Lost in plain sight

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

When a Roman historical relief miraculously disappears, what are the chances it is actually just chilling in Russia? In the case of the “lost” Nollekens relief from Domitian’s Palace in Rome, chances are quite high. As John Pollini attempts to trace the fugitive artwork’s itinerary from its findspot and up to its present location, the scholar from Los Angeles ends up time-travelling through ancient Rome, 18th-century Italy, the Bolshevik revolution, and even World War II in Russia, only to discover the relief casually embellishing a Russian palace south of St. Petersburg. “The history of the relief and its supposed disappearance in the latter part of the 18th century are important for the history of collecting and the display of classical antiquities”, the scholar comments upon his return from that crazy ride.

It all started out clear as a day. Dug up from the Roman emperor Domitian’s palace on the Palatine Hill back in 1722, the relief acquired its Nollekens nickname after its first owner, the accomplished British sculptor Joseph Nollekens. Logical. Soon after, the relief attracted scholarly attention as it became known from two engravings and a pen-and-watercolor drawing. Possible narratives were discussed by Bianchini, the original excavator, followed by other historians. One of them was the famous classical archaeologist and art historian Johann Winckelmann who in 1767 was the first to discuss the relief and to note that it belonged to Nollekens. But all of a sudden, “although Winckelmann knew that the relief was in Nollekens’ possession in 1767, by 1776 he reports that its whereabouts was not known.” The Western world had “lost” a sensational work of art from the Roman empire: presumably for good.

Fig. 2_adj
Rossi’s engraving of the Nollekens Relief published in 1738 (Bianchini [infra n.5] pl. VI).
Fig. 4_adj
Pen-and-ink watercolor of the Nollekens Relief now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (courtesy museum).

What really happened? Could Winckelmann have missed out on a sale, resulting in a false alarm? While these sound like obvious questions to ask, they were surprisingly overlooked at the time. Later scholars took the “whereabouts not known” announcement quite literally, Gerhard Koeppel being one of them. Initially sharing Winckelmann’s view, at the last moment Koeppel examined a drawing of the relief by Nollekens, at the bottom of which he could read something approximating “was mine, gone to Russia”–evidence of the exact sale that Winckelmann had missed. After following that Russian thread, however, rather than awaken Western academia to the long-lost relief, Koeppel did little more than add to his long study of Roman historical reliefs a brief postscript (brief enough to be missed by other scholars), “indicating only that the relief was displayed in the White Hall of the Gatchina Palace c. 50 km south of St. Petersburg, […], badly damaged with the heads broken off and lost during the War.” That might have deserved more than just a postscript. Did Koeppel simply give up on the relief as being irreparable, or was there more than that to the “Russian thread”?

Pollini, who started his own investigation in St. Petersburg, might not be entirely unsympathetic with his predecessor’s despair. The thread of events he was exposed to (in Russian by Russians) makes one wonder how the relief survived till the present day at all. Supposedly purchased from Nollekens in 1769 by the Russian Academy of Fine Arts’ first president Shuvalov (on behalf of Catherine the Great), the relief not only remained virtually unharmed up until 1938, but had also appeared in a photograph in “an obscure Russian periodical” dating back to 1914. Frighteningly, at some point during the German siege of St. Petersburg, one of the bloodiest Russian phases of World War II, the Gatchina Palace was terribly bombed, the museum personnel unable to return to the palace until six days after Gatchina was liberated in 1944. Presumably as a result of economic hardship, there wouldn’t be an official order to restore the palace until the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the walls of the White Hall ended up falling away to reveal brickwork, with much of the ceiling collapsed and the floor gone, the fireplace suspended in mid-air. Believe it or not, it was precisely in this wrecked room that the Nollekens relief had been in hiding, mounted above a mantelpiece, several of the figures’ heads missing but largely unscathed (at least not yet). “Just chilling.”

In case you were thinking WWII damage is the worst fate that could possibly happen to an artwork, the relief would actually lose far more heads in the post-War years, especially prior to the roof’s “repair” around 1950. That was when the real damage happened, as the relief fell victim to extreme temperature changes, rains, and snow. The fragments that fell off or were broken off the relief during its stay at the Palace have miraculously disappeared. Were the missing pieces pilfered, or did they truly dissipate in space and time? One wonders about the prospects of its restoration. If now not “lost”, the Nollekens relief might end up effectively being so.

But before that happens, you have a great chance to access what might well, by the way, be the definitive article on this Roman relief. If you, too, fancy time-traveling through ancient Rome, 18th-century Italy, the Bolshevik revolution, and even World War II in Russia (only to discover the artwork casually embellishing a Russian palace south of St. Petersburg), follow John Pollini from USC who not only knows what to do when in Rome, but also how to do it as the Russians do when in St. Petersburg.

To purchase the full article, J. Pollini, “The “lost” Nollekens Relief of an imperial sacrifice from Domitian’s Palace on the Palatine: its history, iconography and date,” JRA 30 (2017) pp. 97-126 (which includes the scholar’s detailed discussion of the relief’s iconography), or the whole issue of JRA, go to: http://journalofromanarch.com/order.html

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