History of the Archives

  • Kira Kofoed, arkivet.thorvaldsensmuseum.dk, 2008
  • Translation by Glyn Jones
  • This article describes the Archives’ long and tumultuous prehistory – from Just Mathias Thiele’s first, almost mythological discovery of letters among snakes and scorpions in the cellar of Thorvaldsen’s Roman home, through a period of censorship and restricted access to the letters’ contents, and to the numerous previous attempts at publishing the Archives’ materials, culminating in 2008, when the public was granted complete access to the materials via the Internet.

    This article was first published in Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen 2008. The text has now been revised in order to reflect the Archives’ present [2013] status and contents. For continually updated numbers, please see the “By the Numbers” box on the Archives’ main page.

The Letters Discovered

In Bertel Thorvaldsen’s deed of gift and will of 5.12.1838 the artist’s first biographer, Just Mathias Thiele was appointed one of the executors of his estate. After Thorvaldsen’s death on 24.3.1844, Thiele was sent to Rome at the request of King Christian 8. in order to save for Denmark as many as possible of the works Thorvaldsen had left behind.

Portræt af Just Mathias Thiele
J.M. Thiele, Thorvaldsen’s first biographer and the finder of the nucleus of the documents in The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives.

In the Introduction to his four-volume biography from the 1850s, Thiele tells how he wandered around sadly in Thorvaldsen’s dusty and now empty Roman apartment in Casa Buti near the Spanish Steps. While he was thinking of the life and greatness of times past, he caught sight of the occasional scrap of paper in the dirt on the floor, and closer inspection of them revealed them to be entire letters or parts of letters, visiting cards etc – some even containing sketches and drawings. Thiele carefully collected these remnants in order to preserve every trace that could provide information on the sculptor, but it was only on examining a bureau left there that he found what was to be the first epoch-making discovery leading to the creation and subsequent huge bulk of the letter archives at Thorvaldsens Museum: an old, brass-bound, black, mouldy letter bag, containing letters from Thorvaldsen’s mother and father, all neatly packed and carefully preserved.

Already from the years during which he was writing the first Thorvaldsen biography, the first volume of which appeared in 1831, Thiele had collected letters to and from Thorvaldsen that had come into his possession as packing around works and other effects that had been sent to Denmark. For, according to Thiele, it was Thorvaldsen’s habit to use any kind of scrap paper for this purpose. However, the letters that Thiele had collected in this way were all from Thorvaldsen’s later years, and he lacked documents and letters that could throw light on the early and the middle periods of Thorvaldsen’s life.

Encouraged by the surprising private discovery of material from Thorvaldsen’s earliest years in Rome, Thiele systematically examined his home, but, in spite of Thorvaldsen’s notorious dislike of throwing paper away, found nothing more than what had already been discovered. Neither was it possible to find a deal box overflowing with old letters, sketches etc. that Thorvaldsen had had there to use for rough notes, packing etc. Thiele makes the very interesting comment on the box that everyone who visited Thorvaldsen in his Roman apartment must have known about its existence – and apparently also have read the letters and freely taken their pick of them and the drawings. Despite the bad taste of reading and removing other people’s letters without permission, it was according to Thiele almost a routine that created a stream of happy owners of notes and sketches in Thorvaldsen’s own hand.

Only when Thiele remembered the cellar beneath the apartment and managed to clear a passage to it through a pile of gravel, used plaster moulds etc., did he make the discovery he had been hoping for. His description of how he found the letters is both dramatic and entertaining and cannot be left out of this account:

Further inside in the cold, raw cellar, which seemed to hide snakes and scorpions, we glimpsed with the help of the torch a couple of large barrels, some firewood boxes and other rubbish, and the next moment we were sure that we here were standing at the final home of all the abundance of paper of which Thorvaldsen had been able to rid himself over a number of years.

An informative letter that Thiele sent home from Rome to Jonas Collin contains elegant evidence of the finder’s enthusiasm and his urgent desire to set about the material:

We have been working for a couple of days on emptying a couple of barrels down in a dangerous, scorpion-infested cellar, and what interesting things we have fished out of these stinking rubbish bins! What do you say to a host of drawings, his first ideas, for many of the enchanting statues, all partly spoiled by himself but nevertheless extremely interesting even in bits; some letters from his father Gottschalk Thorvaldsen that are almost too interesting and so on and so forth.

According to Thiele, the papers were stuffed down in the barrels along with lumps of clay, pieces of brick and glass. Thiele assumed that this had been done to hold the papers down or perhaps to make it difficult to save the papers for the unauthorised or inquisitive folk of a later age, in which classes I [Thiele] naturally do not include myself.

Thiele describes how he laboriously saved the damp and mouldy papers from their dark hiding place, drying them and smoothing them out and packing them all together to be sent home.

Unanswered Questions Relating to the Discovery of the Letters

There are several interesting aspects to Thiele’s description of the discovery of the letters – both relating to his own role in the matter and to Thorvaldsen’s possible reasons for keeping his letters in the manner described.

If we first consider the quite concrete aspect, Thiele describes the contents of the barrels and the subsequent work of smoothing, drying and fitting them together as though he is saving the letters from an imminent and inevitable reduction to mould. It thus sounds almost incredible that he was able to re-create and arrange all the letters. If we consider the present state of the documents, this sounds even more remarkable, as most of them are in excellent condition, still with visible creases where the letter has been folded over on itself as an envelope; only a small number have been torn, and still fewer show any signs of having been crumpled up, and certainly not partly reduced to mould as described above.
In short, the condition of the documents suggests that Thiele somewhat dramatised his role in the discovery of the letters.

