Thursday Seminar: "The Great Custodian"


Thursday, March 30, 2023, 6:00pm to 7:30pm


I Tatti
Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Portrait of Sebastiano Biavati

Speaker: Alessandra Russo (Columbia University)

A famous etching folding out at the beginning of a book entitled Museo Cospiano (Bologna, 1677) represents the inventive display of one of the earliest “public” museums. Agent and ambassador of the Medici and senator of Bologna, the collector Ferdinando Cospi (1606-1686) had gathered hundreds of artifacts and natural species spanning from Mexican mosaics looted in the war of conquest to Guercino’s drawings and Reni’s paintings, from polychromatic snails gathered in the rivers of the region to shells taken from the shores of far-away oceans, from Etruscan urns dig in town to Chinese finely carved nautiluses. In 1660 part of this collection officially entered the Public Palace of Bologna (joining Aldrovandi’s studio), while another impressive variety of items remained in Cospi’s private palace. Conceived as a catalogue, the Museo Cospiano inventoried the contents of both collections, describing, commenting, and illustrating dozens of them.

Differently from other images of early museums, the etching stages a man authoritatively holding one of the museum’s pieces —an Egyptian statuette— and showing it to us. The man is Sebastiano Biavati (1617-1677 ca.), Cospi’s close companion who safe-guarded his private palace’s collection. This is probably the earliest known representation of an art custodian holding a single artefact.  

In this talk I will present my new book project and will reflect on the very process of investigating the textual and visual sources of Biavati’s life and agency. These sources document his profound subjective transformation from a rural milieu to that of connoisseurship—a transformation made possible through the encounter with and discussion about the finest art-pieces made in the world. Biavati’s cultural metamorphosis is echoed by that of the variety of the artifacts and natural species he kept in Ferdinando Cospi’s collection. The objects are in fact presented, especially in the Museo Cospiano, in terms of progressive perfecting through artistic labor.

Inhabiting the fine line between nature and culture, inborn ingenium and its cultivation, exception and paradigm, Sebastiano Biavati’s history —and its objects— become relevant to the concept of museum as they point to its premier missions: custodianship of artistically (and naturally) transformed matter and transformative aesthetic education for anyone.

Alessandra Russo is Professor in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Studies at Columbia University. She is author of A New Antiquity (forthcoming in 2024); The Untranslatable Image (2015 and 2023); El realismo circular (2005), and editor with Gerhard Wolf and Diana Fane of: Images Take Flight (2015). She directs with Michael Cole the project Spanish Italy and the Iberian Americas, sponsored by the Getty Foundation. Her new book manuscript is entitled The Great Custodian.


Image: Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Portrait of Sebastiano Biavati (Detail from the “Prospettiva” of the Museo Cospiano, etching, Bologna, 1677).


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