Krzysztof Pomian: “The invention of the first museum in Rome took two centuries to spread in Europe”

The cross : The ancient royal tombs are the first to offer sets of precious objects. “Our art and archeology museums are the heirs”, you write. What are the fundamental differences between these ancient treasures and our museums?

Krzysztof Pomian: The treasure accompanies all the sacral monarchies, from China to Mesoamerica via the West. Precious materials, especially gold, abound there and outweigh the quality of execution of the objects. The treasure is thus an instrument of exercise of power which makes it possible to reward relatives. It is also a sign of divine election and accompanies its owner after death. It is part of an exchange between the here below and the hereafter. The museum itself is part of an exchange between the past and the future, a transmission to a community here below. It is a secular and public institution, open to visitors. And, unlike the treasure, it is not buried or burnt with its owner, but called to last.

Before the treasures reach the museum, an essential link is needed: the private collections. The first existed in China and ancient Rome. Then they do not reappear in Europe until the 14the century. How to explain it?

KP: The answer can only be hypothetical. In Rome with the empire, ostentation is reserved for the emperor. Then comes Christianity, which places the relics of saints at the top of the hierarchy of values ​​and directs the gaze towards the invisible. The Renaissance is accompanied by the affirmation of a certain individualism. But the collection is the result of an individual desire. Charles V, by isolating cameos in his treasure that he carried with him, was one of the first princes to mark his singular taste. Petrarch, who collects old coins and paintings by Giotto or Simone Martini in his home, becomes a model for other humanists.

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Private collections thus multiplied in the 15th century.e century in Italy, then north of the Alps… Unlike treasures, these collections were oriented very early on towards human production, rather than towards precious materials. Painting, which claims to be an intellectual activity, comes to the fore, prefiguring the hierarchy of our art museums.

It is a pope who is at the origin of the first museum, in 1471 …

KP: Yes, but it was initially a pure political operation! To appease relations with Rome, poisoned by his predecessor, Sixtus IV offered the municipality antiques kept in the Lateran. These were exhibited at the Capitol and it took fifty years before the name “museum” was added to this collection. This invention will also take time to spread, in the XVIe century, in cities like Florence with the Uffizi gallery open to visitors, Venice with the Statuario pubblico, or Milan with the Ambrosian library and art gallery …

North of the Alps, the first museums did not arrive until two centuries later. Why ?

KP: Because of the wars of religion which set Europe on fire and blood, with an unleashing of barbaric destruction. In the XVIe century, the French or German nobility has many other concerns than to found a museum! Collections, Kunstkammern (cabinets of curiosities, Editor’s note), partly linked to treasures, exist in the princely palaces. Others develop in the XVIIe century among rich bourgeois, scholars …

However, it was not until 1661 to see the creation of the Basel Museum, then the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It was only after the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) that museums experienced a real boom in the Germanic countries, and even in France where the king opened part of his collection at the Luxembourg Palace in 1750. Encouraged by the Philosophy of the Enlightenment, princes, anxious to appear enlightened, then agree to share the vision of their finest works with the people.

Apart from Italy, natural history museums in Europe often precede art museums …

KP: There is an important religious factor here, especially in Protestant countries: nature in all her creations, including the most humble, manifests divine providence much better than human history, crossed by evil.

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In addition, the development of botanical gardens and natural history museums corresponds to the constitution of state bureaucracies which attempt to inventory resources in order to develop the economy and agriculture. The first museum to open in Paris is therefore the King’s Natural History Cabinet within the Jardin des Plantes. And in London, it was the British Museum which, at the time, was not an art museum.


A landmark sum

The Museum, a world history.
1. From treasure to museum

by Krzysztof Pomian

Gallimard, 704 p. ill., 35 €

Here is a mine that will delight all art lovers and history buffs. Polish polyglot, exiled in Paris in 1973 to join the CNRS and the Practical School of Higher Studies, the philosopher and historian Krzysztof Pomian spent thirty years of his life developing a dizzying world history of museums. This first volume (1) traces the emergence of this singular institution, from the ancient treasures until the end of the Ancien Régime. From the founding work of Francis Haskell Patrons and painters, in 1963, work multiplied on private collections, cabinets of curiosities, the genesis of large and small museums… Krzysztof Pomian assembles, here, the pieces of the puzzle to create a vast panorama, as striking as it is original. By its height of view embracing two millennia of European history, its finesse of analysis on the transfers of collections, its lively and erudite story seduces as much as its gallery of portraits of popes, princes, humanists or scholars who have contributed to this adventure.


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