Hollow hands clasp ludicrous possessions because they are links in the chain of life. If it breaks, they are truly lost.
Ernest Dichter 1964.
In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart discusses the heirloom as a version of the souvenir. In her definition, the heirloom is an artifact whose value is not directly related to the possessor, but to the object’s history or provenance; the owner is in a vicarious position in terms of renown. One literary example of such an heirloom is the Hercules Epitrapezios owned by Novius Vindex, as described by Martial in Ep. IX.43 and IX.44. Inasmuch as a souvenir–as part of Roman domestic decoration in my research–can be an autobiographical touchstone, the heirloom packs an additional punch. The heirloom is evidence of longstanding family status, venerable ancestry, and because of its age (any heirloom must be at least a generation old) it might also play into a general appreciation for things that appear old (as per the patina system, described by Grant McCracken 1990). If the heirloom has a high intrinsic value, corresponding to the general unwritten rules of Roman collecting and domestic display, then the object has even more potency, permitting its owner to demonstrate knowledge of a variety of antiquarian and aesthetic concerns. Naturally Vindex’ Hercules was renown not only for its status as a work of art, but also for its authorship by Lysippos and its provenance, having once belonged to both Alexander the Great and Hannibal. The value of the statuette was therefore both intrinsic and acquired over time.
For those who inherit an heirloom, the cost of acquisition is time spent waiting: “‘Earning’ the collection simply involves waiting, creating the pauses that articulate the biography of the collector.” (Stewart 2007, 166). The patina of age and ancestry accrues and appreciates over the generations, falling in line with some typical Roman values–at least as far as we believe we understand generic antiquarian and genealogical concerns. Along with the heirloom itself, the owner inherits a sense of antiquarian good taste which could be valuable social currency to his clients and peers who see the heirloom in its domestic context. The heirloom is a “conversation starter,” permitting the owner to mention the ancestor(s) who passed the object down and thus he can present evidence of his solid family status through allusion. Naturally this is but one personal narrative which could be initiated by the heirloom; others concern formal aspects, subject matter, ideological symbolism, etc.
But what if one’s entire domestic collection is inherited? Does that undermine the display’s function as autobiography, since ancestors would be emphasized over the current patron? If every narrative relating to aspects of a domestic display can be connected to the status of the pieces as heirlooms, how might that raise or lower the owner’s reputation as a collector? I would guess that provided the owner has sufficient knowledge about the objects to be able to tell multiple narratives about the display, that he might maintain a certain level of social capital in his guests’ eyes.
This question of “the problem with heirlooms” came to mind as I am planning to move into a new house. I will have space for more furniture & other things than I have had in a while. My mother has graciously offered up pieces from our own family collection to help me make the house a home. I am happy to have the things, since they have aesthetic and personal value for me. But at the same time, I wonder how I will ever be able to develop my own personal style/taste if all of my domestic display is comprised primarily of heirlooms. This was likely less of a problem for Roman inheritors, since taste in domestic display was far more corporate than our own and the house was not a shrine to individuality as our modern houses frequently purport to be.
(This last issue seems somewhat ironic, given my interpretation of domestic decoration as autobiography. If you want to know more about it, you’ll just have to read the book when it comes out!)
And speaking of heirlooms & the patina system…