Farnese collection at the Naples
National Archaeological Museum is one of the
finest collections of objects of Roman antiquity in the
world. It is named for cardinal Alessandro Farnese
(1520-1589), notable collector and patron of the arts.
Farnese assembled the objects in the collection from
excavations in Rome, through purchase, and through
acquisition by inheritance of complete collections.
time, the sculptures provided decorative furnishing for
different Farnese family residences in Rome and Parma.
Then, Elizabeth Farnese (1692-1766), the Queen Consort
of Spain (wife of Philip V), who owned the collection by
inheritance, passed it on to her son, Charles, who then
became the first king of the new
Bourbon dynasty of Naples in 1735. Museum
literature says that the collection passed to Naples "at
the wish of Ferdinand IV,"
Charles' son. I will shoulder Atlas' burden for one year
(see photo in section below) if that statement is true!
Ferdinand IV was a notorious ignoramus and vulgarian who
wouldn't have known a statue if one had fallen on him
(and it's too bad one didn't!). It is certainly the
case, on the other hand, that his brilliant and
ambitious consort, Caroline,
was behind the transfer of her father-in-law's
collection from Rome and Parma to Naples. That would be
in the late 1700s, when the collection indeed was
incorporated into a nascent museum at the northwest
corner of the old city, premises that had originally
housed a cavalry barracks and then the University of
Naples and now the National Archaeological Museum of
the items in the collection are Roman copies of Greek
originals. (Some are not. See this
entry on Artemis.) Even before their transfer to
Naples, many of these sculptures had already been
substantially repaired by artists working in the Farnese
family circle; after the move, some of them were
subjected to further restoration and modification by Carlo Albacini
(1735-1813). He modified, in accordance with the tastes
of the new Neoclassical style, repairs that had been
done in the past. Once they reached their destination,
some of the sculptures were restored yet again by
artists active in Naples. The old Farnese collection,
once spread out in many residences, is united in Naples
for the first time. The display, in various rooms on the
ground floor of the museum, is spectacular.
The Farnese Bull
Pan and Daphnis, late 2nd cent. AD copy of an original from the late 2nd cent. BC, attributed to the Rhodian sculptor Heliodorus.
The Farnese Atlas
that collection, one of the most interesting
pieces and one that has attracted considerable scholarly
debate is the so-called Farnese Atlas (photo). It is a
2nd-century Roman marble copy of a Greek sculpture of
the Titan, Atlas, kneeling and holding the burden of the
sky on his shoulders. The statue is seven feet tall (2.1
meters) and the globe just over two feet in diameter (65
cm); it is the oldest statue still in existence of
Atlas, and the globe is the oldest known representation
of the celestial sphere, the imaginary, rotating bowl of
night above us that contains the stars we see. The
Farnese globe shows at least 40 of the classical Greek
constellations, the ones familiar to westerners: Aries
the ram, Cygnus the swan, etc. etc. The statute dates to
150 AD but is believed to represent the constellations
as they appeared to earlier Greek astronomers.
The extent to which the globe really does represent the constellations as seen by the ancient Greeks is at the heart of the debate. In 2005, Bradley Schaefer, a professor of physics at Louisiana State University concluded that the text of a long lost star catalog by Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, may have been the inspiration for the original statue. From analyzing the positions of the constellations on the globe, he concluded that they were consistent with how they were viewed at the time of Hipparchus (c. 130 BC); thus, he said, the Farnese globe is based on Hipparchus' star catalog. The popular press picked up the story and at least some accepted it uncritically. The New York Times said:
Some historians had speculated that the sculptor might have consulted the work of Ptolemy, who lived about 250 years after Hipparchus, or Aratus, who described the constellations in a poem about a century before Hipparchus. Curiously, no one appears to have suggested Hipparchus' catalog as the reference source.