In the biography, Thiele writes that he found the letters from the parents hidden in the bureau, while it appears to emerge from his letter to Collin that like the other treasures, they were fished out of the stinking rubbish bins. If the letter to Collin, as the account first written down, contains the true story, Thiele must consciously have wanted to give the letters from the parents a special status by placing them closer to Thorvaldsen’s heart both in a concrete and figurative sense.

Thiele is in doubt as to the reasons both for the hiding place and for the broken bricks above them etc., but he seems to be convinced that Thorvaldsen himself had gradually taken the papers down there as they took up too much space in the apartment, for the simple reason that no one but Thorvaldsen himself would be able to treat the letters so ruthlessly. As said above, he suggests the need to weigh the letters down or to make it difficult to rescue them as possible reasons for the presence of the pieces of brick.

Whereas the first possibility suggests a purely practical reason, the second is interesting in relation to Thorvaldsen’s self-understanding. For in this way it seems to be implied that Thorvaldsen deliberately hid and partly destroyed the letters so well, as described by Thiele, so that no one but Thiele himself should find them and rescue them for posterity. The intention thus seems to have been that they were to be found by a particularly observant and dedicated person, and if that did not happen, they would slowly rot and be lost. Thiele thus comes to stand as the guardian of and heir to the artist’s posthumous reputation, a guardian chosen by Thorvaldsen himself in direct contrast to all the unauthorised or inquisitive folk.

This assumption is borne out by the account of the actual idea for the first Thorvaldsen biography which, according to Thiele, was planted in Thiele by Thorvaldsen himself almost as an indirect request:

“I regret,” said Thorvaldsen, “that no one has yet thought about my biography!”

After this, Thiele undertook the task immediately and with pleasure.

Whether the account of the condition in which the letters were found can be fully believed, or whether it has undergone a twist to increase the dramatic effect can of course not be determined with any certainty today, but as it is cited it fully supports the idea of Thiele as the sole qualified heir to both the letters found and the subsequent work. It is precisely this view of himself together with his great admiration for the artist that seems to run throughout Thiele’s Thorvaldsen biography.

The Placing of the Letters

What other reasons apart from the subtle one given above can Thorvaldsen have had to keep his letters and documents in the cellar?

One thing is certain: If Thorvaldsen had not wanted his letters to be preserved for posterity; it would have been far more effective to burn them all in one fell swoop. Perhaps we should imagine that the barrels really were filled with a view to burning the contents – possibly during the period spent by the Stampe family and Thorvaldsen in Rome in 1841-42. As part of their preparations for their journey while at Nysø, Baroness Stampe and Thorvaldsen had in fact chosen to burn a selection of Thorvaldsen’s papers so that they should not fall into the hands of later generations:

Among the preparations for the journey was also the fact that I helped Thorvaldsen to look through his papers, and we burned a large number of old letters and things that he thought it better to burn. We had thought of the same experiment two years previously when he was to have gone away with Matthiæ and Hartmann, but when he did not get away, as I have related above.

The same went on during the stay in Rome:

[…] then all he did was rummage among his old things, and we burned a good deal but ought to have done so with much more. However, it was put off until everything was to be sent home. ‘And then we can pick out what ought to be burnt’, he said.

If there was any question of an impending bonfire, it is surprising that the contents of the barrels were so mixed – that, for instance, there was not exclusively a question of private papers, but also of papers concerning the bestowal of decorations, passports and other official documents, which could scarcely do any damage to the great man’s reputation. In short, the contents were not only of the kind “that it would be better to burn”, and so the idea of burning does not really make sense. It is surely more likely that during the 1841-42 visit Thorvaldsen gathered all his papers (perhaps except those of the parents) without sorting them out, as is implicit in the last Stampe quotation above and had them put down in the cellar. In this way they would not represent a temptation to weaker brethren during his long absence, as the famous deal box had been earlier. He had plans to come back to Rome in the summer of 1844 to tidy up or to have it all sent home to be sorted out in Denmark. This also explains the judicious mixture of large and small, private and business letters in the barrels and also their humble position – perhaps among serpents and scorpions and weighed down by heavy materials.

Thiele’s Arrangement and Use of the Materials

It appears that through his work with the sculptor’s biography and his duties as executor of his estate, Thiele in general felt himself to be more worthy than others to take care of Thorvaldsen’s letters. This emerges partly from the above quotation from the account of how the letters were found in the cellar, where he writes that he does not classify himself as one of the “unauthorised or inquisitive folk” and partly from his use of the word deposit in referring to the placing in the museum of the letters and the other material that had been collected and arranged.

So if we are to take Thiele’s words literally, it looks as though he believed he had a personal right to the letters. He seems in addition to have given at least a few of Thorvaldsen’s letters away as gifts. Thus, during Thorvaldsens Museum’s collection of Thorvaldsen’s letters in 1945, a letter dated 15.8.1835 from Thorvaldsen to François Pafsowsky turned up in a private collection. Extracts from the letter are quoted by Thiele, written out in full without any indication that the letter did not belong to the museum, as was otherwise his custom. Thiele has himself added to the letter respectively in red pencil at the top and in ink at the bottom the year and the serial number – exactly as in the rest of the documents that Thiele arranged in the archives. So in all probability, Thiele had the letter in his original collection and subsequently gave it away as a present. In addition, Thiele himself remarks that he has made a gift to a Professor Adams of a letter written to Thorvaldsen by a singer Catalani.

