L’archeologo, il pittore e lo scrittore. Aubin-Louis Millin, Franz Ludwig Catel e Astolphe de Custine nel Regno di Napoli

Author: Gennaro Toscano

The Archaeologist, the Painter and the Writer. Aubin-Louis Millin, Franz Ludwig Catel and Astolphe De Custine in the Kingdom of Naples

The archaeologist Aubin-Louis Millin (1759-1818), the painter Franz Ludwig Catel (1778-1856) and the writer Astolphe de Custine (1790-1857), are three men from completely different generations, culture and training, who, for a few months, will share one of the most exciting experiences of their lives. I’m referring to their travel through the Kingdom of Naples during the spring and summer of 1812. Millin’s notes, Catel’s drawings and Custine’s writings about that mission truly represent the most dense and, artistically, the most fruitful chapter of their travel.
Millin stayed in Italy almost three years from 1811 to 1813. The purpose of the trip commissioned by the French Interior Minister, the Count of Montalivet, was to collect a vast amount of documentation (drawings, prints, books) that would be valuable for future publications, enrich the funds of the Bibliothèque nationale and also fuel their own courses in Art history. Without neglecting any Era, from the Antiquity to the Middle Ages and from the Renaissance to the Baroque, Millin took interest in all the artistic forms: from Architecture to Painting, from Sculpture to Decorative Arts and from Epigraphy to Costumes, therefore setting the monuments in their exact context and landscape.
On March 20th 1812, Millin left Rome to initiate this most desirable journey in the Kingdom of Naples, perhaps in the company of Catel. The archaeologist had prepared with great precision his exploration, as it can be inferred from his handwritten notes kept at the Arsenal (Paris, BnF). Millin had brought with him a considerable amount of books and geographic maps as well as multiple pieces of equipment necessary to carry out reliefs, casts and drawings.
As documented by the number of drawings, notes and letters, the long and articulated journey from Naples to Reggio Calabria became without a doubt the most intense artistic experience lived by the painter, the poet and the archaeologist during their stay in southern Italy. The numerous landscapes and views drawn by Catel.
Millin writes: «Sir Cavalier Millin who had completed a journey in Calabria and back to Naples after having visited that Province in every directions. He brings back a collection of drawings of the most picturesque sites, famous locations, unique costumes and the monuments that have survived the disasters of earthquakes and the devastation of various wars to which this beautiful region was the bloody theatre. Mr. Catel, Prussian artist and eminent landscape painter who had accompanied him, has executed those drawings».
The relationship between the young Custine and the ‘old’ archaeologist had not been easy. Custine’s letter from Reggio dated June 19th 1812, let us perfectly understand their difference of appreciation toward monuments or nature: «The journey was not convenient for Mr. Millin, who is only an archaeologist: to properly see this country, you need the eyes of a poet or of a painter. He doesn’t let me read what he writes, but I’m certain that his report is illegible».
In fact, Millin’s travel notes are almost illegible: the tone is dry, usually he makes quick observations, never in detail. However, as we personally retrace the itinerary of the journey in the Kingdom of Naples, as we read Millin’s notes and Custine’s letters and as we admire Catel’s drawings, these places that have so terribly suffered from natural disasters and the carelessness of men seem to regain a new light.