The Ca’ Capello Layard and its art collection:
a forgotten Anglo-Venetian treasure house
of the late nineteenth-century
In 1896, The Magazine of Art gave an account of the
“admirable collection of pictures” that the celebrated
archaeologist and diplomat Sir Austen Henry Layard
(1817-1894) had gathered at Ca’ Capello, Venice, and
“which, thanks to his generosity, [were] eventually
to become the property of the [British] nation”.1 In
that same year, the Gazette des Beaux Arts published
an extensive article by Gustavo Frizzoni, one of the
most distinguished pupils of the art critic Giovanni
Morelli, on “La Galerie Layard”.2 Towards the end
of the nineteenth-century, the collection achieved
international fame not only for its valuable content, but
also for the promotional policies of its creator. Although
the Layard Gallery and its home enjoyed a rather short
life – Ca’ Capello was sold in 1917 and subsequently
underwent radical renovations – between 1880 and
1912 both the palace and the collection became one of
the important sites of Venice and were widely known
throughout Europe. In addition to extending loans of
works to British exhibitions, the Layard collection also
gained fame through mentions in popular handbooks,
such as Der Cicerone, Baedeker’s guide, and Kugler’s
Handbook of Painting, as well as references to individual
pictures within articles, monographs, and essays. No
doubt Layard’s relish for extensive and increasingly
better-quality photographic illustrations fostered the
study and increased public awareness of his paintings.
Fig. 1 / Joseph E. Boehm,
Bust of A. H. Layard, 1890,
marble, 81.4 x 58.7 cm,
London, British Museum
(inv. 1891,0613.27).
The purpose of the present article is to investigate
the strategies devised by Layard in order to promote
his Old Masters, and his reasons for doing so. The
analysis will focus on the reception of the collection
among contemporary audiences, as well as the diverse
modes of access to Ca’ Capello Layard, either in
reality (as recorded by the visitor book and private
correspondence) or virtually (i.e. publications and
illustrations). Drawing on published and unpublished
archival sources, new evidence will be presented from
the Layards’ private papers, along with the descriptions
and visual records relating to the collection.
Sir Austen Henry Layard is remembered today
principally as the archaeologist who excavated Nimrud
and Nineveh. His activities as an art collector are less
well known and a brief summary of his biography and
collecting career seems appropriate within the context
of the present article (fig. 1). He was born in Paris in
1817 to expatriates of Huguenot origins. Peter, his
father, had served as a civil servant in Ceylon until his
ill-health compelled him to return to the Continent;
Marianne, his mother, was a Spaniard, daughter of a
banker in Ramsgate. At the time of Henry’s birth, they
were in Paris heading south towards Tuscany, where
they would reside for almost a decade, before moving to
Switzerland, France, and finally England. Admittedly,
these years travelling around Europe allowed the young
Henry to expand his education and acquire a certain
worldview. As Jonathan Parry has pointed out: “Layard
grew up a Romantic, desperate for fame and exotic
experiences, and contemptuous of English professional
mores”.3 In 1862, soon after his long sojourn in the
Middle East, during which he discovered Nineveh
and Babylon, Henry returned to London, where he
entered politics and eventually served as Minister


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