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Roman World 800 BC – AD 324

Case 13: Collecting Roman Sculpture

Collecting Roman Antiquity

Most of the sculpture in this gallery came to England in the 18th and 19th centuries when rich Englishmen often completed their education by travelling around the culturally important cities of Europe in a journey known as the ‘Grand Tour’. At this time ancient sites in Italy were being excavated at the expense of Italian popes, kings and nobles, who kept the finest antiquities for their own collections, but allowed the ‘tourists’ to buy the rest. Back in England this stimulated the fashion for all things Classical. The demand for antiquities, even copies and casts, meant that some British residents in Rome became dealers, tracking down sculpture to satisfy the demands of their English clients. Ancient funerary sculpture was common and was particularly widely collected. Many of these objects are from funerary monuments.

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Dr John Disney, collector (1779-1857)

This sculpture all comes from the collection of Dr John Disney, a barrister and collector. Disney had a strong connection with the University of Cambridge. He was a student at Peterhouse, and in 1851 he established the first professorship of archaeology in England, the Disney Chair. When Disney gave his ancient sculpture collection to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1850 most of it had already been in England for a hundred years. The collection was started by Thomas Hollis (1720-1774) and his friend Thomas Brand, during their travels in Italy. When they died, their estate, including the ancient sculpture, was left to the Reverend John Disney (1746-1816). His son and heir, Dr John Disney, continued to add to the collection. These sculptures reveal the varying tastes and attitudes to the selection and restoration of ancient sculpture during the 18th and 19th centuries.

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