27 March 2012

In reference to the sculpted slab from Ostia we discussed about some time ago. I went to the Max Planck library in Florence, where the book by Chiara Silvestrini is available (*). The first thing I checked was the long list of items in Rocchi's Collection of Objects of Art and Antiquities, published in 1912. At the time those objects were showcased in his house in Rome. Silvestrini acquired the probably only preserved copy of this small volume through an US seller. The list is indicative of the wide range of interest of Mariano Rocchi. There are 803 pieces and groups of pieces in the collection, grouped as: pictures - paintings on glass - carved and engraved wood - artistic marble and iron work - glass and crystal work - ancient porcelain and majolica - bronzes - ironwork - ivories, fans and marbles - silver plate - jewellery - stuffs (= dresses, cloths) - laces - engraved stones, pastes and bronze. The only entry potentially interesting to our research is number 740: "two hundred and fifty engraved stones, of Greek, Roman and Etruscan period." There is no direct reference to a "sculpted slab". And nowhere in the book is there a direct reference to Ostia.

But he had evidently good relations with the fascist regime (which promoted the Ostia excavations), and also with the UK. The first link is proven by his important contribution to the "Mostra d'Arte Retrospettiva" in 1911 (Castel Sant Angelo, Rome), which was part of the preparations for Mussolini's "Esposizione Universale Romana". His contacts in the UK started during art expositions in the last decades of the XIX century, after which he became a friend and advisor of Sir Frederich Leighton, who collected items for the National Gallery of London and later became president of the Royal Academy. Rocchi advised him mainly about the acquisition of renaissance objects from central Italy. Around 1912 Rocchi has made several offers to the Victoria and Albert Museum ("una ricca collezione in vendita"), but officially the museum was never interested. The correspondence is preserved in the archives of the museum and reported by Silvestrini.

Mariano Rocchi originally was a painter, and not a bad one to judge from some works reproduced in the book. He was born in 1855 in Perugia, where he worked as a painter, restorer and painting teacher. A first known scandal that involved him was about frescos he had personally detached from the inside of a house in Perugia in 1894, and in which sale he was the intermediary. A certain Pulszky, a nobleman and director of the Art Gallery of Budapest, was the intended buyer. At the end, between hidden addresses, bureaucratic slowness and diplomatic fears the frescos ended anyhow in the Art Gallery of Budapest, where they still are. The strategy of Pulszky was : "The first six months of the year tended to be used for tracking down works, whereas in the second six months, in summer, and autumn, he realized his purchases, each time with the help of professional Italian dealers." Mariano Rocchi, at the time still in Perugia, was one of them.

All over he sold 30 items to the museum, which allowed him to buy his house-shop-museum in Rome. But from that moment on the "Ufficio Regionale per i Monumenti" kept an eye on him. It seems that his operations in the art commerce were not directly against the law, though the event was enough to force him from his position as a teacher. All in, his name appears only twice in the inventory of robberies and sales attempts of the superintendence of Umbria. And towards the end of the century he even enjoyed a certain social prestige. Writes Silvestrini: "protected by the current legislation, and probably by cunning political support, he became ever more a full time professional art dealer." He sold items in Italy and Europe, and after the start of WWI, in the US. In the twenties of the XX century Rocchi was enlisted in the official register of the antiquarians of Rome. For eventual future reference, in 1924 there were also: Addeo, Barsanti, Bulgari, Corvisieri, Della Torre, Fiorentini, Giacomini, Gorga, Jandolo, Rovelli, Sangiorgi and Sestieri.

He remained active as an art dealer until 1940. Rocchi's speciality was stuffs, in particular the medieval tissues from Umbria called "tovaglie perugine", of which he had about 300 items, and on which he wrote a book in 1932. The Victoria and Albert Museum of London possesses a discrete number of them. Some info from their website: "Tovaglia is usually translated as tablecloth, and tovagliolo as napkin, but their use was in both ecclesiastical and secular contexts. Their function included napkin and table cover, as well as altar cloth and sacristy hand towel." About the export of art objects from Italy: the law of 1909 requested an export tax, which in 1920 was only 10% and later increased even up to 35%. The law of 1939 on the protection of the historical heritage officially made an end to all this. Silvestrini cites Carlo Aru, who illustrates in 1938 one of the classical ways to export art objects without paying the due export taxes: "in the hold of the ship, in the bodywork of a car or in the cabin of the plane, the smugglers carry a mediocre female portrait, which, once the license is obtained, is replaced with that authentic portrait of a lady by Titian."

Mariano Rocchi was evidently a merchant with the skills, the financial resources and the network to operate on the international market. Even if we hadnít known his name, he would have been our best candidate for obtaining and exporting in 1932 the Ostia slab to the UK.

Tonnie Huijzendveld

*) Silvestrini, Chiara : Mariano Rocchi antiquario - il commercio d'arte sull'asse Perugia-Roma tra Otto e Novecento, Perugia - EFFE, (2008).