"When I was young I liked new things, now that I am getting old, the old..."
So wrote Antonio Vallisneri in a letter to Pier Angelo Lavizari talking about antiquity and objets d'art.
In fact, if we look at the catalogue of the collection compiled by Giannartico Di Porzia in 1733, we find that there are relatively few art works in comparison with the wealth of natural objects. We also have documents showing that Vallisneri willingly exchanged ancient pieces for fossils or minerals. Scipione Maffei, his friend and correspondent, experienced this "generosity", managing to obtain a Latin inscription, some statuettes and an ancient figured vase in this way.
But where did Vallisneri get these works from? We have information regarding two distinct groups which he obtained at different times and under different circumstances.
Around 1718, Vallisneri received some ancient bronze statuettes, fibulas and keys as a gift from a Venetian gentleman named Correggio, to whom he had offered his services as a doctor. It was typical of the small collections of antiquaria which many noble families owned, and which the heirs often willingly got rid of at the first chance.
The other group was obtained in a different way and consisted of various objects. In fact, it came from the Mantova Benavides collection, an important Padovan collection created by Marco Mantova Benavides in the sixteenth century and included ancient and Renaissance sculptures and marble, paintings, prints, musical instruments, coins and medals, natural objects and curiosities. Besides the humanistic interest in ancient sculptures, among them some marble portraits, identifying the historic personages, another peculiarity of the collection was the presence of all'antica and Renaissance works which came mainly from the studios of Paduan artists of the period. These were used as models for large scale artistic creations, as in the case of the fresco decoration of the Sala dei Giganti in Padova (1540).
A great deal is known about the founder Marco both as a collector and as a jurist of international fame at a Paduan Studio for 60 years. We also know he was a patron of the artists of his time, humanist and philosopher and prolific composer of various juridical, historical and philosophical writings. Nonetheless, little is known about the various hereditary passages which occasionally led to the enrichment of the collection, but more often to its impoverishment until, in the eighteenth century it was completely dispersed.
In 1695 his descendant Andrea compiled an important Inventario (Inventory). In the process of listing and describing the objects and their collocation, Andrea identified the pieces with red numbers which are still present on many of the objects which have survived. He also illustrated the manuscript. Unfortunately, Andrea was the last to enlarge and take care of the collection. In fact, after his death in 1711, despite a precise prohibition to sell inserted in his last testament and will, his son Gaspare found a way to alienate the collection which was thus dispersed.
It was not difficult then for Antonio Vallisneri, friend and neighbour who must have known the value of the collection, to acquire several ancient and Renaissance sculptures, some ancient vases and a good selection of naturalistic material and curiosities.
Together with the rest of the Vallisneri museum, these objects became part of the University's patrimony after Antonio Vallisneri Junior donated his father's collections to the University of Padova. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, as new teachings were instituted at the University, relevant parts of the Vallisneri collection were taken from the original collection and assigned to the new chairs. The Mantova Benavides group was also subdivided and the naturalia removed; the remaining part became a museum dedicated to the teaching of the rising discipline of Archaeology. The latter, which is a rare, if not unique example in the Veneto of a part of a Renaissance collection of antiquity, has preserved its specificity and exceptional value.
Such had been the fame of the Mantova Benavides collection that, even when it had become part of the University's collection, visitors remembered the illustrious origin of some of the sculptures.
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