Provenance, profiteering, and cultural property: A case study of the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection of gems

By Jacqueline Giz (Rutgers BA ’23, MA cand. ’24)

Plaster impressions (made in the 1830s) of gems and cameos by Tommaso Cades entitled Impronte gemmarie della collezione Piombino Boncompagni. Private collection. Images: Beazley Archive / Classical Art Research Center, Oxford University

By the 18th century, the Boncompagni Ludovisi family had amassed a world-renowned collection of ancient Roman intaglio and cameo gems. Their collection, like others of the time, broadcasted family artistic tastes and broader socio-cultural trends. Analyzing this collection and its dispersal over time serves to elucidate shifting economic and social forces as well as the trends in accumulating collections of antiquities across time.

This work is possible because, at some point in the 1830s, Italian engraver Tommaso Cades (1772-after 1850) completed a set of plaster impressions for a select group of the collection. This set likely highlights the family’s most prized pieces. This study analyzes unpublished primary source documents from the private portion of the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi in the Casino dell’Aurora, in addition to numerous museum inventories and auction records to establish the provenance, or history of ownership, of these 68 gems and patterns of dispersal from the 19th century to their modern-day homes.

Many of the 68 gems have been published in the past or reside in major public museum collections; however, provenance is often not made accessible to the public or is unknown to scholars and institutions. The visual nature of Cades’ gem impressions allows this research to continue without the need for existing provenance lineage.

Provenance helps trace artifacts, like the Boncompagni Ludovisi gems, back to their origins. In a world where antiquities are sold on a regular basis, provenance studies allow scholars to examine collections in their entirety and in their original cultural contexts. Once assembled, whole collections can be analyzed to extract broader cultural ideals, priorities, beliefs, and even economic information. Provenance also has real-world implications for museums and collections. Documented provenance, particularly for highly valuable pieces like cameos and intaglios, is necessary to comply with national and international legal standards.

This piece will use Cades’ casts to present a brief history of Boncompagni Ludovisi gems and their dispersion. We know that many, if not all, Boncompagni Ludovisi gems were purchased from Pompeo Pasqualini in 1624 by Cardinal Francesco Boncompagni (1592-1621-1641) This purchase comprises at least a majority of the family’s former collection, which an inventory from the 17th century preserved in the Biblioteca Angelica suggests once included nearly 500 gems.

Before carrying forward with a discussion of the gem’s dispersion, it is important to note that at least eight inventories in the private archive document the family’s collection of glyptics and numismatics from as early 18th century to the middle of the 20th century. While a full discussion of the inventories merits a separate piece, it is worthwhile to consider at least one inventory dating to 1705.

Pages from MS inventory, Descrizione delle gioie esistenti in Bologna appartenenti a S.E. Donna Ippolita Boncompagni Ludovisi. Compiled 13 July 1705; ABL prot. 616 no. 20A (now in Casino dell’Aurora). Courtesy †HSH Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

Describing the gems and medals that belonged to Princess Ippolita Ludovisi (1663-1733) in Bologna, the document spans 39 pages. Like other inventories of the time, its descriptions are concise and often not helpful. However, several entries come with more precise subject identification and descriptions that are of interest to any study of the gem collection. While, like its counterparts, this inventory can be the subject of an article on its own, I will present two entries related to gems that can be positively identified by using Cades’ casts as a sample of the promise the archival records hold for provenance studies.

An unnumbered entry describes an “Ametisto con testa d’un oratore con fretta la spalla d’intaglio assai profondo,” or an “amethyst with the head of an orator with a very deep cut in the shoulder.” Curiously, an intaglio from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, confirmed to be in the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection by Cade’s casts, meets this exact description (accession number: 11.195.6).

At left, amethyst intaglio (late Roman Republican) of a man in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At right, plaster impression of same by Tommaso Cades (1830s), confirming its provenance as that of the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection.

The gem features a veristic portrait of a man in profile. He holds his folded hand, covered by the fabric of his toga, to his chin. A sizeable portion of the lower corner of the gem has broken off, leaving the portrait with an incomplete shoulder. Early attributions of this gem from Fulvio Orsini’s 1570 Imagines Illustrium, claim that this portrait represents the cynic philosopher, Antisthenes. However, as early as 1705, with this inventory, the attribution is replaced. Today the Metropolitan describes the gem as a “Roman man” who may be Julius Caesar, in line with Marie-Louise Vollenweider’s portrait identification from 1972.

