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Letter Pouch and Chalice Veil, Italian

Letter Pouch, Italian, 17th Century


Letter Pouch, Italian, 17th–18th century

Silk embroidered with silk, silver, and gold thread, red fringe, pink silk lining; 19 11/16 x 10 in

Athenæum purchase from the Lawrence Bequest Fund, 1876; deposited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1876

Chalice Veil, Italian, 18th Century

Chalice Veil, Italian, 18th century [?]

Silk woven with strips of gold, embroidered with gold threads and coils, and edged with gold lace, 28 3/8 x 28 1/8 in

Athenæum purchase from the Lawrence Bequest Fund, 1876; deposited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1876

In the fall of 1875, the Boston Athenæum’s Fine Arts Committee became interested in purchasing the “very valuable collection of works of art made by the famous Italian collector & connoisseur Alessandro Castellani.”[1] The funds for the acquisition were to come from money recovered on the insurance of the Lawrence Collection of Arms and Armor (see entry 109) that had burned in Boston’s Great Fire of 1872. When the purchase was finalized the following June, the Athenæum placed the collection immediately in the new building of the Museum of Fine Arts in Copley Square, in time for its opening on July 3, 1876. The purchase included nineteen articles of sculptured wood, thirty Italian Renaissance bronzes, and thirty-one pieces of Italian silk textiles, hanging, and embroideries. Of diverse quality, this assortment was typical of several purchases that the Athenæum made in the 1870s expressly for the new Museum, whose early collection was as eclectic in scope as it was didactic in purpose.

Alessandro Castellani (1823-1883) and his brother Augusto inherited a Roman jewelry shop from their father, Fortunato Pio Castellani, and made the firm famous in the middle decades of the nineteenth century through its meticulous copies of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman jewelry as well as for its own classically inspired designs.[2] Its archaeological jewelry was considered de rigueuramong ladies of fashion at mid-century, with a list of royalty and aristocrats among its patrons that fed the flame. Alessandro himself was of theatrical temperament and sometimes dubious honesty, and his life was full of showy drama. Jailed in 1853 for political reasons, Alessandro is said to have feigned mental illness to escape prison, and was exiled from Rome in 1860, effectively ending his career as the chief artistic force of the firm in Rome. He spent the 1860s in Paris and London as the flamboyant promoter of the Castellani firm, charming his way into the circles of high society, connoisseurs, and scholars. Soon Alessandro added to his wares antiquities and other materials gathered up in Italy, and sold them at international expositions as well as to museums—the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) and the British museums among others—throughout the 1860s.[3] Rome was then a fertile ground for the antiquities trade, and Alessandro Castellani was one of its chief players, capitalizing on his extensive network of connections and the cachet of a native expert that he cultivated assiduously abroad. Dubbed “Alexander the Great of the bibelots,” Alessandro “stayed at the grandest hotels, this too an element of the mise-en-scène he so excelled in, confirming with this luxury the dignity of his person and the distinction of his wares.”[4] Even in his lifetime, however, a trace of doubt began to attach itself to Alessandro’s reputation, as the authenticity of some of his merchandise was called into question.[5] It was into this context of international intrigue that the Boston Athenæum entered in 1875 as it began to negotiate with Castellani for the purchase of his “collection.”

Letter Pouch, Italian, 17th Century, Closed

The name of Alessandro Castellani had been familiar to the Athenæum for some time. Since 1872, the new Museum of Fine Arts exhibitions—held at the Athenæum in 1873, 1874, and 1875—had included Bostonian Thomas Gold Appleton’s collection of over forty Greco-Italian painted ceramic vases that had been discovered, reportedly, “by Alessandro Castellani in Etruscan and Campanian Tombs.”[6] By the summer of 1875 Castellani was in communication with the Athenæum as he contemplated his exhibition at the Philadelphia Centennial the following year, and the Athenæum made arrangements with the Italian marchand-collectionneur to have the crates sent directly to Boston on their way to Philadelphia, with the Athenæum retaining the right of refusal upon inspection of their contents.[7] The shipment came to the freshly completed building of the new Museum in Copley Square about one month before its public opening, followed by the Signor Castellani himself, who arrived in Boston on June 23 and promptly arranged the contents of the crates for inspection. The Trustees liked the collection, Mrs. Lawrence was delighted with it, and the Athenæum’s Fine Arts Committee soon voted to purchase the collection for the new Museum for $8,000.[8] Once purchased by the Athenæum, the Castellani Collection became a part of the newLawrence Collection at the Museum that the older institution was enthusiastically augmenting. Throughout the 1870s the Athenæum was eager to make visible its contribution to the younger institution; it also wished to acknowledge Mrs. Lawrence, an extremely generous donor, in a highly public manner.[9] Following his successful sale in Boston, Castellani went on to exhibit a large number of “Italian antiquities”—marbles, bronzes, personal ornaments, majolica, etc.—at the Centennial in Philadelphia in the fall. Apparently the Athenæum was quite taken with Castellani: it purchased more articles from him in Philadelphia, and the Italian dealer presented to the Athenæum an inscribed copy of the catalogue of his exhibition.[10] 


Castellani had easy access to a steady stream of objects coming out of the vast holdings of Roman aristocrats and churches, and the Athenæum’s purchases were largely objects of this variety. Discarded, abandoned, or at least willingly sold off in their native land, these objects found a readymarket in America. The Italian textiles included many ecclesiastical vestments—chasubles and copes—as well as altar frontals and chalice veils, all with elaborate decorations; some of them show heavy wear that suggests years of use. The chalice veil illustrated here, embroidered with gold in high relief on violet silk woven with strips of gold, must have come from a splendid set of ceremonial vestments, made in Italy in the eighteenth century for an unknown church. The embroidered letter pouch is thought to date from the seventeenth century.

