Robbing the Past: London and Paris

Librarian and art dealer Abbé Luigi Celotti was born on 12 August 1759 in Treviso in the Veneto region. His name appears as an art dealer after the Napoleonic invasion of Italy in 1796 when he was active in Paris. His contact with the British art market was evident in November 1828 when he sold Titian’s Portrait of Two Boys (said to be members of the Pesaro family) to James Irvine on behalf of William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo. Celotti was trading from premises in London by the spring of 1825. His presence on the British art market is significant not for the paintings or antiques he sold, but for his dealings in illuminated miniatures. 

The scale of French plundering in Italy was unprecedented in modern history. Napoleon turned his campaign into a looting expedition and transported his gains of war to Paris (including the the Bronze Horses of Saint Mark in Venice and the Laocoön in Rome – later returned) where the works of art were received in classic imperial style of a triumphal procession. 

During Napoleon’s Italian campaign, French troops had looted the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Library in 1798. Soldiers were dealing in priceless devotional books and liturgical manuscripts. Celotti took the stolen goods from their hands. Having acquired the volumes, he removed the illuminated miniatures, kept the best ones for himself, and sold others to collectors. London was his prime commercial market. In March 1825 he sold a set of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin manuscripts at Sotheby’s. The sale was recorded as the first known specialist auction of a collection of medieval manuscripts in London. 

Two months later, Christie’s announced the sale (on 26 May) of more than two hundred miniatures. Such a sale had never occurred before on the art market. The title of the catalogue indicated the rarity of that occasion: A Catalogue of a Highly Valuable and Extremely Curious Collection of Illumined Miniature Paintings taken from the Choir Books of the Papal Chapel in the Vatican during the French Revolution; and subsequently collected and brought to this Country by the Abate Celotti. London, Mr Christie, May 26, 1825. A precedent was set. Collectors realised that the best of medieval painting survived within the covers of manuscripts rather than on panels or walls. It stimulated the large-scale cutting up of volumes and the disposal of the body of text. Miniatures were preserved as ‘monuments of a lost art’ and framed like small panels. 

A great collector of miniatures was William Young Ottley, Keeper of Prints at the British Museum, who had catalogued the 1825 Celotti sale at Christie’s; so was Charles Brinsley Marlay, a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner and member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club. On his death in 1912, he bequeathed 240 illuminated cuttings (dating from the twelfth to the sixteenth century) to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge where the collection is known as the ‘Marlay Cuttings’ and includes leaves from the celebrated choirbooks of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, San Marco in Venice, and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Another cutting was originally part of one of the sixteenth-century missals listed in an early eighteenth-century inventory of the Sistine Chapel. Showing Pope Leo the Great worshipping the Virgin, it is known to have passed through Celotti’s hands. The dealer himself died in October 1843 at the Palazzo Barbarigo, Venice. 

Why was Celotti so successful in flocking his ‘orphan’ leaves in Britain? In 1796 the Rev James Granger had published his Biographical History of England (1769) which introduced the practice of inserting leaves and prints which do not belong to the book, but were pertinent to the subject treated. The result was a rise in value of books containing portraits which were cut out and inserted in collector’s copies. Critics introduced the term ‘grangerising’ for the bizarre process of adding extra illustrations to the printed text. Celotti further encouraged biblioclastic pursuits where by researchers and/or dealers removed individual leaves and re-assembled them in a different form. Defending themselves against critics, those involved in the practice argued that the leaves came from books already imperfect or damaged. By dismantling the document concerned, images could be made available to and appreciated by a wider audience, particularly if the leaves were accompanied by an explanatory essay. Even John Ruskin subscribed to that theory. He created leaf collections out of his private holdings of medieval manuscripts. In retrospect, it seems an extraordinary contradiction that someone of Ruskin’s calibre would knowingly destroy the bibliographical evidence showing how a particular medieval text was materialised in a codex format. 

The secularisation of religious houses across Europe in general, and Napoleon’s art thievery in particular, led to irredeemable damage to sacred books. Illumination was taken out of context in a similar manner as the removal of paintings out of cathedrals. Our national museums originate in art robbery of which Napoleon was the Godfather. Celotti’s practice of ripping apart books and manuscripts fits into a wider context of cultural vandalism. The discovery of early civilisations was an adventure tale of the nineteenth century. Those were the pioneer days of historical digging when excavators employed hundreds of workers in a frenzied search for and acquisition of ancient monuments and treasures. From these excavations archaeology was born. They also spawned a legacy of efforts to rob the past (and subsequent requests for repatriation). 

Between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin transported the Parthenon (‘Elgin’) Marbles from Greece to London. Considering Napoleon’s pillaging in order to stock his ambitious Musée Napoléon (as the Louvre was renamed in 1802 under the stewardship of Vivant Denon), it was ironic that the French responded by adding the word ‘elginisme’ to their vocabulary in the sense of an act of cultural vandalism by which artefacts are diminished when torn out of their cultural and spatial context. It was a typical case of the pot calling the kettle black; or, the French desecrator accusing his English counterpart of being a vandal.