The Stibbert Museum: Research Perspectives

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The Stibbert Museum (ill. 1), located in the outskirts of Florence, is today a true jewel, hidden from the tourist tropes and therefore not a necessary “must” on the map of the city. It is a pity, because this museum, the personality of its creator, and the unique collection of applied arts, including those of non-European origin, could offer us new insights into material culture histories. Although historiographies of the museum include biographical studies of the founder, as well as scholarship with the intention of citing certain pieces in the collection (mainly the armoury), scholars are hesitant to reflect on the role of this museum in the development of museum history. This short paper intends to reflect briefly on this problem and to suggest some avenues to be explored for future research.

The entire enterprise of the museum was the brainchild of its founder, Frederick Stibbert (1838-1906), son of the British Thomas Stibbert (1771-1847) and the Italian Giulia Cafaggi (1805-1883). The financial background of the collection, and eventually the museum, came from old colonial money, namely Frederick’s grandfather Giles Stibbert (1734-1809), who made a fortune in the East India Company while serving as a military officer. Frederick’s father died when he was only nine years old, and other sons of Giles, Frederick’s uncles, produced no descendants. Thomas Stibbert, who had two other children, daughters Sophronia and Erminia, decided to follow the rule of primogeniture and leave all his property to his male child. This left Frederick with an impressive sum of money, most of which he spent from the 1860s on collecting, preserving, and exhibiting art. This passion became lifelong for Stibbert and he managed to create, in his suburban villa, a museum that has put him in history.

The growing collection was housed in Villa Mezzeri, an eighteenth-century building on the Montughi hill that Frederick’s mother, Giulia, bought in 1849. To expand the building for the growing exhibition needs, Frederick bought the adjacent Villa Bombicci and several other buildings on the estate in 1874. It is important to note that Stibbert was able to integrate all these heterogeneous buildings into one solid structure, refining the interiors according to the style of the exhibits. The majority of these renovations were commissioned to Giuseppe Poggi, best known as the nineteenth-century urban planner of Florence, who significantly changed the face of the city by renovating much of it. Stibbert, with the help of artists and architects, was able to create exhibition spaces of different scale and character, following some historical models. One of the most noteworthy is the Gallery of Paintings, with its round dome and circular skylight, which recalls of some prototypes of early museum architecture, such as the Tribuna in the Uffizi.

Stibbert’s greatest passion was for historical costumes and, in particular, for armour, to which he made a significant contribution, not only by collecting, but also by writing the manuscript of Abiti e fogge civili e militari dal I al XVIII secolo[1], published for the first time after his death in 1914. In the museum itself, the interest in the history of costume was expressed above all in the creation of the Hall of the Cavalcade, a long gallery that Stibbert had built to connect two existing villas (ill. 2). In this elongated space, he assembled an impressive exposition of twelve figures of horsemen showing various examples of armament. The theatricality of this exposition, reminiscent of a galloping cavalcade, is an effect that few museums of applied arts could achieve at the time. The question arises here: what is the relationship between this exclusively private endeavour and the European institutions of the same type and period?

The main impetus for the development of museums of applied arts in Europe was the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. It demonstrated to the European elites and the general public the importance of the aesthetic part of industrial production. England took a great lead in this matter, and the results of the exhibition gave rise to the first museum of applied arts in Europe, the South Kensington Museum, initiated in the 1850s and now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. This groundbreaking institution was followed by several others around the world, and the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires saw their own museums of applied arts. Though very different, they shared many common patterns in the collection and organization of museum space. The architectural language of the museum spaces often matched the exhibits, creating a unified whole. Stibbert was evidently trying to create similar conditions in his project, and interestingly, he was working on it during the common trends of applied arts museum building across Europe. It would be interesting to explore his possible museum visits in Europe and speculate on how they might have influenced him as a curator.

Stibbert’s achievement in creating a museum with such a comprehensive collection of applied arts is remarkable, especially when one considers that similar institutions in Europe were created only through the strenuous efforts of several actors, often with the support of the state. Nevertheless, the museum was not established until 1908, after Stibbert’s death and following legal procedures. In his will, Stibbert bequeathed the museum to the British government and, if it refused, to the City of Florence. With the latter taking place, the museum actually became public. How Stibbert himself dealt with this issue, the public access, remains more the rudiments of European electoral collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During Stibbert’s lifetime, his still private house was open “on certain days to those who can obtain a ticket through his personal friends”.[2] All these institutional features make the Stibbert’s brainchild a hybrid of the trends of different eras and thoughts.

One of the missing threads in the study of Stibbert is the focus on the psychology of the collector. Stibbert’s biography is treated hermetically, with little insight into his personality, way of thinking, and psychological model. However, the more insightful approaches of the history of collecting can contribute to our understanding of this exceptional individual. The identity of Frederick Stibbert, unmarried, supposedly childless, highly integrated into various social circles, the child of an Italian mother and an English father, is also a promising field for further research.

 

Stay tuned for the next article in this series: “The Art of Opening a Museum or the Malachite Table of the Stibbert Museum” by Alexandre Claude, which will be released next month!

Alexander Lemeshinski is a PhD researcher at the History Department of the European University Institute in Florence. In 2014-2018 he studied at the Stieglitz Academy of Applied Arts and graduated with a BA in Art History. In 2020 he received his MA in Art History from the European University at St. Petersburg. In 2022–2023 he was a pre-doctoral fellow at the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome. Alexander’s main research interests are architectural history, Cold War culture, and museum architecture. His MA thesis dealt with the reconstruction and development of the museum landscape in post-war Germany and its architectural realisation. His dissertation project at the EUI examines the role of architecture as a medium of soft power and cultural diplomacy with the case of West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Sources

Becattini M., Piacenti Aschengreen C. Museo Stibbert. Museo Stibbert: Guida Alla Visita Del Museo, Edizioni Polistampa, 2011.

Clearkin C. & Di Marco S. A tale of three cities: Calcutta, Southampton and Florence: the Stibbert family and museum. The British Art Journal, 2009, 9(3), 43–54.

Stibbert F. European civil and military clothing. From the First to the Eighteenth Century, Dover Publications, 2001.

[1] F. Stibbert, Abiti e fogge civili e militari dal I al XVIII secolo, Istituto Italiano di Arti Grafiche, Bergamo 1914. Modern edition: European civil and military clothing. From the First to the Eighteenth Century, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, 2001.

[2] Cit. in C. Clearkin, & S. Di Marco, A tale of three cities: Calcutta, Southampton and Florence: the Stibbert family and museum. The British Art Journal, 2009, 9(3), 43–54.