Bologna, 16 pre-Columbian objects diverted from clandestine trafficking donated to Civic Museums

The Bologna Civic Museums receive a gift from the Customs Agency of 16 objects from the pre-Columbian era that were stolen from the clandestine art trade.

An important nucleus of objects from the pre-Columbian era, which the Bologna Customs and Monopolies Agency removed from clandestine circulation, have been donated to Bologna’s Musei Civici d’Arte Antica: it is a group of 16 ceramic artifacts that were stolen and were destined for the international art and antiquities market. The donation to the Bologna museums is the result of an action to combat the growing phenomenon of illicit trafficking in cultural goods, recently conducted by the Bologna Customs and Monopolies Agency services.

The sixteen objects were already the subject of a criminal seizure for violation of bans on the importation of cultural goods and a long and complex judicial process: the finds, now identified and surveyed, were donated by the Customs Services Administration of the capital of Emilia to the Civic Museums of Ancient Art of the Bologna Museums Institution, subject to the authorization of the competent Judicial Authority. The iconographic and stylistic investigations carried out by the museum staff in collaboration with Davide Domenici, associate professor of Demoethnoanthropological Disciplines at the Department of History Cultures Civilizations of the University of Bologna, made it possible to reconstruct the context of origin from a specific geographic area as well as to establish their authenticity and likely dating through the reconstruction of the historical process that produced them.

The group of objects, which testify to the activity of different North-Andean cultural circles, consists of nine Tumaco-La Tolita clay heads (ca. 300 B.C.-200 A.D.), a valuable ornithomorphic bottle from the Calima culture (ca. 200-800 A.D.) and six Nariño anthropomorphic vessels and sculptures (ca. 800-1500 A.D.). The latter, from a region that today straddles the border between southern Colombia (Nariño) and northern Ecuador (Carchi), are characterized by the peculiar “negative” decoration used to create geometric motifs of great complexity and refinement. The objects in the Bolognese collection certainly derive from the looting of elite funerary contexts, most likely laid in “pit” tombs equipped with deep vertical “chimneys.” Prominent among the anthropomorphic Nariño figures is that of a man with his left cheek bulging with coca leaves, a plant fundamental to Andean social and religious life. The Colombian artifacts now add to the Andean collection of the Museo Civico Medievale in Bologna, where there are already notable Andean artifacts.

The most relevant nucleus of the museum’s Andean collection, on the other hand, is the series of vases with a wide variety of shapes brought together, by ways still to be reconstructed, by the celebrated Bolognese artist Pelagio Palagi (Bologna, 1775 - Turin, 1860), whose extremely rich collection is the basis of the city’s civic collections. In addition to archaeological pieces from the Mediterranean basin, artistic objects from the medieval and Renaissance periods, and a large collection of coins and medals, the “collection of antiquities” owned by Palagi also includes thirty-eight “huacos,” viz. pre-Columbian ceremonial vessels related to the cult of the dead referable to the civilizations of the northern coasts of Peru, of which as many as thirty-three can be attributed to the Chim culture (11th cent - 1465 A.D.C.), four to the Inca-Chimù civilization (1465 - 1532 A.D.) and one to the Lambayeque (900 - 1200 A.D.).

Palagi’s collection of “huacos,” although the manner and timing of its acquisition are unclear, is surprising when considered in the era in which it was collected: it shows us that Palagi was the first, or among the first in Italy, to be sensitive to that cultural movement aimed at excavations, collecting and studies of the civilizations of ancient pre-Columbian America. In this being a forerunner of Americanist collecting, Palagi is also configured as a continuator of the illustrious Bolognese tradition of encyclopedic collecting that, with the collections of naturalia, mirabilia and artificialia of Marquis Ferdinando Cospi, some two centuries earlier, had given rise to what can be consider the oldest ethnographic museum in Italy, whose materials from the Americas Palagi had to visit admired, before dispersion transferred them to the Luigi Pigorini Museum in Rome.

The act of donation of the sixteen found objects (which will soon be placed within the museum’s exhibition itinerary and will remain available for consultation for study and research purposes) is intended to raise awareness among institutions and the public in order to emphasize the importance of a systematic protection and defense of goods of artistic, historical and cultural interest in contrasting the multifaceted illicit aggressions aimed at exploiting their economic value, although there will be no shortage of discussions on the issue of returning them to their original contexts.

Also planned are moments of dissemination on the pre-Columbian and colonial-era objects preserved in the collections of Bologna’s Civic Museums of Ancient Art. In particular, there will be an online lecture series on the Google Meet platform titled Things of the Other World: American Objects in the Collections of the Museo Civico Medievale, organized in collaboration with the Department of History Cultures Civilizations of the University of Bologna. Below is the schedule:

Tuesday, Nov. 10 h 5 p.m.
Presentation of the new group of pre-Columbian materials of Colombian origin.
With Antonella Mampieri (Musei Civici d’Arte Antica | Istituzione Bologna Musei) and Davide Domenici (University of Bologna)
The recent donation to the Museo Civico Medievale of a new group of ceramic materials of precolonial age from the territory of present-day southern Colombia is the occasion for a conference dedicated to the presentation of the materials themselves, as well as of the museum’s existing core collection of Andean origin from the collection of the neoclassical artist Pelagio Palagi.
Link link:

Tuesday, November 17, h 5 p.m.
Buccheri and Cocoa. American flavors in early modern Bologna
With Davide Domenici (University of Bologna)
A number of fictile artifacts from the celebrated collection of Marquis Ferdinando Cospi have recently been recognized as “buccheri of the Indies,” produced in colonial America during the 17th century and imported to Europe where they were intended for flavoring water, scenting rooms, and even ingested for aesthetic purposes. Water flavored with buccheri was also used in the production of cocoa drinks, the consumption of which is evidenced by several artifacts in the collection of the Museo Civico Medievale.
Link link:

Tuesday, Nov. 26 h 5 p.m.
The return of the idolum pileatum. Rediscovery of a Mexican artifact from the Ulisse Aldrovandi collection.
With Davide Domenici (University of Bologna)
The recent “rediscovery” in the collection of Bologna’s Museo Civico Medievale of a Mesoamerican greenstone sculpture that belonged to Ulisse Aldrovandi - and until now thought to be irretrievably lost - has initiated research aimed at reconstructing its cultural biography. By retracing the history of the object and its visual alter ego, namely the image of the sculpture itself published in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Musaeum Metallicum (1648), it is possible to explore the sensibility - straddling antiquarian study and naturalistic inquiry - with which the great Bolognese scholar approached the analysis of artifacts from the New World.
Link link:

Image: Ornithomorphic clay bottle (Calima Culture - Colombia, 200 - 800 AD; Bologna, Museo Civico Medievale, Inv. 4433)

Bologna, 16 pre-Columbian objects diverted from clandestine trafficking donated to Civic Museums
Bologna, 16 pre-Columbian objects diverted from clandestine trafficking donated to Civic Museums