Priceless treasures collected by the founder of West Norfolk’s Holkham Hall are heading back to Italy for a major new exhibition.
The extraordinary collection of art and literature was amassed by Thomas Coke during his Grand Tour of the country some 300 years ago – and then he built Holkham Hall to display it.
Now part of the collection of the 1st Earl of Leicester is being loaned to the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e dell a Città di Cortona (MAEC) in Tuscany for Holkham’s largest international collaboration since the 18th century.
The historical artefacts, which reveal the nobleman’s passion for Italian art and fascination with ancient civilisations, include a 17th century manuscript and classical sculptures, as well as paintings, prints and drawings.
One of the focuses of the exhibition will be a series of objects which highlight Coke’s pivotal role in widening the understanding of the ancient pre-Roman civilisation of the Etruscans.
In 1719, he purchased an unpublished manuscript called De Etruria Regali, a monumental history of the Etruscan people written 100 years earlier by Scottish academic Thomas Dempster.
Four years later, Coke set about publishing it, and added a substantial volume of illustrations to the printed edition.
It was the first time a work of ancient history was based on the evidence of surviving objects rather than on written sources – paving the way for modern archaeology.
The importance of Coke’s role in the publication was only fully understood in 2007 when Dr Suzanne Reynolds, curator of manuscripts and printed books at the estate, discovered an accounts ledger which detailed payments to artists and engravers.
The exhibition will also feature some original drawings and copper plates for the illustrations, which were found in Holkham Hall’s attics by the 5th Earl of Leicester in 1964.
Dr Reynolds said: “It is a landmark publication because, rather than just writing history based on the works of other historians, it sought out artefacts from ancient history and incorporates them.
“Finding these accounts was the key to unlocking how it all fits together – who the artists were, how much Thomas Coke spent, and how involved he was in the process. When he decided to publish this book, he was thinking of a shared history and a shared culture across borders. That is what we are doing again with this new collaboration across borders.”
The exhibition runs from March 21 until July 31, and will also include exhibits from the Uffizi museums in Florence, the Vatican Museums, and the British Museum in London.