The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

What is Antiquarianism?

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An Antiquary's shop in Napes, Italy, 1798.

What was Antiquarianism?

Simply put, antiquarianism represents the investigation of the ancient past. Antiquarianism traces its roots back to the second century BC, when figures such Marcus Terntius Varro established antiquarianism as an aspect of Roman intellectual life (Momigliano 288). From the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century, antiquarianism progressed and expanded to a peak level of activity during the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment’s progressive thinking led countries to search for a strong sense of national identity. As the contemporary desire to establish a nation’s identity and pride grew in Europe, so did antiquarianism. Antiquarianism defines the investigation conducted by scholars on the ancient world through texts and materials. Described as an important forerunner of the modern historical sciences, antiquarianism collected raw material from which narratives of history were derived. Antiquarianism has the ability to verify the events of history with material derived from evidence (Sweet). Antiquaries used a collection of textual remains and objects to investigate and interpret (Jenkins 168).The study focused with particular attention on manuscripts, ancient artifacts and historical sites. Antiquaries reconstructed the culture of the ancient past, reproducing their interpretation of the ancient culture’s religion, law, and clothing etc. The progressive eighteenth century created change, and antiquarianism as a study highlighted the ongoing changed. The processes of loss and extinction of culture troubles audiences, and as a result, the retrieval of the past becomes necessary. By collecting antiquities, antiquarianism captures the past by collecting the material that helps solidify the disappearing culture. By possessing the ancient artifacts and textual remains, remnants of the ancient culture allow for the culture to continue to exist. Eighteenth century Scotland helps capture the larger themes existing in Europe that created a demand for antiquarianism and encouraged antiquaries to examine the past. After the Union of Parliaments, antiquarianism addressed the growing desire to understand the nation, and its identity within the newly British context. (Dunnigan 87). Antiquaries investigated the ancient past in attempts to understand the country’s past. By understanding Scotland’s past, antiquaries could distinguish what was shared and what was British (Dunnigan 88). The collected artifacts and textual remains give concreteness to a country’s cultural history. Scotland’s emphasis and use of antiquarianism to help secure a national identity in a newly British context provides an example of what European countries were doing during the progressive times of the eighteenth century.

"We speak from facts not theory”  - Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 18th century antiquary


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A piece included in Pozzo's Paper Museum

Who were the Antiquaries?

Antiquaries during their investigations embarked on an “endeavor to capture universal knowledge” (Jenkins). During the seventeenth century, philologists, lawyers and doctors also practice antiquarianism . As a fashionable engagement in the eighteenth century, antiquarianism was practice by the wealthy and educated. However, in the eighteenth century, as travel commercialized and geographical knowledge grew, the social range of antiquaries expanded to the general public (Miller). From the fifteenth century, curiosity of the anciet past was no longer limited to nobility. Curoisty spread, becoming an important aspect of a growing shared culture between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. The general European culture, especially during the eighteenth century, allowed for the information brought back from expeditions to reach all audiences. The interest in foreign, ancient artifacts grew as knowledge of their existence spread along with the explorers' travel narratives.  Antiquarianism recruited men of talen regardless of their social standing alongside the educated and wealthy. Many figures through history stand out as notable antiquaries.

Notable Figures and their Influences

Notable antiquaries, beginning in the first century BC, help describe the progress of antiquarianism throughout history until the eighteenth century, a time when antiquarian activity flourished. Considered the greatest antiquarian, and perhaps the greatest antiquarian of all time, Marcus Terentius Varro (116-26 BC) established the foundation of antiquarianism. His work created a systematic survey of Roman life through the investigation of historical evidence provided by language, literature and custom.  He coined the term “antiquitates,” and popularized antiquarianism as a fashionable activity in Roman intellectual circles (Cornell 21). Despite the vast number of works produced by Varro, only small remnants of his publications survived the passage of time. Flavio Biondo (1392-1463) established himself during the fifteenth century and revived the antiquarianism practices of Varro that were lost during the Middle Ages. During the fifteenth and sixteenth century, antiquaries began to improve upon the foundation established by Varro. Antiquaries, such as Johannes Rosinus and Carlo Sigonio, combined literary with material evidence and expanded the areas of interest to Greek and oriental lands (Miller 10).Antiquarianism’s growth in England can be contributed to John Leland during the sixteenth century. Considered the first Englishman to identify himself as an antiquary, Leland strove to contribute to the preservation of monuments and manuscripts of the past. Leland influenced antiquaries, and in particular was a driving force for a well-known antiquary of the sixteenth century, William Camden. Although inspired by Leland, Camden differed because his work represented a reconstructed journey through time, rather than through space (Herendeen 199). Camden strove to “restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its aniquity.”Camden’s focus attempted to illustrate the visible traces of the past that were recognizable in the present landscape of Great Britain (Herendeen 200). He established himself as an inspiration for all British antiquaries. At the beginning of the seventh century, another figure, Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) impacted antiquarianism’s progress. An Italian scholar, Cassiano collected and created paper museums that gathered original images and textual remains together in an archive. He gathered drawings of early medieval work that crossed many areas such as natural history, geological samples and botanical illustrations. As an antiquary, he introduced a new systematic methodology that would become more popular during the eighteenth century (Jenkins 170). His work is interpreted as a culmination of a two-millennia-long tradition of interest in the classification of antiquities. During the eighteenth century, a time that is considered the peak of antiquarianism, Comte de Calyus became the first to attempt to narrate the civilizations of antiquity. He did so by emphasizing objects over textual remains. Different from previous antiquaries, Calyus attempted to lead an audience through ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, Rome and France. Caylus separated himself from Varro by illustrating an interconnectedness of the culture of antiquity in his work, an idea differing greatly from Varro’s subject based classification (Jenkins 171). Individual efforts faded during the latter half of the eighteenth century as society gave rise to intellectual groups such as the Society of Dilettanti. These societies represented the Enlightenment’s new attempt at collecting antiquaries (Jenkins 173).