So it was not without reason that Thiele was the first to make use of the collection of letters. Safely back in Copenhagen, he sorted out the papers so that both fragments and chronology were in agreement as far as was possible in his view. The letters were packeted together according to the year and provided with the year and serial numbers. He either wrote out all the letters in their entirety in regest form or simply with an indication of recipient, sender, place of posting and date, and these transcripts with his own additions and underlinings are still in the museum. He furthermore copied Thorvaldsen’s letters from other archives – including those of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, to which as secretary from 1825-1871 he had easy access. The drawings he discovered were pasted on board and were later incorporated in the archives of sketches and drawings in the museum. All these documents formed the nucleus in the The Thorvaldsen Letter Archives.

Thiele’s major four-volume study of Thorvaldsen’s life and works is largely based on the sources in the letter archives, supplemented with information gleaned at the time from the circle around Thorvaldsen. This is today the standard work in Thorvaldsen literature, and anyone working on Thorvaldsen is obliged to take note of and adopt an attitude to Thiele’s treatment of the material. It has, however, subsequently become clear that Thiele was quite selective in his use and reproduction of the correspondence in the archive – even though some can be “excused” on account of the enormous size of the archive and Thiele’s deference to the people of that time and the cult of the genius by which Thorvaldsen was surrounded – and to which Thiele made a great contribution.

Both Thiele’s transcripts of the letters and the commentaries he added constitute today an important source for light on his concrete use of the materials, as it can clearly be seen which documents he knew and the use he made of them. Because of Thiele’s great importance for later research, a few examples will be given below of his use of the materials.


With due consideration for Thorvaldsen’s recent death and his glorious reputation as an internationally recognised artist, Thiele corrected all orthographical faults in Thorvaldsen’s own letters and rigorously censored all matters and information that could stain the artist’s reputation. The only trace indicating this practice in relation to Thorvaldsen’s writing ability is a passage concerning the sculptor’s diary in the introduction to the four-volume work from the 1850s, in which Thiele suggests that it is on account of missing letters resulting from the age and poor condition of the papers that he has taken the liberty of making certain orthographical corrections and adding punctuation marks where necessary out of consideration for the reader:

As all the easily recognisable pieces in this diary were collected with zeal and ardour, it became a study in itself to decipher their indistinct, often missing letters, which here, frequently simply on the basis of the sound, were to betoken a word, and these words, at which it was necessary to guess once one had discovered a little of the context.

Although the diary admittedly is very difficult to decipher, a reading of Thorvaldsen’s letters in his own handwriting quickly reveals that it is not only a question of missing letters and a few commas that have been left out, but a general problem with his writing that was obviously not to be revealed too clearly to his contemporaries. For the same reason, Thiele has several times interpreted the words wrongly or entirely given up deciphering the individual letters. If we read the documents from Thorvaldsen’s contemporaries in The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives, we quickly discover that Thorvaldsen was not the only person to have a very liberal approach to both spelling and punctuation. But this general tendency was not sufficient excuse to Thiele’s way of thinking.

The Use of Thorvaldsen Himself as a Source

When it comes to contents there is also a question of divergent information between Thiele and the letter archives, as will be demonstrated by the following examples.
In order to correct possible mistakes in the manuscript for the first Thorvaldsen biography, a good friend of Thiele, the architect Frederik Ferdinand Friis spoke to Thorvaldsen on behalf of Thiele and after reading the biography aloud added all the corrections and comments that Thorvaldsen was able to make to the finished material. Because of their importance, the comments, the writing down of which had been very delayed on account of Thorvaldsen’s work, were then sent as a letter by fast post to Thiele in Denmark and are today in the letter archives as a unique source of light on Thorvaldsen’s view of himself and his work. Apart from being an important document on Thorvaldsen himself, it is also a concrete example of Thiele’s use of the factual information he had to hand and thus the way in which he wrote about Thorvaldsen.

Although in his introduction he tells of the reliable manner of working with Thorvaldsen’s reading and commenting on the manuscript before it was printed and thereby making it appear that Thorvaldsen himself stands as guarantor of the reliability of the contents, this is not always the case. In the vast majority of cases, Thiele certainly has corrected the manuscript in accordance with Thorvaldsen’s instructions, but in some places it is clear that he has consciously chosen not to follow his subject’s instructions – though without informing the reader of this.

This applies for instance to the information on the state of Thorvaldsen’s health prior to his journey to Rome in 1796 and his reason for travelling by sea instead of by land. Thiele maintained that, according to statements made by his friends Thorvaldsen had been forced to travel by sea on account of illness, and that he also was considered to be too inexperienced and to have too little knowledge of foreign languages to be able to make the overland journey.

Thorvaldsen vehemently denied all this in his conversation with Friis, and pointed out that he chose the sea route purely for financial reasons and on account of the disturbances in Germany. Not until the 1851 edition did Thiele remove lack of experience and illness as reasons for the journey by sea, thereby correcting himself and according more closely to Thorvaldsen’s own comments on this matter.

The letter from Friis to Thiele also contains the following passage: The author [i.e. Thiele writes]: it is told, that he [i.e. Thorvaldsen] [lodged] in Naples at the home of an old woman” … comment [by Thorvaldsen to the statement]: Thorwaldsen remembers living at the home of such a woman in Rome, but not in Naples.

The comments refer to Thorvaldsen’s arrival and brief stay in Naples (31.1 – 6.3.1797) on his way from Copenhagen to Rome, which Thiele uses to underline the impression of the young Thorvaldsen as an inexperienced and rather pitiable boy who was suffering dreadfully from homesickness. Despite the clear rejection of this by Thorvaldsen, Thiele thus writes that he stayed [in Naples] at the home of an old woman, who so partook in his sadness that they often sat opposite each other with tears overflowing and without being able to understand each other or exchange a single word.

However, Thiele gave the story a rather less prominent place in the notes at the back, though without saying anything to the effect that Thorvaldsen denied the accuracy of it. The story appears to have been too good and touching not to be included.

