The Comte de Caylus Back

Beyond the valuable contribution that Comte de Caylus – Recueil d’Antiquités, 1752-1767 makes to studies of eighteenth-century archaeology and art history, this site is also a welcome addition to the digital projects currently proliferating in the wider field of eighteenth-century studies. Digital technologies and online platforms offer exciting new ways of approaching research and communicating findings, but there is always the risk of technology becoming a novelty rather than a method, a novelty moreover that overwhelms or (even worse) becomes a substitute for scholarly content. Not so with Comte de Caylus. Unlike some of the vast and wide-ranging online resources in the humanities, Comte de Caylus does not suffer from the effort of being all things to all people, instead offering a focused study of achievable scope: an in-depth look at a man and his magnum opus. The goals are clear, the technology well-used, and the results effective.

Describing itself as a digitised and annotated edition of Caylus’ Recueil d’Antiquités Égyptiennes, Étrusques, Grecques, Romaines et Galouises (1752-1767), this in fact underplays its scope and achievement. Bringing together substantial biographical, bibliographical, archival, and object research, the site offers a repository of scholarly essays, digitised documents, and an object database, composed and compiled through the collaborative efforts of a team of researchers organised by the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Anthropologie et Histoire des Mondes Antiques (ANHIMA), and the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA).

The focus of the project is the ambitious seven volume Recueil d’Antiquités (1752-1767) written by Anne Claude de Tubières-Grimoard de Pestels de Lévis (1692-1765), better known as the comte de Caylus. A scholar, collector, amateur engraver, and important member of learned societies such as the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Caylus was known as much for his biting wit as for his erudition. A prolific author of essays, Caylus’ major work, however, was the Recueil d’Antiquités: a rigorous and methodical approach to the study of antiquities attempting the scientific classification of objects. In addition to elucidating Caylus’ approach and providing access to this major work and the objects it contained, the main intention of the Comte de Caylus site is to re-evaluate the contributions of Caylus as a scholar of antiquity. While Caylus’ contemporary, Johann-Joachim Winckelmann, is renowned for his forays as an early antiquarian and is recognised as a founding-father of what would later become the discipline of archaeology, history has been less accommodating of Caylus. This unfortunate and unwarranted legacy is challenged here in the essays that re-appraise Caylus’ work, while evidence of his contribution is presented for the user’s own appraisal in the sources made accessible through the site.

In terms of its structure, the site is composed of three main sections, clearly indicated on the homepage via the three hyperlinked images occupying the screen. The first is a bio-bibliographic section on Caylus and his writings. This section provides the user with background, primarily in the biographical essay written by Irène Aghion (conservateur en chef, départment des Monnaies, médailles et antiques, BnF). There are also two useful bibliographies, exhaustively composed and generously made available to scholars as downloadable documents: one is a bibliography of Caylus’ writings relating to art and archaeology; and the other a bibliography of essays and books written about Caylus (from the eighteenth century to today). The second section grants access to the Recueil itself, which has been digistised and made available by the INHA. Accompanying the Recueil is a contextualising essay by Alain Schapp (professeur d’archéologie grecque, Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne), discussing the history of the text and the role of Caylus’ method in forming the nascent field of archaeology, and also another useful bibliography, this one itemising all the texts that Caylus himself references in the Recueil. The third section is the database, which allows the user to search for objects from the Recueil and to trace their histories by finding where they are located today and what subsequent works have been written about them. The advanced search form (with 14 separate fields) might be a little intimidating to the non-specialist user, but the simple search option presumes less knowledge and even quite general search terms yield interesting results to browse for those who do not come with a specific target. There is also a comprehensive user’s guide to aid navigation and an excursus on objects about which Caylus wrote essays for the Académie des Inscriptions, which might provide a Caylus-novice with some ideas for possible searches.

On the whole, the site is excellently conceived and full of useful resources that will be of value to (French-speaking) researchers, curators, and students of archaeology, art history, and early modern French history. There are two things, however, that I would suggest as improvements or enhancements, one to make the site more user-friendly, and the other to increase its standing from ‘online resource’ to ‘scholarly contribution to the field’ (or better still, to help erode the distinction between these categories). For ease of navigation, it would assist the user to have a very brief explanation at the top of each sub-section that highlights its content or function. This would help new users explore the site and also clarify some of the ambiguities such as the difference between the various bibliographies. Finally, the site should provide a clear form for citation, particularly for the scholarly essays (which give only the author’s name). Clear forms for citation would signal the intent of the site to provide authoritative resources, and might also encourage more academics to collaborate in online projects and to contribute research to forums of this kind, when it is clear that the products of their academic labour are being encountered as original scholarship, rather than anonymous general information. Overall, however, Comte de Caylus is an example of a successful digital resource: an original contribution to scholarship that also provides an interactive space encouraging users to make discoveries of their own.