(1832–1904),

soldier,

diplomat,

antiquarian and

ultimately museum director.

Throughout his long life Emmanuele Pietro Paolo Maria Luigi Palma di Cesnola was always a colorful and controversial figure. After seeing military action in Italy and the Crimea, he traveled extensively throughout the Ottoman Empire and then emigrated to the United States. During the American Civil War, Cesnola distinguished himself as a colonel in the Union cavalry; he was wounded, captured, and exchanged in a release of prisoners. Without private means, he was fortunate later to be offered a consulship in Cyprus, then a backwater of the Ottoman Empire. Shortly after arriving there, Cesnola emulated his French and British consular colleagues by collecting ancient Cypriot art, a pursuit that became a major preoccupation and lucrative source of income. Ultimately, it also brought him fame. With determination the consul toured the island from 1865 to 1875 with his gangs of laborers, opening thousands of tombs and cursorily “exploring” numerous ancient city and temple sites.

The resulting collection of antiquities, ranging from over life-size statues to fine jewelry, numbering in the tens of thousands, was offered to various great museums around the world. Some works went to London and Paris; but after much negotiating the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City purchased more than four thousand items, the nucleus of its antiquities collection. They also received Cesnola, who, for better or for worse, became the first director. His tenure was beset by allegations of unethical practices concerning the restoration of statues and the provenance of the so-called Treasure of Curium. The latter, much like Priam's Treasure excavated by Heinrich Schliemann (who Cesnola attempted to upstage) was not a single deposit but a heterogeneous collection of gold jewelry and other valuables from local tombs. Although much criticized today for his lack of scientific method, Cesnola must be given credit for propelling Cypriot art onto the world stage for the edification of future generations.

Bibliography

  • Di Cesnola, Luigi P. Cyprus: Its Ancient Cities, Tombs, and Temples. 2d ed. New York, 1878. Reprint, with a forward by Stuart Swiny. Limassol, 1991. Cesnola's embellished and often inaccurate account of his activities on Cyprus over a decade. Nonetheless, an important work, the first detailed publication of a large and representative sample of Cypriot antiquities, and an entertaining introduction to contemporary life on the island.
  • Di Cesnola, Luigi P. A Descriptive Atlas of the Cesnola Collection of Cypriote Antiquities in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 3 vols. Boston and New York, 1885–1903. Fine quarto publication, reproducing the best pieces in the collection. Available in major libraries, these massive volumes are now collector's items.
  • McFadden, Elizabeth. The Glitter and the Gold: A Spirited Account of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's First Director, the Audacious and High-Handed Luigi Palma di Cesnola. New York, 1971. Very well researched. The subtitle is no overstatement!
  • Myres, John. Handbook of the Cesnola Collection of Antiquities from Cyprus (1914). New York, 1974. Standard reference work to the collection by the leading expert of the day.
  • Wright, G. R. H. “Louis Palma di Cesnola and Cyprus.” Archiv für Orientforschung 38–39 (1991–1992): 161–167. The only work to question the psychology of this nineteenth-century adventurer, with interesting comparisons to Henry Austen Layard and Heinrich Schliemann.

Stuart Swiny