Archaeology / Discussion

Women and the History of Classical Archaeology #2: Elizabeth Cavendish

Here’s the second in my series on women in the history of classical archaeology:

A Duchess and Her Column: Elizabeth Cavendish (1759-1824).

Portrait of Elizabeth Cavendish

I’ve spent many happy hours reading Victorian guidebooks to Rome. They formed the core evidence for a big chunk of my master’s thesis. If you need to know the correct protocol for paying a visit to Pope Pius IX, and to King Victor Emmanuel II and Queen Margherita (namesake, by the way, of the margherita pizza…) , at a time when the new monarchy of Italy and the papacy were at loggerheads, look no further than Murray’s Guide to Rome and its Environs. Similarly, if you want to know where the British expats’ Hunt set out from, or the best places to find antiquities dealers…. In particular I have been most interested in how these travel writers describe the ongoing excavations of the Roman Forum, which really began in earnest after the government of united Italy took possession of Rome in 1870. An intriguing figure recurs in the writers’ accounts of the site: the Duchess of Devonshire, Elizabeth Cavendish, second wife of the 5th Duke to be precise.

To read Augustus Hare’s Walks in Rome you would be forgiven for believing that Her Grace had excavated large parts of the Forum singlehandedly before the Italians even arrived (disregarding the work of the French occupiers at the beginning of the 19th century, and intermittent investigation carried out by the pope’s antiquarians):

‘The excavations made in the Forum before 1876,’ he writes (in the 1896 edition), ‘were for the most part due to the generosity of Elizabeth, Duchess of Devonshire.’

The Column of Phocas

The Column of Phocas was dedicated to the (Eastern) Emperor Phocas in 608 AD, making it the Forum's last Roman monument.

Let’s get this straight. The Duchess funded the excavation of the base of the Column of Phocas. She was not responsible for the majority of work ‘made in the Form before 1876.’  Murray, too, while he passes over the Arch of Titus without even mentioning its spectacular restoration by Stern and Valadier, conscientiously informs the reader that ‘The solitary column, called by Lord Byron “the nameless column with a buried base,” was excavated to its base in 1813, at the expense of the Duchess of Devonshire.’ At the time the Column of Phocas, the only column still standing from antiquity, was a prominent monument in the still only partly excavated Forum. But still Elizabeth acquired an immortality in the British guidebooks out of proportion to her enterprise, which was essentially to leave the Column standing in a trench.

Before we simply attribute this to the perennial British interest in the aristocracy that has propelled Downton Abbey to further rose-tinted excesses (and who wasn’t happy at the outcome of the Christmas Special??) perhaps we should step back from the excavations. Elizabeth, when she wasn’t corresponding with the author Madame de Stael and funding treasure hunts in Rome, was a glamorous and somewhat scandalous figure. You might have seen the film The Duchess (I haven’t, so comments welcome…) in which Keira Knightley plays Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Elizabeth’s best friend, who lived in a ménage-a-troi with Elizabeth and Ralph Fiennes, the 5th Duke. After Georgiana’s death, Elizabeth tied up loose ends by marrying the Duke.  It’s understandable that Augustus Hare (an inveterate snob, just read his books) in particular wished to invoke, and was rather in love with, the spirit of such a well-known figure. It was important for his British readers to know that, as they visited the Forum, they were walking in rarefied footsteps, not just of the ancient Romans, but of British visitors before them.

It was the same cultural movement, after all, that both propelled Elizabeth to the antiquarian scene in Rome, and prompted the large numbers of less aristocratic tourists and their guidebooks to follow some fifty or so years later. By the mid-19th century the Grand Tour might be open to a much greater section of the British public, but Classical culture and European travel were still hot stuff.

An engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, showing the still unexcavated Column of Phocas and Arch of Septimius Severus

Mid 18th-century engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi: the Column of Phocas' base is still unexcavated, and the Arch of Septimius Severus is half buried.

So far, so cynical: the standard tale about the early days of archaeology: titled amateur pays for a few labourers and carries off the kudos (and the spoils…). But I don’t think we should be too dismissive of Elizabeth’s contribution. She was (as far as I am aware) the only female Briton to take a prominent role in Roman archaeology at such an early time. The Forum in her day was still known as Campo Vaccino, where herdsmen took their cows to graze, and the big monuments like the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Column stood half buried in the debris of centuries. Her efforts, along with those of the French antiquarians who had come south with Napoleon, helped to uncover parts of the Roman site for the first time, and prompted interest in the site across Europe.

Next time: Sophia Schliemann….


2 thoughts on “Women and the History of Classical Archaeology #2: Elizabeth Cavendish

  1. So you would say that her importance and impact was more cultural than archaeological? I’m intrigued by your last paragraph; does her importance as a role model make up for being overegged as a patron of the digging arts?

  2. Pingback: Two Years of Res Gerendae | res gerendae

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