The Not So Small Collection of Avignon’s Petit Palais: the Paintings

…continued from Part One

Once you have explored the sculpture of the Petit Palais, you move swiftly on to a collection of Italian paintings.  The collection itself has an interesting history.  Many of the paintings on show were part of the so-called Campana collection.  You also get to see snippets of the decoration of the original building – but sadly there’s not much around.

Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

However, I must tell the story of this collection.  Giampietro Campana was born into a respected Roman family, and he went on to work at the Monte di Pietà, a papal charitable trust that operated as a pawnbroker in Rome.  Within three years he made it from assistant to director general – two years later, in 1835, he was made a cavaliere of the Order of the Golden Spur by Pope Gregory XVI in gratitude for the loans that the Monte di Pietà had made to the Vatican.

But Campana’s great passion was antiquities.  As well as being a collector, he undertook archaeological excavations in Rome and Ostia, among other places.  He was very active and widely respected for his committed and energetic work, and he helped to interest the academic world in the hitherto neglected area of moulded terracotta tiles.

Campana’s collection became so popular as to warrant a visit by the new Pope, Pius IX, in 1846, which helped seal both his status and that of his collection.  Unsurprisingly he was inspired to create a more diverse museum, and to his collection of antiquities he added sculptures, majolica ware, jewellery and paintings.  Unlike his most of his contemporaries, he was interested in the so-called ‘primitive’ Italian paintings of the 14th/15th centuries, and managed to assemble a notable collection.  One of the paintings he bought from the sale of Cardinal Fesch in Rome in 1845 was La Sainte Conversation by Vittore Carpaccio – now on view at the Petit Palais.

Despite being only open once a week – and to those wielding a letter of introduction – Blewett’s Handbook for travellers in central Italy (London, 1856) stated that “the Campana Museum is in many respects superior to the Museo Gregoriano at the Vatican”.  Blewett goes on to wax lyrical about the ancient gold jewellery on show, the Etruscan vases, the bronze works… and certainly it was an exceptionally fine collection.  Campana published a catalogue which he divided into 12 sections: vases, bronzes, jewellery and coins, terracottas, glass, Etruscan, Greek and Roman paintings, Greek and Roman sculpture, Italian paintings from the Byzantine era to Raphael, Italian paintings from 1500-1700, Italian majolica of the 15th/16th centuries, majolica by Luca della Robbia and his contemporaries, and finally a section on Etruscan and Roman curiosities.  No wonder it was seen as a rival to the Gregoriano.

Unfortunately, Mr Campana was not a very honest man.  He was involved in some corrupt practices and he was arrested in 1857 and convicted of embezzlement.  His trial was quite an affair, and he was sentenced to 20 years in the galleys.  Thanks to his wife, who was friends with Napoleon III, he managed to have this commuted to exile.

The collection was taken over by the Vatican and promptly put up for sale.  The Victoria and Albert museum took some Renaissance sculptures and majolica, the Russians bought a mixed bag of 467 pieces and Napoleon III purchased the remaining collections as a whole: 11,835 items for 4,800,000 francs.

The collection was, it was announced, going to the Louvre Museum.  But, there was no room at that inn, so it was installed at the Palais de l’Industrie instead.  In 1862 the Napoleon III Museum opened with great success.  A commission was called in to select which of the works would then move on to the Louvre.  Only 97 works were chosen.  This caused considerable controversy at the time and inspired many artists to get involved in a public fight in the press.  One eloquent contribution was made by Delacroix:

I do not need to notice the pain felt by all the artists at the news of the changes that were proposed to be made to the Napoleon III Museum.  This collection, famous throughout Europe, was for us all, from its start, a subject of admiration […] and the thought of reducing it, under the pretext of removing the secondary pieces, was quite contrary to the evident intention of its founder […] The interesting collection of Italian paintings […] has been, in my opinion, superficially judged, and, for the most part, condemned by persons who have not sufficiently realized its relative importance and light it gives on the origins and progress in Italian schools. This instruction, which until now could not be found anywhere in Paris, results from the juxtaposition of the paintings and comparisons which naturally emerged from it. By breaking them up and sending them to various collections, a valuable collection will have been destroyed from this point of view, without substantially enriching the collections in which they have been lost.

From a letter from Eugene Delacroix to the secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Beulé, November 9, 1862, Journal des débats

Some minor concessions were made.  But basically the collection was shipped off to the provinces.

In 1976, 283 paintings that had been in Campana’s collection were placed in the Petit Palais, joining almost a hundred others which came from the Louvre and the Cluny museum, because they didn’t fit in.

Their loss is Avignon’s gain.  You can walk in the footsteps of Delacroix and admire these early Italian paintings, which are beautiful and still depressingly under-appreciated.

