The Ca’ Capello Layard and its art collection: a forgotten Anglo-Venetian treasure house of the late nineteenth-century
The Ca’ Capello Layard and its art collection: a forgotten Anglo-Venetian treasure house of the late nineteenth-century
illustrations, in your magazine L’Arte. Lady
Layard begs me now to ascertain whether
you are still intending to do this and to ask
how you would like to examine the paintings
and how long it would take. In addition, I
must ask you more precisely what fee you
would require for your work and the possible
expenses involved in the proposal to publish
one or two hundred copies of the magazine;
or to publish it separately. I think that Lady
Layard would prefer the first option, saving
money from a possibly useless expense.100
may have still been incomplete at the time of Lady
Enid’s death in 1912, but this is difficult to ascertain
fully as no surviving documents mention it after 1908.106
It becomes apparent that the original plan was to
publish the catalogue “in the Illustrated paper L’Arte”;101
however, in the letter of engagement dated 21 October
1906, Lady Layard asked for a separate catalogue.
set aside the idea of a catalogue until the issue had been
resolved with the assistance of the diplomatic corps.98
Meanwhile, in 1905, Lady Layard received another
offer from the Venetian publisher Rosen to publish the
catalogue, but she declined having “already promised to
let S[igno]r Venturi do it”.99 A few months later, Carlo
Malagola, then Director of the State Archive of Venice
and friend of both Lady Enid and Venturi, addressed
a letter to the scholar, in which he urged Venturi to
confirm his interest and set his conditions of engagement
on the cataloguing project of the Layard collection.
Fig. 16 / Gentile Bellini, The
Sultan Mehmet II, 1480, oil
(nineteenth-century repaint)
on canvas, perhaps transferred
from wood, 69.9 x 52.1 cm,
London, National Gallery.
Dear friend, one or two years ago, I wrote
to you on behalf of Lady Layard, asking
whether you would be interested in writing
the catalogue of her gallery. You agreed and
suggested publishing it, along with several
In reference to agreements made through
prof. Malagola, I am delighted to entrust you
with the task of writing the historical and
artistic catalogue of the Layard Collection,
which I own in Venice. I promise to pay
you It. Lire 1300. It is agreed that I will be
entitled to all of the rights of the manuscript
and of its translation in any foreign language,
and that I will retain the right to have it
printed and published with the appropriate
illustrations in one or more editions. It is
also agreed that the manuscript should be
delivered ready for printing within the month
of December 1907. I am sure that you will do
what is worthy of your name.102
In spite of these precise agreements, Venturi started
late on the task, and it was not until September 1907
that he visited Ca’ Capello Layard. On that occasion,
he spent a whole “week working at the text of the
catalogue of Henry’s collection of pictures w[hic]h I
am going to publish”,103 as Lady Enid proudly reported
in her journal. Six months later the project was still
in abeyance. Venturi “was getting on slowly with the
catalogue of my pictures & would come again to Venice
in the summer to put the finishing touches”.104 In
fact, the scholar was besieged by many commitments,
including university teaching, the catalogue of Giulio
Sterbini’s collection, and, above all, the colossal
enterprise of the Storia dell’Arte Italiana.105 The project
Fig. 17 / Cesare Augusto
Levi, Le collezioni
veneziane d’arte e
d’antichità dal XIV secolo
ai giorni nostri 2 vols.
(Venice: Ongania, 1900),
As it turned out, Venturi published an extensive article
on the formation of the Layard collection in the last
issue of LArte in 1912, which subsequently appeared
as an offprint.107 The essay marked the beginning of
the crucial debate on whether, and how, to apply the
new legislation on the exportation (no. 364/1909) of a
collection that had already travelled around Europe
– even if without any license – and had returned to
Italy only by chance.108 Although Venturi stated that
the exportation of the Layard collection was a legal
matter which did not concern him, there are hints
which suggest that his neutral stance did not reflect his
private feelings. His main focus in the catalogue was
to provide details on the paintings’ provenance and
an accurate selection of photographs, most of them
previously unpublished. Yet, in his conclusion, Venturi
went on to complain about the wretched state of things
in Italy, undoubtedly referring to the reproachable
practice of favouring foreigners in the purchase of
Italian artworks, as Morelli did, and hoping that the
new legislation would prevent further dispersing the
national heritage abroad.109
In the growing advertising era of magazines and
photographs, the collection received extensive and
positive coverage from influential specialist art
magazines, as well as from newspapers, testifying to
Henry Layard’s public recognition as collector and
benefactor. A close examination of the articles and
references to the collection published between 1871
and 1912 shows that Ca’ Capello and its contents were
considered a visitor attraction in their own right. The
principal highlights were the Portrait of the Sultan by
Gentile Bellini (NG3099, fig. 16), the Portrait of a Man
variously attributed to Antonello or Alvise Vivarini
(NG3121), as well the works by Carpaccio (NG3085,
see fig. 3), Luini (NG3090), Moretto (NG3095, see fig,
14; NG3096), Moroni (NG3123, NG3124, NG3128,
NG3129, see figs. 7 & 8), Previtali (NG3087), Savoldo
(NG3092, see fig. 6), Cosmé Tura (NG3070, see figs.
4 & 5), Raffaellino del Garbo (NG3101), and the
supposed Sebastiano del Piombo (NG3084). Only a
handful of articles mentioned the paintings of nonItalian masters and even rarer were those relating to the
decorative arts, whose records appear only in Cesare
Augusto Levi (fig. 17) and Alfredo Melani’s accounts.110
The main concern of the articles published in early
twentieth century, both in England and Italy, was the
exportation issue of Italian paintings.111 The litigation
had sparked off a fierce debate primarily in the Italian
Parliament and the National Gallery Board. After
lengthy discussions and, ultimately largely for political
reasons, the collection was authorized to leave Italy, as
an act of grace, and in 1917 the pictures were displayed
in the main rooms of the National Gallery.
Paradoxically, a complete overview of the composition
and richness of the Layard collection can only be
gained from the catalogues compiled after its dispersal,
when it passed through the salerooms or ended up in
museums. As a matter of fact, at Lady Layard’s death,
the remainder of the collection was immediately sold
and scattered across the world. According to the terms of
her will, Ca’ Capello and all its contents, except for a few
things, were bequeathed to her niece Olivia Blanche Du
Cane.112 The latter, upon taking possession of the palace,
soon tried to get rid of it, being apparently in financial
straits, and auctioned almost the entirety of its contents.
The Moorish plates were the first nucleus to be sold
at Christie’s in 1918.113 The most extensive sale,


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