Research / Blogs

The Great Custodian


A brief synopsis of a new book manuscript that originated unexpectedly from archival work in Bologna. This research is being generously supported by a MacDonald fellowship of Columbia University.

Last June 2014, I traveled to Bologna as a MacDonald Fellow of Columbia University. My initial research project entitled “Constructing a Universal Antiquity from Bologna. Texts and Objects (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries)” was imagined as the final chapter of the book I am presently completing —A New Antiquity. Art and Humanity as Universal (1400-1600). That final chapter is devoted to substantially review the role that objects coming from the Iberian Worlds played in the  early modern (so-called) Cabinets of Curiosities. I planned to study in depth the specific case of Ferdinando Cospi’s (1606-1686) museum, and in particular the complex intersection between the gathering of the most diverse artifacts and species coming from the four parts of the world, the observation of regional antiquities, and the creation of the highest-level local art history, through both collecting and writing.

A few days after arriving in Bologna, however, I discovered an incredible mine of new visual and textual  documents related to Ferdinando Cospi and the custodian of his museum, Sebastiano Biavati. This unexpected archive triggered a series of historical and art historical hypotheses which are lending me to an autonomous book manuscript, entitled The Great Custodian. Bologna, Madrid, Europes, and the New Worlds of the XVIIth century.

Biavati and Cospi became, in fact, two ‘windows’ into a much broader history of the seventeenth century. This history, which addresses simultaneously cultural, geopolitical and specifically artistic questions, positions the local intellectual life of the collector and the custodian of his museum, within a heterogeneous European panorama of  political and artistic relationships—hence the term “Europes“ in the subtitle of the book— but also in the planetary scale of the artifacts —the “New Worlds“— looked after by Biavati.

Last Updated 3 years ago


  • Some of the themes further developed in the book The Great Custodian. Bologna, Madrid, Europes, and the New Worlds of the XVIIth century are also addressed in the following forthcoming publications:
  • Alessandra Russo, “Devenir Mundo. Maquinarias para una antigüedad universal », Machina-Medium-Apparatus. Invención, fantasia e intstrumentalización en la Nueva España, Anna More, Karla Jasso, ed., Universidad Iberoamericana/INBA, in press, 2014.
  • Alessandra Russo, “Felsina’s Two Phoenix: Universalizing Arts in Seventeenth-Century Bologna”, in The Discovery of the New World in Renaissance Italy, edited by Elizabeth Horodowich and Lia Markey, Cambridge University Press, in progress, 2016.
  • Alessandra Russo, “Lusitan Hero, a world collector’s saint”, in Global Republic of Sacred Things, edited by Christine Goettler and Mia Mochizuki, Brill, in progress, 2016.


Alessandra Russo, « The Great Custodian », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on November 20, 2014. Full URL for this article

Join the conversation