In both these instances, Thiele has consciously retained his original version of the events – perhaps based on the information he had derived from another source or perhaps for the reason that it provided a better story about the sickly, inexperienced and homesick Thorvaldsen, who had to endure much suffering before becoming a world-famous star, or because Thiele simply believed more in the statements made by others than Thorvaldsen’s own, which could be imagined to be expressions of vanity.

The Letters as Source Material

Apparently in spite of his knowledge to the contrary Thiele also gives an incorrect version of a case relating to a bust of the obstetrician Mathias Saxtorph, A899, but an account that is obviously very beneficial to Thorvaldsen. The bust was commissioned by Poul Scheel in 1800, but in spite of the fact that after a considerable delay it was finished in marble at the latest in 1806, it was not sent to Denmark. One of the reasons could have been that Thorvaldsen had not himself made the bust and was not satisfied with it. Thorvaldsen ignored several reminders from Scheel and did not reply until 1810, when Scheel lost his patience and cancelled the commission. Thorvaldsen listed several reasons for the failure to deliver in a draft letter, the final version of which was never sent or else was lost on the way to the recipient.

In spite of the clear dating of the letters, Thiele reports that the bust was in reality cancelled as early as 1806 and then re-ordered later on account of Friederike Brun’s statement that she had seen the plaster version of it. So Thiele completely ignores the fact that the bust was indeed finished in 1806 but made by someone other than Thorvaldsen. Thiele’s version thus leaves the impression that it was on account of the late re-commissioning that Thorvaldsen was obliged to hand over the marble version to another sculptor. Thorvaldsen’s failure to dispatch the work and to acknowledge the bust is thus attributed to the person commissioning the work rather than to Thorvaldsen himself.

The Private Sphere

There is no doubt that everything concerning Thorvaldsen’s more private life was either not published by Thiele or made inaccessible in a way that could result in any stain on Thorvaldsen’s reputation. What he did publish was always done in such a way that it worked to Thorvaldsen’s advantage.

In his regests and transcripts of letters, Thiele notes the following under point 97 for 1818 regarding letters to Thorvaldsen from his fiancée Frances Mackenzie: A fascicle containing letters and notes (14 pages) from Francesca Mackenzie, mostly of a cheerless content. Reqŭiescant in pače!!

Thieles fortegnelse
View of Thieles list and commentary no. 97 to the letters from Thorvaldsen’s fiancée Frances Mackenzie in Thorvaldsens Archives. Mackenzie was engaged to Thorvaldsen for a brief period in 1818.

This last comment shows only too clearly the devoted care that was the rule around the contents of the letter archives from their earliest stage. In the biography from the 1850s, Thiele has included a brief quotation from Mackenzie’s letters and, in comparison with his presentation of Thorvaldsen’s other female friends, has drawn a not entirely unkind portrait of the Scottish lady. However, he writes that she is said to have spent several years in Switzerland after the breach with Thorvaldsen for fear of looking her fellow countrymen in the eyes. He writes this despite the fact that in his transcripts he has noted a letter from Mackenzie to Thorvaldsen dated Edinburgh 20.12.1820 – that is to say at the most two years after the breach.

The letters from another of Thorvaldsen’s love affairs, Fanny Caspers, were also among those Thiele found in Rome, and he gathered them together under the date of 25.12.1819, with Vienna as the place of dispatch. The biography nevertheless makes no reference to the fact that Caspers left Rome again. On the other hand, he gives the impression that it was Thorvaldsen, who wanted to leave: for Thorvaldsen seemed to have awakened from an unpleasant dream and now only thought of getting away from Rome. It seems that Thiele was sure that the “Franciska”, whom he refers to as the radiant heavenly body that forces Thorvaldsen out of his orbit for a time, was the same as the “Franziska Caspers”, whose letters and notes he finds. For he notes in his transcripts that it appears that Thorvaldsen has had a very close love affair with her, and that, in view of the time, it must be the woman whose sad triumph over Mackenzie was only brief. On the cover of the envolope in which all the letters were placed, he has noted: Letters from Franciska C (i.e. Fanny Caspers) Rome and Vienna 1819-20. He says nothing more about her name or her role in the biography, and she thus remains unknown and without significance.

Thiele consistently represents Thorvaldsen as a powerless victim of women’s intrigues and seductive beauty. He thereby produces the myth of the artistic genius who by virtue of his sensitivity is attracted by all things beautiful, but cannot be captured and is permanently bored by women, who do not understand the artist’s creative genius and great need of freedom. Thus in Thiele’s optic, each time Thorvaldsen is briefly captured, the sculptor’s genius has to turn towards the wall and weep.

Thiele himself writes the following, which was probably very much the cause of his idealised presentation, but in which the last part is not entirely true:

I am – as will perhaps be discovered only too quickly – more captivated by admiration and love for Thorvaldsen and his works than is probably beneficial to a historical account; however, I am not conscious anywhere of deliberately having departed from the truth.

It must be assumed that Thiele’s poetical gifts along with the collection and writing down of popular fairy tales combined with his boundless admiration for Thorvaldsen’s person and works have resulted in the biographies, despite their basis in unique source material, coming in certain respects to resemble a beautification.

Although it is undeniably thanks to Thiele that so much material was collected in his own day, while his work on the collection of letters was a unique pioneering work, his treatment of the material has, to put it briefly, become outdated over the years and in places must give rise to doubt as to its presentation of the material, the contents of which are at times distorted and philologically open to criticism.

Also after the incorporation of the letters in Thorvaldsens Museum, the museum has taken care of the artist’s name and posthumous reputation. Thiele can thus be said to have started the tradition that for many years after the deaths of both Thorvaldsen and Thiele has characterised the way in which the sculptor’s posthumous letters have been treated.

