Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Cesnola Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Cesnola Collection is remarkable not only for its size and diversity but also for its chronological range, stretching from the Early Bronze Age to the end of antiquity. When the Metropolitan Museum opened at its current site in Central Park in 1880, the collection was the focus of attention, heralded as a great asset to the city of New York, which was then aspiring to become a major cultural as well as business center. The richness and fame of the Cesnola Collection also did much to establish the Museum’s reputation as a major repository of classical antiquities and put it on a par with the foremost museums in Europe, whose collections had largely been formed at an earlier date. Indeed, with regard to Cypriot antiquities, it could be said that the Museum’s acquisition of the Cesnola Collection prompted subsequent British and French expeditions intended to furnish European museums with Cypriot material to match that in New York.

The story of the Cesnola Collection is almost as colorful as that of its creator, Luigi Palma di Cesnola. After a military career in both Europe and the American Civil War, Cesnola was appointed American consul in Cyprus in 1865. During the next few years, he amassed an unrivaled collection of Cypriot antiquities through extensive excavations and by purchase. The whole enterprise was funded from his own resources. At the time, a number of antiquarians from various European countries were beginning to collect Cypriot antiquities, but they were soon outmatched by Cesnola, who came to dominate the scene in Cyprus. Cesnola saw his work as rivaling that of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and intended his discoveries on Cyprus to provide important evidence for the so-called missing link between the biblical and classical worlds.

The final destination of the Cesnola Collection was for a long time uncertain. In 1870, negotiations were held first with Napoleon III of France, who wished to acquire the entire collection for the Musée du Louvre in Paris, then with Russian officials for their possible transfer to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. But soon afterward, Cesnola shipped the collection to London, where its exhibition aroused considerable public interest. It was at this point that the newly founded Metropolitan Museum of Art intervened and acquired the bulk of the collection for New York. The purchase was funded by public subscription with several leading business tycoons making substantial contributions. Cesnola accompanied his collection back to New York and devoted himself to supervising the work on its installation and publication. In 1877, he accepted a place on the Museum’s board of trustees and served as its first director from 1879 until his death in 1904.

The Cesnola Collection remains a wonderful storehouse of ancient art and artifact, and it is by far the most important and comprehensive collection of Cypriot material in the Western Hemisphere. The objects illustrate the unique character of Cypriot art and highlight the exotic blend of Greek, Near Eastern, and Egyptian influences in Cyprus throughout antiquity.