of photographs for the study of frescoes, especially when the originals are either defaced or faded… After you have thus got to know the picture in black-and-white, return to the church to examine it again: you will then find that the colour and the size, as well as the artist’s touch, vivify and brighten what in the photograph was often dead and meaningless” – Grant Richards, Florence,  1897


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