Afterlife of Antiquarianism

The leading question here is whether antiquarianism ever goes away. I do not mean in the narrow sense of connoisseur, antiques-dealer, or devotee of aura. I mean, stricto sensu, the antiquarian à la Peiresc: the person for whom material evidence, alongside of textual evidence, can take us to otherwise inaccessible places.

With the marginalization, if not the “defeat,” of antiquarianism by narrative and then disciplinary history, the longing must be satisfied elsewhere. Like water that seeks its level, if forced out of reputable history departments, antiquarianism goes to disreputable places. The obvious ones, which correspond to the stereotype, are libraries, archives, gymnasia, and shops where as librarians, archivists, school-masters and dealers, those so touched can continue their auratic worship. However, this standard story has ignored the possibility of displacement into other, reputable but not historical, domains.

In this project, a series of essays focusing on individuals, from 1750 to the present, will illuminate the ways in which this process works, and how many well-known visual and literary documents actually maintain the momentum of the antiquarian. The role of imagination, always essential in the act of scholarly reconstruction, becomes even more powerful when liberated from the explicit constraint of reference. In this project I begin in in the eighteenth century, rightly the "Age of Antiquaries" as described by Momigliano, but also a time when different ways of explicating antiquity began to compete successfully with antiquarianism. At the same time, what Momigliano was referring to was the greater socialization of antiquities. This is something Mark Phillips has picked up and connected with the change in reading public and genres in eighteenth-century Britain. With this new public, it is imagination rather than erudition that will most compel. I have examined this process already beginning with Piranesi and continuing into the early twentieth century with Benjamin and illustrated in projects like the Oyneg Shabbes archive. And it continues to our own day in the work of David Macaulay and W.G. Sebald and will surely continue for as long as people reflect on the nature of time and their relationship to it.

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