The Letters in Thorvaldsens Museum


After being deposited in the museum, Thorvaldsen’s most private letters were strictly guarded and were for a long time kept in a locked metal box known as Meldahl’s Box after the Danish architect Ferdinand Meldahl (1827-1908, member of the management committee of the museum 1873-1908, chairman 1893). Some of the letters were from Frances Mackenzie and others from other writers in which she is spoken of naturally as related to Thorvaldsen; there were letters from Fanny Caspers, Wilhelm von Uhden’s declaration that his marriage to Anna Maria Uhden was to be considered dissolved, and letters from Thorvaldsen himself to the same Anna Maria. The secrecy in which these letters were kept emerges clearly from the address on an now empty envelope still in the box:

To Thorvaldsens Museum
Department for Secret Archives
Which are not accessible to authors.
For the attention of the Thorvaldsens Museum
Custodian Schumacher

The envelope is securely sealed on the inside with sealing wax along one side and in four places on the reverse.

The letters were only made available to be read by a very select group. Fanny Caspers’ daughter was thus in 1875 allowed to read the contents, but not to transcribe her mother’s letters, while the German translator of Eugène Plons’ Thorvaldsen: Sa Vie et son Œuvre, Paris 1867 was refused access as the contents were considered to be “warmly erotic” and therefore not for public view.

The envelopes in which the museum had packed the private letters are still in Mehldal’s Box; they are furnished with various wax seals that have ensured that no one could read the letters without its being discovered. The following is a transcript of a declaration from the box dated 2.1.1899 to Meldahl from a secretary and art historian by the name of Peter Johansen (1858-1939) who had been entrusted by Meldahl with the very confidential task of preparing an index of the letters in the collection. During the work, Johansen had chanced to read and transcribe parts of Frances Mackenzie’s letters to Thorvaldsen. The declaration shows very clearly how the museum once guarded these specially preserved letters, and it appears that the last passage (after the first signature) has been added after Meldahl has received the letter, presumably because the first part of the declaration did not sufficiently preclude future candid declarations.

25 Dronningens Tværgade, Copenhagen, 2 January 1899

In sending the enclosed extracts from Miss Mackenzie’s letters to Thorvaldsen, I must as requested declare that I have not taken any extracts or copies of these letters, which I came to read because they were in an open packet along with Thorvaldsen’s other letters, that I have not discussed their contents and that no one else to my knowledge and with my assistance has read them.

Yours faithfully
[xxx] Johansen

I moreover promise neither in writing nor by word of mouth nor in any other way to discuss or make known what has thus come to my knowledge through my reading of the afore-mentioned documents.

[xxx] Johansen

As already said, most of the documents are in remarkably good condition – despite Thiele’s description of their damp and mouldy condition. What is equally remarkable is perhaps the fact that these letters really have suffered damage – but apparently for a quite different reason. A letter from Thorvaldsen to his mistress Anna Maria Uhden has for instance been torn across so that the final part is missing. From a surviving draft of the letter, however, it is possible to infer parts of the contents, which include a grandiloquent and affectionate conclusion – not one that nowadays would in any way be considered unusual, but which is nevertheless evidence of how close they were to each other.

m35v, nr. 6
Thorvaldsen’s letter of 6.8.1804 to his mistress Anna Maria Uhden. The letter may possibly have been censored, as the last part is missing.

There are several examples of letters being torn across in this way, which might suggest the contents were censored, and so it looks as though the texts in Thorvaldsen’s own hand that do contain some private thoughts have either not been discovered or have come to the museum at a relatively late date. It is of course always possible that Thorvaldsen himself was responsible for censoring them out of consideration for his own posthumous reputation, but in that case the process seems to be quite arbitrary and can very well be due to the fact that Thorvaldsen did not complete the task of sorting hisdocuments in Rome 1841-42.

Utilisation and Earlier Attempts at Publication

Thorvaldsen research has of course used the archives to throw light on Thorvaldsen’s works and the main events in his life, but utilisation has hitherto been random and has concentrated on specific subjects, as all previous attempts at a thorough, systematic examination of and commentary on the materials in the archives have come to grief on account of its enormous bulk, the difficulty of creating an overall view and the resultant immense burden of work. Outstanding among the most important contributions to Thorvaldsen research apart from the biographies by Thiele, which have already been discussed, is Else Kai Sass’s monumental three-volume study Thorvaldsens Portrætbuster, which was the result of 17 years labour and appeared between 1963 and 1965. As a result of her research, Kai Sass was able to gather and revise the information on this element of Thorvaldsen’s oeuvre at the same time as working on the present project with the publication of selected elements from Thorvaldsen’s correspondence.

In the museum internally, numerous indexes and notes have been devised for the documents over the years. For instance, during the period of his appointment, 1896-1919, the curator Andreas Christian Schumacher (1854-1921) arranged the documents in folders and completed a register of the letters and an extensive index of their senders. From the 1930s and later, the preparation of such keys and commentaries increased in speed as a result of the intended publication of Thorvaldsen’s letters.

A new critical examination of the materials was already urgently needed at this time. Alongside the desire to revise Thiele’s version, the number of documents in Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Letter Archives had since the establishment of the museum increased through donations, purchases and the collection of transcripts or copies of materials from private sources, archives etc. both in Denmark and abroad. So the museum had an earnest desire to examine and comment on the letter archives systematically with a view to publishing them either in part or in their entirety.

During the autumn of 1937, the then director of the museum, art historian Sigurd Schultz (1894-1980) applied to the Carlsberg Foundation for 12057 kroner to cover the cost of a planned three-volume edition of selected Thorvaldsen letters. In addition to printing expenses, the sum applied for was to cover editorial expenses, the fee for transcribing and collating the letters and visits to Germany and Italy in order to trace and photograph letters in archives in those countries.