There are only a few intaglios made of topaz mentioned in the inventory; one of which is a “Topapaccio con testa di Giuglio di Tito” or a “topaz with the bust of Julia [daughter] of Titus.” The daughter of the Roman emperor Titus is identifiable by her Flavian-era hairstyle, and a topaz gem with her image from the Boncompagni Collection is preserved in the Capitoline Museums today (Inv. 6727). We know that this gem was in the Boncompagni Ludovisi Collection because it survives from the casts of Tommaso Cades.

Cast of topaz intaglio (ex-Boncompagni Ludovisi collection) of Julia, daughter of Titus, made by Tommaso Cades (1830s); original now in Capitoline Museums.

Even a cursory look at the inventory provides a venue to identify some gems in the family’s famous collection. The collection remained intact until the end of the 19th century, when the family fell into a period of economic hardship. During this period, the family turned to their magnificent collections as a source of financial support.

In his personal journal from the first half of 1896, Count Michael Tyszkiewicz, a wealthy Polish collector, wrote that “an Italian lord, came to Rome for a few days and having a need of money, was willing to cede a large and important collection of cameos and intaglios which existed long in his family and had been well known in the eighteenth century.” Based on records of the family’s history and existing information on the gems, we can be confident that this figure is indeed a member of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family, likely Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1832-1911, Prince of Piombino since 1883), who was then living in Foligno in Umbria.

Thanks to the same journal, we also know that Count Michael Tyszkiewicz and Francesco Martinetti, an Italian antiquarian and antiquities dealer, purchased at least part of this collection, marking the first major dispersal of Boncompagni Ludovisi gems from the family’s hands. Sometime before the death of Martinetti in 1895, he and Tyszkiewicz split the collection forming two major groups.

 In an article from 1990, Denise La Monica published the Bibliotheca Angelica inventory. She outlines the dispersion groups that brought gems from the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Capitoline Museums, respectively.  

La Monica notes how Tyszkiewicz’s gems were sold at an auction in Paris after his death in 1898. There, they were purchased by Edward Perry Warren, an American collector based out of Boston. His collection of gems, including several from Cades’ selection, was published by J.D. Beazley in 1920 (with later edits by John Boardman). Just a few years later, Warren sent the gems to the Museum of Fine Art on a long-term loan, and the museum purchased the pieces in 1929. They are still there today.

Unpublished MS (late 1940s) by Boncompagni Ludovisi archivist Giuseppe Felici, Vicende della collezione di gemme e medaglie dei Boncompagni Ludovisi.This authoritative study remains the best and indeed only treatment of its subject. Courtesy †HSH Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

While many of the gems purchased by Tyskiewicz are easily located today, Martinetti’s former collection is much more complex. A group of Martinetti’s gems and coins was stashed in the walls of Martinetti’s home. The so-called Treasure of the Via Alessandrina was discovered in 1933, in relation to the construction of the Via dell’ Impero (now Via Dei Fori Imperiali). After legal disputes, they were formally acquired by the Capitoline Museums in 1941.

The group was featured in a special exhibition in Castel Sant’Angelo in 1977, Il Tesoro Di Via Allesandrina. Many of the invaluable gems are identifiable as formerly Boncompagni Ludovisi, thanks to Cades’ casts.

Other gems from the collection of Francesco Martinetti have ended up in other major institutions, including the Getty Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art. John Marshall, a beloved friend of Edward Perry Warren and the antiquities purchasing agent for the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the early 20th century, had purchased at least one Boncompagni Ludovisi gem for New York. According to recently digitized files from the British School in Rome’s John Marshall Archive, we can confirm that he purchased a black jasper intaglio portrait of a woman (accession number: 07.286.124) in 1907 from an unknown source in Rome.

At left, black jasper intaglio portrait (Julio-Claudian) of a woman, now in collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art. At right, plaster impression of same by Tommaso Cades (1830s), confirming its provenance as that of the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection.