Although they were not masterpieces, these pieces nevertheless formed a part of “an artistic microcosm, well calculated to teach the visitor something of the character and quality of the art-industry of many nations during a long period of the world’s history.”[11] Modeling itself after the South Kensington Museum in London, the Museum in Boston aimed to present such a microcosm for the education of the public, artists, and artisans, but it was candid enough at the beginning to admit that it lacked sufficient funds to acquire original works of art. Under the circumstances, the Museum was to exhibit “reproductions in plaster and other analogous materials of architectural fragments, statues, coins, gems, medals, and inscriptions, and of photographs of drawings by the old masters,” in the words of Charles Callahan Perkins, who ran the new Museum during its first fifteen years.[12] The Athenæum was a vital collaborator in this pragmatic program, and the purchase of the Castellani Collection proved most expedient. Remarkably, there was little illusion on the part of the Athenæum and the Museum about the significance of the Castellani textiles now in Copley Square:

They are a part of the past; and, though in no sense art, the beauty of the material, the richness of the embroidery, and their splendid color, make them grateful to the eye of the artist as well to that of the antiquarian.[13]

Most of what the Athenæum purchased for the Museum in the 1870s was relegated to storage in the early twentieth century. The Museum’s focus shifted from the didacticism of its early years to the display of the rare and the original. Some of its early holdings were proven to be outright modern reproductions, but more often they were articles of the past that were skillfully crafted but without the aesthetic uniqueness required by the new standards of exhibition. Most of the Castellani textiles were of this latter category.

After several decades in storage at the Museum, some of the Castellani carved wooden pieces returned quietly to the Athenæum in 1953, and most of the Italian bronzes and vases from the collection were sold at auction in 1977. The Castellani textiles have continued to lie in storage at the Museum, preserving the beautiful condition of some of them. Arrested in time for over a century, they attest to the humble aspirations that guided the Athenæum and the Museum in the 1870s, as the collections of both these institutions grew.

Hina Hirayama, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 342. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] Henry Bromfield Rogers to Edward Newton Perkins, May 12, 1876; the decision to purchase the Castellani collection is recorded in Fine Arts Committee Records, October 18, 1875.

[2] For the Castellani family and their work, see Susan Weber Soros and Stefanie Walker, eds., Castellani and Italian Archaeological Jewelry(New Haven and London: Yale University Press for Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, 2004); and Geoffrey C. Munn, Castellani and Giuliano: Revivalist Jewellers of the 19th Century(New York: Rizzoli, 1984).

[3] Soros and Walker, 62-64.

[4] Michael Tyskiewicz, Memories of An Old Collector(London: Longmans, Green, 1898), 71, and Margherita Barnabei nd Filippo Delpino, eds., Le “Memorie di un archeologo” di Felice Barnabei(Rome: De Luca Edizioni d’Arte, 1991), 119; quoted in Soros and Walker, 63-64.

[5] Soros and Walker, 293.

[6] Catalogue of the Collection of Ancient and Modern Works of Art Given or Loaned to the Trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts, at Boston(Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1872), 32.

[7] Fine Arts Committee Records, October 13, 1875, refers to a letter from Martin Brimmer to Castellani,  July 24, 1875, and another from Castellani to Brimmer, n.d., which probably initiated the negotiation, but the letters are not in the Athenæum archives.

[8] Fine Arts Committee Records, June 23 and July 3, 1876.

[9] Only some of the Castellani purchases were installed in the Lawrence Room and the rest were exhibited in the Loan Room, according to MFA catalogues.

[10] Edward Newton Perkins, chairman of the Athenæum’s Fine Arts Committee, purchased objects at the fair on behalf of the Athenæum, some of them from Castellani. Fine Arts Committee Records, November 1, 1876. The inscribed copy is Special Catalogue of the Collection of Antiquities, Exhibited by Alessandro Castellani, of Rome, in Rooms U, V, W, Memorial Hall (Philadelphia: Press of Edward Stern & Co., 1876).

[11] In the preface by Charles Callahan Perkins, Catalogue of the Collection…the Museum of Fine Arts, at Boston (1872), 3.

[12] Walter Muir Whitehill, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Centennial History(Cambridge: The Balknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), 9-10.

[13] Thomas Gold Appleton, Boston Museum of the Fine Arts. A Companion to the Catalogue(Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1877), 73.[1] Walter Muir Whitehill, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Centennial History(Cambridge: The Balknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), 9-10.