The first volume was to contain Thorvaldsen’s own letters and be published the following year – either on the 100th anniversary of his return to Copenhagen (17.9.1838) or, if publication were delayed, the 100th anniversary of the signing of his will (5.12.1838), which left his estate to his native country. As it turned out, the small delay thus allowed for was nothing in comparison with what was really to happen.

The second volume was to contain the letters to Thorvaldsen, and the third was to deal with Thorvaldsen’s negotiations with the commission responsible for the building of the new Christiansborg Palace, including a collection of 76 letters written by Christian 8. to the architect C.F. Hansen – a collection that had shortly before been transferred to the museum from a private collection.
Although the publication only was to cover a part of the letter archives, the reason given for the application was generally identical to the one subsequently submitted by the museum:

These documents [letters to and from Thorvaldsen,] have been well used by J.M. Thiele in his celebrated biography of Thorvaldsen, but only in fragments and in a way that is increasingly felt to be insufficient. Research over recent years has raised doubts as to Thiele’s reliability as the source of knowledge on our only world-famous artist, partly on account of the bias marking his account of events, and partly on account of his treatment of the material, which does not satisfy the critical and other scientific demands that must be made nowadays. […] My [i.e. Schultz’s] idea is to produce a standard work in which Thorvaldsen’s letters are reproduced as exhaustively as possible, and which in future can provide the reliable basis for scientific research of which there is a serious general shortage concerning Thorvaldsen and those around him.

In addition, Schultz emphasised the large number of unused documents in the archives and the international interest in the subject. The publication was to be led by the Royal Historiographer of the Orders of Chivalry, dr. phil. Louis Bobé (1867-1951), the transcription of the letters entrusted to the philologist Øjvind Andreasen, and these two were in addition to undertake study visits to Germany and Italy respectively. The director of the museum would write the introductory article for this major standard publication, which was to be illustrated insofar as the texts required.The hopes and expectations, however, were not to last long – the application was rejected on 1.12.1937.

After this, the matter was left in abeyance for a time. Not until October 1941 did Schultz again apply for a grant, but this time the application was distributed among three foundations, and Schultz himself was appointed the editor in charge. The applications were approved during the early months of 1942, when the New Carlsberg Foundation, the Carlsberg Foundation and the Rask-Ørsted Foundation each agreed to pay a third of the sum applied for. The work started immediately but soon ran into difficulties on account of the Second World War, which made study visits impossible and correspondence with foreign archives and collections difficult, as for instance most of the German officials had been sent to the front or the archives evacuated.

So instead, efforts were concentrated on the Danish collections. Andreasen traced and transcribed a large number of letters from the National Archives, the Royal Archives and the Royal Library, but the original publication plans had to be shelved and replaced in the first instance by a complete volume including the most important parts of Thorvaldsen’s correspondence. The necessity of thus focussing on the Danish archives also meant a growing awareness of the great advantage there would be in publishing the correspondence in its entirety, that is to say in including the writers’ and the recipients’ letters together and not separately as had originally been the intention. It was agreed to refuse all applications for access to the letter archives while the work was proceeding out of regard for the progress of the work and in order to reserve the letters for the museum’s own research.

The letters were ready for publication at about the time the war ended, but the important commentaries for elucidation and further research were still far from finished, and the general editing was incomplete. However, it was thought the project could be ready for publication on Thorvaldsen’s Roman birthday 8.3.1946 or at the latest on that date in 1947. The museum curator Else Kai Sass (1912-1987) had been brought into the task of writing the commentaries that were to be composed in collaboration with Schultz insofar as the notes were concerned with the history of art, and with Bobé when they were of a biographical nature.

However, Bobé never began his work as he was weakened by illness and thus unable to undertake the task. Instead the work was done by Kai Sass, Schultz and Andreasen, the tasks being shared between them. The new arrangement was as follows; each part was intended to contain one or more volumes:

  • Part One: Thorvaldsen’s personal correspondence with family, friends, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen etc.
  • Part Two: correspondence relating to the large monuments (because of the easily available collection of the history of the monuments).
  • Part Three: Letters relating to Thorvaldsen’s return in 1838, the establishment of the museum, the return of the works, Thorvaldsen’s final visit to Italy, Nysø and Thorvaldsen’s final years in Denmark.

Five years after the payment of the subventions, one of the otherwise patient foundations asked for information on how the matter was progressing, and a further three years later applications were made to the same foundations for a further grant to enable the museum to complete the work, the reason for this application being the great increase in costs. The application was again approved, and the first volume was expected in October 1953.

At a meeting in the museum in September 1953, however, those working on the project acknowledged that the plan had gone completely awry on account of a lack of funds and time to carry out the project. The burden of work regarding the writing of commentaries on the letters had in general been drastically underestimated and time after time had meant that it was impossible to keep to deadlines. So Schultz was obliged to inform the foundations that the expected publication in October could not be achieved. The art historian Meir Stein was brought in to write the commentaries in place of Schultz, who was not left with time for the administrative work relating to the museum. At the start, Stein reckoned on a few months’ work, but a year later the commentaries were not even half finished. In May 1958 a new estimate was obtained for printing Thorvaldsens Korrespondence containing 169 letters, but the finances for the final editing and the cost of publication were still not available.