Crucifix fragment, 13th century, school of Berlinghieri, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Last Supper, 13th century, School of the Maitre de la Madeleine, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of The Last Supper, 13th century, School of the Maitre de la Madeleine, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of Jesus and St John in The Last Supper, 13th century, School of the Maitre de la Madeleine, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St Madeleine, 14th century, Memmi Family, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Virgin of Humility, the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, 14th century, Puccio di Simone, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of the Nativity, 14th century, Puccio di Simone, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Virgin in Majesty, second half of the 14th century, Francescuccio Ghissi, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of an angel from The Virgin in Majesty, second half of the 14th century, Francescuccio Ghissi, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Annunciation, 14th century, Taddeo di Bartolo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of The Annunciation, 14th century, Taddeo di Bartolo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St John the Baptist and St Madeleine, 14th century, Angelo Puccinelli, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Adoration of the Shepherds, 14th/15th century, Bartolo di Fredi, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of the eager doggie from The Adoration of the Shepherds, 14th/15th century, Bartolo di Fredi, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of the happy cow from The Adoration of the Shepherds, 14th/15th century, Bartolo di Fredi, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Pieta, 14th century, Maitre de la Pieta, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St John the Baptist, late 14th century/early 15th century, Paolo di Giovanni Fei, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Crucifixion, late 14th/early 15th century, Taddeo di Bartolo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of the Crucifixion, late 14th/early 15th century, Taddeo di Bartolo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Crucifixion, first quarter of the 15th century, Gregorio di Cecco, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of The Crucifixion, first quarter of the 15th century, Gregorio di Cecco, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The Assumption, 14th/15th century, Turino Vanni, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of the angels from The Assumption, 14th/15th century, Turino Vanni, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of Mary and Jesus from The Assumption, 14th/15th century, Turino Vanni, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Virgin and Child between St John the Baptist and St Michael, end of 14th century, Barnaba da Modena, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of St Michael from Virgin and Child between St John the Baptist and St Michael, end of 14th century, Barnaba da Modena, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of the donor from the Virgin and Child between St John the Baptist and St Michael, end of 14th century, Barnaba da Modena, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St Bartholomew, 14th century, Cecco di Pietro, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St Laurence in prison baptising his jailor Hippolyte, 15th century, att. Mariotto di Nardo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St Laurence distributing treasure to the poor and sick, 15th century, att. Mariotto di Nardo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Scene from the life of St Eloi, 14th/15th century, Niccolo di Pietro Gerini, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

The funeral of St Francis, late 14th/early 15th century, Bicci di Lorenzo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Scenes from the life of Christ, late 14th/early 15th century, Mariotto di Nardo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Scenes from the life of Christ, late 14th/early 15th century, Mariotto di Nardo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail from Scenes from the life of Christ, late 14th/early 15th century, Mariotto di Nardo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Virgin in Glory, late 14th/early 15th century, Mariotto di Nardo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of an angel from Virgin in Glory, late 14th/early 15th century, Mariotto di Nardo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of the Virgin in Glory, late 14th/early 15th century, Mariotto di Nardo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Young hunter with falcon, first half of 15th century, Master of the Judgement of Paris in the Bargello, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St Clement, 15th century, Giovanni di Paolo, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail from the Scenes from the story of Susanna, 15th century, Zanobi Strozzi, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St Michael dividing the souls, 15th/early 16th century, Biagio D’Antonio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of some souls being judged by St Michael, 15th/early 16th century, Biagio D’Antonio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

St Madeleine, 15th century, Benozzo Gozzoli, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Holy Conversation, c1505, Vittore Carpaccio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail from the Holy Conversation, c1505, Vittore Carpaccio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of the chatty toddler St John from the Holy Conversation, c1505, Vittore Carpaccio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail from the Holy Conversation, c1505, Vittore Carpaccio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of a precariously placed lodging, the Holy Conversation, c1505, Vittore Carpaccio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of a noble city from the Holy Conversation, c1505, Vittore Carpaccio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

Detail of monks from the Holy Conversation, c1505, Vittore Carpaccio, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon, France

So In Summary

Despite the fact that the museum had been raided for the exhibition by Christian Lacroix at the Pope’s Palace, I found the collection quite lovely to explore.  Yes, the museum suffers from the same problem as so many (underfunded?) French museums – the tags are exclusively in French and the display has quite a tired-feeling air – but the drawbacks are easy to ignore in a place where you find enough to look at and can enjoy the experience of seeing some truly wonderful works.  As a fan of this period of European art, I found plenty to look at and admire and I hope you’ll be able to do the same!

Further Information

It is free to enter the museum.

A formidable website exists, but only in French: www.petit-palais.org

How To Get There

The museum is a hop and a skip from the Pope’s Palace, and a fairly straightforward walk from the train station.  There is a website for the bus service which has information in English: www.tcra.fr

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