- The Body of the Collector and the Collected Body in William Hamilton’s Naples
Rome and the Bay of Naples, along with Paestum and the whole of Sicily, have traditionally been lumped together as a single, homogeneous district south of the more civilized Venetian and Tuscan territories, with a single cultural and sociological history originating in a common classical past. This has been the view in the growing number of studies of the British on the Continent in the eighteenth century, the many recent books and exhibition catalogs centering on the Grand Tour, the ever more subtle and multifaceted attempts to isolate and define neoclassicism—and particularly the British involvement in or contribution to the revival of antiquity in European culture. But as anyone who has ever traveled to Naples from Rome knows, these two cities are worlds apart, with distinct and, in many cases (for example, modes of religious expression) widely divergent, if not antithetical, traditions. And if this is true and obvious today, when both centers are united under one government, it was more remarkable in the eighteenth century, when they were still separate in every conceivable sense, as the centers of two distinct and autonomous political domains.
In the last five years, the British presence in Naples during the eighteenth century has finally emerged as a separate and supremely worthwhile subject of scholastic inquiry. At present, this inquiry logically focuses upon the representative figure of Sir William Hamilton—the British Envoy to the Bourbon court at the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies for more than three decades. It was long understood that this well-born foster brother of George III played a major role in the formation of British neoclassical tastes and the dissemination of knowledge of [End Page 108] antiquities, not merely because he played a very practical role in the formation of specific British collections of art and artifacts, but also because of his lavish publications of his own two famous collections of Greek vases. 1 Recent research, culminating in the British Museum exhibition Vases and Volcanoes; Sir William Hamilton and his Collection, reminds us that pottery was only one of an astonishing range of things collected by Hamilton. As with Browning’s Last Duchess, the British minister “liked whate’er he looked on, and his looks went everywhere.” And the reference to Browning is particularly appropriate, for, like the Duke in the same poem, Hamilton approached both people and things as objects of virtu, and as such, obtainable and subject to resale.
Given his official status as the first Englishman in Southern Italy, Hamilton was uniquely qualified, in the words of Harold Acton, “to extract every drop of honey from the hive of Naples.” 2 Which is precisely what he did; from the date of his arrival in 1764 to his hasty departure with Emma thirty-five years later, nothing of interest, no curiosity of nature, no artist of any talent, no archeological find, turned up in the vicinity of Naples without passing through, and sometimes remaining in, Sir William’s hands, or at least his house, the Palazzo Sessa. The aforementioned exhibition has done an admirable job of tracing and enumerating precisely what Sir William collected, so it is now possible to explore in greater detail the many crucial but as yet inadequately considered factors which helped to determine how and why he collected what he did. Perhaps the most interesting component in the pattern of Hamilton’s collecting is the presence and manipulation of the human figure, both real and represented, in the larger corpus of his acquisitions.
The context for most of his subsequent purchases and finds, is the city of Naples itself, and the surrounding landscape. The traditional identification of Naples—a paradoxical and prejudicial one which dates to long before the eighteenth century 3 and is confirmed by numerous English-speaking visitors up to the present time—is as “a paradise inhabited by demons,” a lush, almost tropical zone of plenty which should be conducive to human life and happiness, and yet is actually a place of danger, especially to foreigners. This tradition sets the parameters for what is basically an antagonistic...