Fake inscriptions and the eighteenth-century art market

Caroline Barron is a Rome Awardee at the BSR (October-December 2018) researching fake inscriptions and the eighteenth-century art market, and is about to start a three-year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Birkbeck. Here she tells us about fortuitous encounters with artists and academics, and what she has learned about drawing as part of academic practice.

I couldn’t have imagined before arriving at the BSR that my research into epigraphic forgeries and the eighteenth-century art market would be guided by quite the extraordinary and fortuitous set of circumstances that I’ve been privileged to enjoy in the last eight weeks. I had a list of books to read in the library, the lapidary galleries of the Musei Capitolini and the Vatican to visit, and some archival work to delve into; chance encounters with scholars and sculptors weren’t exactly my top priorities. Fortunately for me, life at the BSR has a way of sending you in precisely the right direction, whether or not that was where you originally intended to go.


Not-so-fake inscriptions (CIL VI, 6209. Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano)

The research that I have been working on at the BSR is concerned with the fake Latin inscriptions that were produced for sale on the eighteenth-century art market; although there has been a wealth of scholarship on the statuary, busts and reliefs that were collected by the English Grand Tourists visiting Italy at that time, the existing literature has not addressed the lapidary inscriptions that were also acquired. My doctoral thesis sought to readdress that balance, and proposed that although often marginalised by later publications and catalogues of these marbles, Latin inscriptions were present in the overwhelming majority of collections made during the Grand Tour period, and were collected for very specific reasons. That research also uncovered the number of ‘fake’ or modern inscriptions that were present in these collections; whether added to otherwise ancient objects or created outright with the intent to deceive the collector, the number of epigraphic texts that were fabricated specifically for sale is striking, and worth much further investigation. Although the texts of many ‘fake’ inscriptions have been identified as falsae in the volumes of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, they have never been studied as artefacts, meaning that there is still much to discover concerning their provenance, how the texts were constructed and why they were considered attractive acquisitions. Much of my new research is concerned with questions such as did the collectors themselves care whether or not the inscriptions were indeed fakes, if their appearance and text were sufficiently ‘Roman’? What did they consider Roman and why? What sources were the forgers themselves using to compile the texts of the fake inscriptions? And to what extent is it possible to identify the hands of different forgers or their workshops across collections?


Fragment of a Latin inscription (Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano)

Many of these questions were addressed at a conference I attended in the second week of October in Venice, at Ca’ Foscari; over three days the XXIII Rencontre franco-italienne sur l’épigraphie du monde romain took epigraphic forgeries as its theme (‘Epigrafi di carta, epigrafi di pietra. Il ruolo della tradizione manoscritta nello studio delle iscrizioni genuine e spurie’) with a number of the papers dealing with issues of authorship, originality and the mechanics of identifying fake inscriptions through odd textual constructions and orthography.

I returned to Rome full of ideas but rather overwhelmed by the scale of work ahead. Fortunately, BSR Research Fellow Clare Hornsby was here to provide some much needed direction; her work on the role of Cardinal Albani in the antiquities market of the eighteenth century has coincided very neatly with my research, particularly concerning his involvement in the promotion of inscriptions as valuable collectibles in the early eighteenth century. I was equally pleased to find that Ronald T. Ridley was also visiting Rome from Melbourne, which has allowed me to pursue further research into the antiquarian Francesco de’ Ficoroni and his provision of columbaria inscriptions to Grand Tourists in the early part of the century. Although I have not yet found evidence for Albani or Ficoroni’s involvement in the forgeries trade, being able to talk to both Clare and Ron about their respective activity has helped me to build a much clearer picture of how the art and antiquities market was operating at that time, and how fake inscriptions may have been valued.


Caroline working on her Halloween costume with Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture Anna Brass.

Perhaps the most surprising and collaborative avenue of research came from the rather unlikely source of a Halloween costume; having accepted the generous invitation of the American Academy to attend their Halloween party, it was decided that the only suitable attire would be in the form of a Latin inscription, which I worked on with the kind assistance of the Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, Anna Brass. What initially started out as a bit of fun, in painting the lettering of a fake inscription in the British Museum onto a cardboard box, turned into an extremely productive discussion about the differences in monumental, public and funerary typography. We explored the serifs or characteristic strokes of fake letters compared with genuinely ancient ones through painting, with Anna encouraging me to consider their individual features through visual study; although much epigraphic work is done first hand, looking at the stones, this was the first time that I had attempted to draw the lettering myself, and I found the practice enormously useful in terms of the hand-to-eye muscle memory that it developed, bringing a closer understanding of exactly how those letters had been inscribed. Drawing as part of academic practice is an entirely new approach for the way I work with inscriptions, but one that I intend to continue when I return to London; in January 2019 I will begin a three-year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Birkbeck continuing this work on forgeries, one component of which is the application of digital paleographical tools in my analysis of the fake texts. Rather than relying on the software to identify the characteristics I believe to be fake, a first step will now involve drawing the letters in order to understand the mechanics of their form, which can be translated with greater precision into the digital software. It is these kinds of collaborative opportunities that make the BSR such a unique institution; I can’t think of another department or situation in which artists and scholars are able to converse so freely, and with such productive results.

Caroline Barron (Rome Awardee)