Gods and Heroes on the slopes of Vesuvius

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In 1766 (or probably in 1776, despite the date on the title page), the “Antiquités etrusques, grecques et romaines, tirées du cabinet de Hamilton, envoyé extraordinaire de S.M. Britannique en cour de Naples” were published in Naples. (Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman, antiquities from the cabinet of the Hon. W. Hamilton, his Britannick Maiesty’s envoy extraordinary at the Court of Naples.)


This work, printed in four volumes in-folio size, in French and English languages, which proved to be one of the most influential in determining European taste and fashion from the late 18th to the half of the 19th century, originated from the meeting of two great, in different ways, typically eighteenth century characters: William Hamilton, English plenipotentiary at the Neapolitan court, passionate about volcanology and collector of ancient art – but also famous for the role his young and uninhibited second wife, Emma Hamilton, admiral Nelson’s mistress, had in the repression of the Neapolitan Republic of 1799 – and the French adventurer Pierre-François Hughes (self-appointed baron d’Hancarville), writer, historian, art dealer and author, under false name, of pornographic publications.

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Hamilton, who thanks to D’Hancarville had bought the Porcinari family’s collection of archaeological finds and gradually integrated it with pieces from illegal excavations, commissioned the French to edit the catalogue of the collection; the result was, in fact, the four volumes of the “Antiquités” engraved in Naples by Francesco Morelli in the years 1766-1767: a true masterpiece of neoclassical art, profusely illustrated by copper engravings often colored by hand: it had never happened before , that ancient Greek vases were represented with such precision of the finest details of sublime beauty.

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The work significantly influenced English and European decorators, artisans, architects and scholars over the next fifty years: one of Hamilton’s goals in publishing the catalog – to inspire contemporary artists – had been achieved: after all, for this purpose, he had sent several engravings to Josiah Wedgwood, the famous English ceramics manufacturer who was struck by them and used them as models for the vases of his factory. The press – and mostly all the etchings – cost a fortune and when, subsequently, d’Hancarville, burdened by debts, had to flee from Naples, as an extreme attempt of the economic salvation, brought along the original copper engraved plates served to the edition, in the consciousness of their value. The entire collection of vases was sold in 1772 to the British Museum, constituting its first nucleus of ancient art.

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Here we present a collection of plates from the first volume of the “Antiquités”, with hand-colored calcographs at the origin or more simply, but not less effectively, imprinted in black ink.