Towards the end of Schultz’ period as museum director yet another attempt was made to publish everything that was ready. The art historian Dyveke Helsted (1919-2005) had taken over Kai Sass’s position as curator in the museum and thus also adopted a role in the publication project, but although it was decided not to attempt to solve more unanswered questions, the manuscript still did not find its way into print. So Schultz originally undertook to complete the work after retiring from the museum in 1963, but he had to accept that at his age he was not able to do the work or to carry out the many demanding studies in the museum. So in 1967 he handed the project and the responsibility to Helsted as the museum’s new director. At the request of the foundations, Helsted reported on the course of events so far in January 1968 and stated that on account of too small a permanent staff qualified in art history and the demanding day-to-day work in the museum, there would not be the resources to complete the work for several years. She suggested instead a comprehensive catalogue in one of the major languages so that at least in Denmark and abroad it would be possible to see what the archives contained. Only after this would it be possible to continue work on a publication such as that so far planned.

The foundations accepted this, but demanded that the catalogue should be in Danish. In 1974, the Rask-Ørsted Foundation asked whether the project was nearing a conclusion, and in agreement with Helsted, the final and by now ageing remainder of the grant made in 1942 and 1950 was withdrawn.

After this, other projects were given precedence in the museum, and the finance required for the publication of the letters was still not available.

The Present Publication Project

Not until 1996 do documents concerning the correspondence again turn up in the records of the museum, now under the leadership of the present director, Stig Miss. As a newly appointed curator, Margrethe Floryan had in 1995 gone through the letter archives in connection with the micro-photographing of all the materials in the letter archives both to ensure preservation and for security reasons. The enormous amount of material and the publication of selections from it again brought to the surface a desire to publish it as a complete project. The main objective of the project was the actual presentation of the source material in the letter archives – accompanied only by the most necessary comments. The section devoted to commentaries would then be able to grow naturally as the result of national and international research into Thorvaldsen. Selected letters were to be published in book form, while the entire correspondence was to be made available in electronic form.

Stig Miss contacted the Society for Danish Language and Literature (DSL) and through the then administrator Iver Kjær (1938-2002) managed to establish collaboration between the two institutions with the publication of the letter archives in view. With Floryan in charge, six months were set aside for the project in order to collect remaining letters from foreign archives. The following year, a real drive was started directed at selected archives and collections in Europe and the USA with the same aim, and a good quarter of the references resulted in new sources for the letter collection. At the same time, the philologist Jens Keld started the task of transcribing and of checking earlier transcriptions of the documents in the letter archives, an undertaking that in the case of the Italian letters were carried out in collaboration with Margherita Merello Thomsen. Keld’s work was to turn out to be the most extensive task of transcription and collation ever undertaken by the museum – over five years he transcribed and collated more than 4000 documents in archives in the museum and elsewhere.

Thorvaldsens Museum was to be the administrative centre for the project, and brief commentaries on the selected letters were to be undertaken by Floryan and Keld. The finished text of the letters was to be ready at the latest by March 1998, while a start was not to be made on the commentaries until 2000. The essential textual basis was finished by the beginning of 2001 – although the passages that were most difficult to read and the corrections to what had already been transcribed were still to be done. So once more it had to be admitted that the magnitude of the work of publication exceeded the expectations hitherto. So it was decided to aim at a less pretentious publication, but on the other hand one provided with systematic and varied indexes, summaries etc. A complete electronic version of the actual texts with the search possibilities this would entail, was still thought to be a sensible solution. The art teacher Salvatore Brogaard was appointed consultant for the Italian texts and Ambassador Jørgen Korsgaard-Pedersen for the French.


Two applications to the Danish National Research Council from 1998 and 1999 respectively for support to Keld’s and Floryan’s work for the three to four years the work was expected to take were unsuccessful. The reason given was partly that the project was not considered to be sufficiently research-oriented, but rather to represent part of the ordinary museum work of registering and collecting, etc.

On the other hand, in 1999 and 2000 the museum succeeded through the Direktør Werner Richter og Hustrus Legat and the Novo Nordisk Foundation art-historical fund to cover part of the expenses relating to Keld’s work of transcribing and collating the letters and for help with reading certain Italian letters. The director of the Society for Danish Language and Literature (DSL), Jørn Lund and the director of the Danmarks Kunstbiblitek (i.e. the Danish Art Library), Patrick Kragelund were by the DSL linked to the project as external consultants.

In 2003, the Danish National Research Council granted fifteen months salary for the project, and art historian Ernst Jonas Bencard was able to start his term of appointment as senior research fellow in October 2004. At that time, it was still believed that the work could be completed within this time, but as soon as it became obvious that the material and especially the commentaries required far more time, an application was made for a further and considerably larger grant. In 2006, the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces granted the sum for the development of the database that the museum’s Letter Centre in collaboration with the company Oncotype had made the basis for making available the research into Thorvaldsen’s correspondence.

Unsuccessful applications were made to several foundations for finance for the research work, but success came at the beginning of 2006 – the Velux Foundation granted the crucial large sum needed to cover the establishment of a dedicated letter centre in Thorvaldsens Museum and to finance the work over five years including the salaries of three full-time art historians and a student assistant. Both Copenhagen Municipality and Thorvaldsens Museum undertook at the same time to contribute an annual sum to help carry out the project. Stig Miss was and remains responsible for the project with Bencard as the project leader, and the remaining art historians were appointed as quickly as possible: art historian Kira Kofoed in October 2006, art historian Inge Lise Mogensen Bech in January 2007, and the students Kirstine Reffstrup (February 2007), Maria Jørgensen and Marie-Louise Gelså Kirkelund (both September 2008).

The Virtual Archives

On Thorvaldsens 238 year’s birthday, the 19th of November 2008, the virtual Archives was opened to the public containing the documents that had so far been made accessible. The remaining documents with the commenced associated commentaries, biographies, explanatory articles, illustrations, summaries, indices and abstracts along with a vast range of search possibilities and an exhaustive array of links was added during the following three years. Many of the “new” additions were transcripts of newly found documents in other archives, or of Thorvaldsen’s extensive workshop accounts, documents concerning Thorvaldsen’s estate, the plans, design and structure of Thorvaldsens Museum and other important documents in the museum’s own archives, which were not previously transcribed.