Based on provenance information published by the Getty Museum for the well-known amethyst with a bust of Demosthenes by Dioskourides, we may presume that at least some of Martinetti’s gems were purchased by Sir Arthur Evans, famed excavator of Knossos, who actively amassed a personal collection of antiquities that he gifted to the Ashmolean Museum in 1938. Sir Arthur Evans may have purchased gems from Martinetti and sold them to other parties like Giorgio Sangiorgi and John Marshall.

Curiously, the Getty’s Demosthenes came to the museum in one of the most important auctions of antiquities in recent years. Since 2019, Christie’s has offered a three-part auction entitled “Masterpieces in Miniature: Ancient Engraved Gems formerly in the G. Sangiorgi Collection.”  The lots, from the collection of Giorgio Sangiorgi range from archaic Greek gems to pieces from the height of the Roman empire.

The first auction was held in April 2019; the sale total was $10,640,500 for 40 lots. Together the second and third iterations held over the next years accumulated $3,798,139 for a total of 76 lots. During the first sale, the Getty Museum purchased 17 of the 40 lots. Their purchase included the famous Demosthenes gem, which is recorded in Cades’ casts.

At left, amethyst with portrait of the Greek orator Demosthenes, signed by the Augustan-age artist Dioskourides. At right, plaster impression of same by Tommaso Cades (1830s), confirming its provenance as that of the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection.

At least 29 of the 68 gems in Cades’ casts can be located with certainty today. The five confirmed locations of gems include the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Getty Museum, and the Capitoline Museums.

The diagram below outlines our current understanding of the dispersion of Boncompagni Ludovisi gems; all red arrows on the diagram represent unclear dispersion, meaning that the players are certainly linked, but in what way or at what time is unclear. Meanwhile, black arrows represent direct dispersion or instances where the means and date of purchase between players is clearly recorded.

Chart (by the author) showing dispersion of Boncompagni Ludovisi collection of gems

Further research will be conducted to continue identifying the contemporary locations of the remaining gems. Current work suggests that gems may be in Paris and Berlin. Additional archival research is also necessary to determine how gems passed in and out of the collection of Sir Arthur Evans. The ongoing digitization of Sir Arthur Evan’s private archive by the Bodleian Library and Ashmolean Museum promises to shed further light on the precise sequence of events and which artifacts were involved.

As more information comes to light, the most recent developments can be tracked on a newly launched provenance database devoted to the former and present collections of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family: Provenance Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi Online (PABLO). The database was created by a group of interdisciplinary undergraduate students through the Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Research Team Fellowship. As of now, the database focuses on gems but will expand with new media in the near future.


La Monica, Denise. “Progressi Verso La ‘Dactyliotheca Ludovisiana.’” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Classe di Lettere e Filosofia 7, no. 1 (2002): 35–84.

Tyskiewicz, Michel. “Notes Et Souvenirs d’un Vieux Collectionneur (Suite).” Revue Archéologique 28 (1896): 289–95.

Vollenweider, Marie-Louise. Die Porträtgemmen der römischen Republik. P. von Zabern, 1972.

Jacqueline Giz is a recent graduate of the Rutgers University Honors College, with a degree in Art History. Moving into the second stage of a co-terminal degree program, she is matriculating into Rutgers’ School of Graduate Studies as a second-year master’s candidate in Art History. Her thesis will explore how ancient gems are related to gender and spirituality in the Roman world. Jacqueline’s interest in ancient gems was sparked by her work on the provenance of the Boncompagni Ludovisi gem collection; she expresses her gratitude to Professor Corey Brennan for providing support and guidance over the past three years. She also expresses thanks to Dr Dorothy Lobel, Dr Kenneth Lapatin, and Dr Judith Barr for their feedback and suggestions along the way. Jacqueline extends her sincerest gratitude to HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for making the family’s archive available for study.

Logo of the newly established Provenance Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi Online (PABLO) database, which was launched first with gems data, soon to be extending to other media. On PABLO, the product of an interdisciplinary collaboration between four undergraduate Rutgers University—New Brunswick students, and supported by Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences’ Interdisciplinary Research Team Fellowship (IRT) program, see here.


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