A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The life of Luigi Palma di Cesnola Cesnola (1832-1904) is an archetypal American story, founded on the conviction that through hard work, chutzpah, and a little luck, you can become whatever you would like to be. Cesnola rose from obscure origins as the second son in a family of faded Piedmontese nobility and, after putting his military training to use with the British in the Crimean War, emigrated to the United States around 1860 to seek his fortune. During the Civil War he rose to the rank of colonel before being captured in 1863 while leading a charge of the 4th New York Cavalry at Aldie, Virginia. Displaying consummate networking skills, Cesnola parlayed his experience into an appointment as American Consul to Cyprus in 1865. Enroute to the island, he assumed the title general, a rank that he claimed Lincoln had promised to him days before being assassinated.
When he discovered soon after arrival in Larnaca that the position was not the easy road to wealth and the social position that he had imagined, the resourceful consul turned his energies to the hobby then much in vogue among westerners in the Middle East: collecting antiquities. Cesnola's "archaeological" methods have received harsh criticism, even by the undeveloped standards of the late nineteenth century. He was rarely present at the digs carried out on his behalf, he made no notes or photos of the context from which the objects came, and many of his interpretations were highly imaginative if not intentionally misleading. Yet his skills in marketing were well ahead of his time. After several years of promoting his discoveries in Europe with auctions in Paris and London and numerous donations to museums, Cesnola sold the heart of the collection to the fledgling Metropolitan Museum. Cesnola followed it to New York as the museum's first director, a position he held until his death. When President Rutherford B. Hayes opened the institution's new home on Fifth Avenue in 1880, the Cesnola Collection of Cypriot antiquities occupied most of the first floor.
It's a sanitized Cesnola now canonized in new galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The brief account of the collection's history installed at the entrance to the new galleries fails to mention the chicanery that got the objects out of Cyprus, the fictionalized proveniences, or a ruinous lawsuit brought by numismatist Gaston Feuardent, who charged many pieces were faked. No explanation is given for the collection's disappearance during the twentieth century.
These topics are, however, addressed with passion in a new book by Anna G. Marangou, The Consul Luigi Palma di Cesnola 1832-1904: Life and Deedsny, which is destined to become an essential addition to all future studies of Cesnola and his times.
The introduction to the official catalog of the new exhibition, Ancient Art from Cyprus: The Cesnola Collection, by Vassos Karageorghis in collaboration with Joan R. Mertens and Marice E. Rose summarizes Cesnola's life while only briefly touching upon the controversies and the collection's checkered history that are Marangou's focus. It is the artifacts themselves--over 500 of them, all illustrated in full color--that are the stars of this book.
Ellen Herscher is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.