"To acquaint the world with the ancient state of Britain, to renew what was old, illustrate what was sure, and settle wha was doutful; and upon the whole, to recover...a certainity in our affairs" -William Camden, sixteenth century Antiquary


Portrait of Comte de Caylus

Why was Antiquarianism important?

“All human creative expression, indeed all that one said or did in polite society of the eighteenth century was informed by the classics." - Ian Jenkins

The classical past could instruct men in all aspects of culture, ranging from agriculture and architecture, to equestrianism and medical science (Jenkins 168). Through antiquarianism, objects cast a larger picture of history. Inscriptions and objects helped give detail to vague areas of understanding. The collection of images, texts and objects give greater insight into one state of development from another state in a civilization’s history (Jenkins 171). By examining the evidence of the past, one could refine and challenge the interpretations of the past. Collections gathered and inscriptions deciphered supplemented eighteenth century recorded history. Studying objects paired with texts illuminated the history of times and regions both previously understood and unobserved. Deciphered hieroglyphics and cuneiform helped improve the systematic study of language, improving the understanding of the previously unknown. Antiquarianism possessed importance because the investigative attitude reflects a culture’s desire to understand, to listen and see past cultures and civilizations. The narrative constructed by antiquaries were regarded as a “storehouse of timeless examples for the use of the moral philosopher or political pragmatist” (Swann 108) In addition, the understandings provided by antiquities inspired utopian dreams in the eighteenth century. Antiquarianism allows for current culture to engage in dialogue with the past. Usually narrative of important and military events were examined through antiquarianism. (Miller 2013, 148)  The progressive thinking of the Enlightenment period encouraged new beliefs, such as freedom from government. Aspiring free-thinkers of the eighteenth century political world found parallels between their ambitions for a republic and the republics of Athens and Rome. Ambitious political beliefs encouraged events such as the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, challenging and changing the eighteenth century culture. For example, the Founding Fathers of the United States of American often cited Ancient Roman and Greek philosophers in their speeches and writings. Polybius, an Ancient Greek historian, has been credited as one of many influences on the America's Fouding Fathers' political philosophy. Polybius' belief in the separation of powers stood as a defining aspect in the United States Constitution (Chinard 40).



Cited Works

Cornell, Tim. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC). London: Routledge, 1995.

Chinard, Gilbert. "Polybius and the American Constitution." In Journal of the History of Ideas, Inc. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.

Dunnigan, Sarah. The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Traditional Literatures. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2012.

Herendeen, W.H. "William Camden: Historian, Herald, and Antiquary." In Studies in Philolgy, 192-210. 2nd ed. Vol. 85. University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Jenkins, Ian. “Ideas of a Antiquity: Classical and Other Ancient Civilizations in the Age of Enlightenment.” In Enlightenment: Discovering the World of the Eighteen-Century, 168-177. 2003. 

Miller, Peter, and Francois Louis. "Introduction." In Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China, 1500-1800. University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Miller, Peter. "Introduction: Momigliano, Antiquarianism and the Cultural Sciences." In Momigliano and Antiquarianism: Foundations of the Modern Cultural Sciences. University of Toronto Press, 2007. 

Miller, Peter N. "The Antiquarian, the Collector, and the Cultural History of the Material World." In Cultural Histories of the Material World, 144-151. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

Swann, Marjorie. "The Countryside as Collection: Chorography, Antiquarianism, and the Politics of Landscape." In Curiosities and Text, 97-148. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Sweet, Roey. "Antiquarianism and History." Antiquarianism. Accessed May 15, 2015.

What is Antiquarianism?