Baron d'Hancarville

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How to get a child interested in a collection of old Greek vases ?

What is the best way to share the cultural wealth of a collection of Greek antiques ? The question is not new. The new Trojan War app aims to add to the debate.

When Pierre-Francois Hugues d'Hancarville published his edition of the "Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiques from the cabinet of Sir William Hamilton" in 1766, the coloured plates, printed using a special process, made a great impression internationally. These engravings, reproducing the artwork adorning the Greek vases of Sir Hamilton, had global reach. The beauty of the works of the classical painters found a new medium at the same time broadened its artistic reach.

Was Sir William Hamilton a diplomat, a scholar, and a Gentleman with impeccable manners ? Or was he an illegal dealer of artworks, exporting national treasures and a tomb raider ? In either case, he was a visionary. Taking advantage of his position as ambassador of the British Empire to the Bourbon Court of Naples, he was able to accumulate a vast collection of antique vases, marking the beginning of modern archaeology. Like Sir Elgin buying the friezes of the Parthenon from the Turks occupying Greece, Sir William Hamilton outsmarted local authorities, at a time when the real value of classical antiques was not yet conceivable.

He approached a colourful character : the self-proclaimed Baron d'Hancarville. Son of a draper, d'Hancarville had joined the military before trying his luck in the courts of Europe as a cosmopolitan scholar. Almost always fleeing from his creditors, he arrived in Naples after crossing most of Europe. According to one biography, "Endowed with the charm of a gentleman and a great eloquence, he always aims to attract the favour of influential patrons and to drag them into projects as excessive as expensive : an adventurer as well as a passionate gambler who nourished the ambition of being considered as one of the greatest antique dealers of his time."* D'Hancarville was chosen by Hamilton to lead the publishing of prints his collection of vases. Ultimately, the project would swallow grotesque sums of money and suffer considerable delays; the printing plates of the last volumes were even seized by d'Hancarville's creditors.

The British Museum acquired the majority of the collection. This started the transformation of the British Museum, in its infancy more oriented towards books and manuscripts, into a great art museum, as we know it today. The exhibition of those vases to a large public has allowed these classic works of art to play their role as a foundation, taking a prime spot in art history. These illustrations have played a major role in artistic creation, influencing many artists to this day. They are the "useful arts monuments to the progress of art" that d'Hancarville spoke about.

With significantly less drama, the Trojan War app is now out on the app store. Now, after the coloured prints of d'Hancarville and the exhibition hall of the British Museum, there is an other way to enjoy ancient Greek vases.

Modern tablets allow us to consider yet an-other medium to spread the aura of the classical age. The mythological story is illustrated by representations of epic poetry that adorn those ancient vases. The advantage of the tablet is its ability to present interactive content. This allows to tackle a number of challenges that may arise in the telling of a classical age story. For example, they can feature a confusing flurry of characters : it is sometimes difficult to track the high number of characters. The multimedia content of a tablet can help identify the characters easily : just touching the screen reveals the character's name.

For a child, the showrooms of the British Museum can be a bit daunting. The objects are sitting behind glass cases and cannot be touched or manipulated. The app is designed to complement a museum visit by allowing the child to play with the vases at will. Reading becomes active, stimulating and playful. The app is more an animated book than a game, but it is meant to be lively. Character animations can also help sparking even more life to our story.


* from "Pierre-François Hugues D'Hancarville" by Madeleine Gisler-Huwiler, and Sebastian Schutze