This massive effort of transcription was made possible by means of a supplementary grant from the Velux Foundation in 2010. Due to the overwhelming amount of new material, the work, however, had to be restructured and the thorough examination of the primary sources did not advance as much as planned. All original documents placed at the Thorvaldsens Museum were scanned. These facsimiles have been added to the transcripts, and will pop up by clicking the button See the Original at the upper left above the transcript.

Researching the material 2013-2017

In 2012 the museum secured fundings for a new phase of the project.Grants from respectively the A.P. Møller og Hustru Chastine Mc-Kinney Møllers Fond til almene Formaal and the Augustinus Foundation enabled four years of thorough investigation of selected material conducted by four art historians. This work commenced April 1st 2013.

Until March 31st 2017, selected documents will be annotated and the investigated part of the Archives will grow in step with articles, biographies, comments and chronologies that will create an ever-clearer picture of the great sculptor of neo-classicism, his works and his network.

The extensive publication on the Internet will provide scholars and laymen throughout the world with material, and in the future everyone will be able to argue and discuss on the basis of the source material and to draw their own conclusions. It is our hope and belief that the overwhelming amount of documents and wide range of topics within the material will form the basis for future research in and around Thorvaldsen and his time.

The Contents of The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives is a documentation centre on Bertel Thorvaldsen and his art. The Archives can potentially hold any form of written source material relating to the sculptor.
The collection of letters that were found and passed to the museum by Thiele constitute the nucleus in the just over 8000 documents in The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives. Original letters have, however, as mentioned above, later been added to the Archives through donations and purchases from other archives, private collectors, family connections to Thorvaldsen himself etc. In addition there are in the Archives and in its related documents a large number of transcriptions or copies of documents, the originals of which are not in the museum.

Apart from the letters that Thorvaldsen himself received and dispatched, the digitalised Archives also contain the artist’s diary, draft letters, contracts, visiting cards, receipts, invitations, accounts, writing exercises, pen tests, instructions, permissions, travel documents, identity papers, diplomas, documents relating to the award of honours and medals, lists of artworks, poems and songs in praise of Thorvaldsen and various lists and calculations as well as letters from and to others about Thorvaldsen. Also articles and printed texts dating from the time of the artist are part of The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives.

Contents of The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives, May 2013:

Type of Document Total Amount
Total amount of documents 8.148
- Of these, from Thorvaldsen (drafts inclusive) 732
- Of these, to Thorvaldsen 5.662
- Of these, letters to and from others about Thorvaldsen 1.754
Correspondents apart from Thorvaldsen 2.571
Nationalities represented
Most people are Danish or come from Italian and German states of that time. In addition, the following present countries are represented: Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Sweden, Hungary, United States
Documents in Italian 3.197
Documents in Danish 2.943
Documents in German 1.305
Documents in French 612
Documents in English 82
Documents in Latin 11
Documents in Swedish 8
Documents in Icelandic, Greek, Dutch and Portuguese, each 1
Documents with added facsimiles 7.011

As for the provenance of the documents, the necessary systematic examination of the museum’s record of acquisitions is not yet complete. A study carried out in 2001 by Jens Keld indicates that since the 1850s 194 documents or transcriptions of documents from Thorvaldsen have been incorporated, 161 of which were unknown to Thiele.

Thiele says of the discovery of letters that in addition to the loose sheets from the travel journal there were several hundred letters in various languages, a number of contracts, a host of drafts written by Thorvaldsen (partly written on letters relating to them) and a large number of drawings, which were often done on the backs of letters and often torn up (Thiele I, p. XIII). In addition to this, he says that he gathered all smaller scraps of paper from the dusty floor in the apartment (ibid. p. V). Thiele’s transcriptions amount to a minimum of 2015 true letters and drafts (see note 24 in the article), whereas he apparently only exceptionally listed other types of document such as bills and receipts. Thiele’s discoveries thus account for at least ¼ of the present total amount of documents in The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives.

Post Scriptum

The quite laborious examination of the demanding history of the letter archives above has, in addition to determining the actual chronology had the objective of throwing light on how difficult the conditions are for museums and collections when it comes to such an extensive research project in their own collections. The current work in the museum of registering, collecting, exhibitions, lectures, administration and the task of drawing attention to one’s own institution in the competition for funds means that it is impossible without huge extra financial contributions to devote time and professional resources to something as fundamental as a scientific examination and preferably a public demonstration of the wealth of materials in the museums.

It is often necessary to be content with examining that small part that is of immediate interest in relation to a coming exhibition or article. As it is rarely possible to have a detailed knowledge of the entire collection it is necessary each time in part to start from the beginning and search for the specific subject which is intended to be examined. By collecting material, it is possible to list the most important elements, but often by no means in detail, and in no way examined and compared in detail with all the other materials in the collection.

It is inevitable that important elements will be overlooked that only come into view in a systematic study. Each time, such a comprehensive task comes to grief because of a lack of financial resources, as there is no room for that kind of research in the normal annual budget. So the money for the work must be sought from private foundations, though the above historical account demonstrates as clearly as possible how difficult this can be.

So Thorvaldsens Museum is truly in a happy position as a result of the grants, especially those from the Velux Foundation, that now make possible this special and rare undertaking, which ought to become the norm in all museums.


For references, please see the article’s individual explanatory notes.

Works referred to

B421 A899

Last updated 06.03.2023