The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

The first material of art. The Campana reliefs in the collections of Thorvaldsens Museum

  • Kristine Bøggild Johannsen,, 2008
  • This is a re-publication of the article: Kristine Bøggild Johannsen:

    ‘“The first material of art.” The Campana reliefs in the collections of Thorvaldsens Museum’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 2008, p. 122-142.

    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.


“The first material of art.”
The Campana reliefs in the collections of Thorvaldsens Museum

In Bertel Thorvaldsen’s (1770-1844) collection of antiquities, there are 66 Roman architectonic terracotta reliefs. They are generally known as Campana reliefs after the Italian banker and art collector Giovanni Pietro Campana (1808-1880), who in 1842 published the first monograph on this group of artefacts. Campana’s work marked the culmination of the remarkable interest in the study of antique terracottas – and in particular Campanareliefs, which from the middle of the 18th century could be found among a small circle of antiquarians, art collectors and artists. This development can be explained partly as a feature of the general interest of that time in the art and culture of Antiquity, and partly as the result of the discussion taking place in those days on the genesis of art, in which it was believed that the modelled clay sketch contained a glimpse of the artist’s genius at the moment of creation. These two aspects seem to be united in the ancient terracotta reliefs, which the leading specialists in antiquities, including the German archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) praised as “the first material of art”. The examinations of the Campana reliefs in Thorvaldsen’s collection of antiquities can play its part in throwing light on many aspects of that period’s reception of this group of artefacts, not least the practice of exhibiting and collecting, but also on the significance of the reliefs as formal, iconographie and technical sources of inspiration to the artist. At the same time, the study of the reliefs provides us with a new insight into the hitherto unknown function of the group of artefacts as models for Thorvaldsens Museum’s architect, Michael Gottlieb Bindesbøll (1800-1856). We can thus observe how Bindesbøll in at least three instances used plates from Campana’s publication as patterns for motifs in parts of the Museum’s ceiling decoration. Perhaps – as is the case with the incorporation of Greek vases in the Museum’s decorative programme – we should see the reference to the Campana Reliefs as a nod in the direction of Thorvaldsen’s activity as a collector, a reference to the omnipresent inheritance from Antiquity and last, but by no means least, as homage to the idea of the artistic creative process and genius preserved in the clay, “the first material of art”.

Last updated 11.05.2017