Luigi di Cesnola in Rogues Gallery by Michael Gross

One of the most colorful figures in New York society of the late 19th century  was Albert Rawson’s host for a seven week visit to Cyprus in 1874.   Luigi di Cesnola was appointed US consul in Cyprus in 1865, and while there he became interested in archaeological digs around the island.   According to his 1971 biography The Glitter and the Gold, he became “consul for three other nations, Greece, Russia, and one he never named.”(p. 89)   This involvement in diplomacy in the eastern Mediterranean places him in the milieu of several important figures associated with the Theosophical Society founders.   James Peebles was also a US consul in the Ottoman Empire during the same time period, while Raphael Borg was British vice-consul in Cairo and Richard F. Burton was British consul at Damascus.   In the next blog post I will discuss Greek involvement in the same milieu.

Rawson was invited to Cyprus to help catalog the finds, and his artistic work is still visible in the book published by Cesnola in 1877.  Before returning to America  Cesnola made efforts to sell the Cypriot antiquities to the Hermitage and Louvre museums.  But ultimately the collection would be sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Cesnola became its founding director when the museum opened in 1880.  The  Cyprus collection made him rich and famous, but later led to severe criticism that undermined his reputation and that of the Met.  Nonetheless he kept his job until his death in 1904, and defied his critics with full support from the Museum board. 

In Rogues Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals that Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Broadway Books, 2009), Michael Gross begins his narrative of the Met with a 43-page chapter on Cesnola, who is introduced as “an expatriate Italian, a minor aristocrat, and a soldier of fortune who’d survived the Austrian and Crimean wars, a passage by ship to New York, years in poverty, and a suicide attempt before distinguishing himself as a Union officer in the Civil War.”(p. 23)  Although he was neither a count nor a general, he claimed both titles and was widely known by the latter.  Having no training in archaeology, Cesnola’s methods of acquiring and restoring objects  were far from what are now professional standards.  Gross concludes of Cesnola that he is “remembered, if at all, as a cultural criminal who looted and pillaged and stole not just objects but an irreplaceable opportunity to learn about the past.”(p. 64)

Cesnola adopted Louis as a first name soon after reaching the United States, and as Louis di Cesnola he comes up with some interesting hits on Google.  No spiritual interests are mentioned explicitly, but the Garibaldian theme and links to Italian and Greek immigrant communities in New York are relevant to the early days of the TS in New York.  More on Cesnola is found on this website in an attractive format.  Albert Rawson claimed acquaintance with Garibaldi dating back to the 1850s, highly relevant as a point of common interest in that Cesnola had been closely associated with the the Italian leader.

On June 22, 1878, L’Opinione Nazionale of Florence published a letter from HPB in which she comments of Olcott that “our President, as representing the opnions of our Society, is taking a very prominent part with the Republicans of the Italian Colony in this our country in inaugurating a monument to Mazzini…The commission would like me to make an address in the Russian language; but with all the love and admiration that I avow for Mazzini I have had to refuse. “(BCW I:392)   TS founder Herbert C. Monachesi was a member of the Mazzini Commission presided over by Dr. G. Ceccarini.   The members of the Ionian TS in Corfu, the first branch outside New York, showed similar interest in the Mazzini celebrations in New York.  My next blog post will explore the Ionian TS as a factor in the establishment of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.