What Is an Inventory?

Francesca Cappelletti

An inventory is a legal document that lists the objects in a family’s home item by item, making it possible to estimate the value of an estate. In seventeenth-century Rome, inventories were generally drawn up during the process of settling an estate: the beneficiaries named in a decedent’s last will and testament would have a list of possessions compiled prior to distribution. Even if there was only a single heir, an inventory would be drawn up as stipulated in the deceased’s will. This task was entrusted to a notary, who might consult experts such as painters about the most valuable objects in an estate.

In Bologna, there was a guild of experts who appraised the objects in estates. In Rome, nothing similar seems to have existed, and notaries would consult individual artists to get a more precise idea of the value of certain objects. Understandably, artists who had been active in a particular palace and knew that family’s collection were often chosen for this task.

Art historians have studied inventories extensively and enthusiastically in recent years.1 However, some words of caution are called for. Often the situation recorded in an inventory was extremely provisory, and, in spite of the stipulations of the decedent’s will, which prohibited the removal of items from the estate before it was settled, many collections were broken up immediately after the compilation of the inventory.

It should also be kept in mind that paintings are often listed in inventories with no reference to their provenance, dimensions, or value. Even when this information does appear, it can be highly subjective: attributions are sometimes optimistic or, in any case, not particularly trustworthy, especially when they are more distant chronologically from the time in which a particular work of art was created. For example, already during the eighteenth century, Caravaggio’s name was becoming lost in inventories because his body of work was not well known and he was not fashionable according to the taste of the time. Measurements were often very approximate (“large,” “medium,” “small”), or they referred only to the shape or type of painting (“head,” “bust”). When specified precisely, measurements were usually given in palms (a Roman palm was equivalent to approximately 23.5 centimeters). Values were indicated only occasionally and obviously were often a sign that the family wished to sell a particular work. In Roman inventories, the value was given in scudi, the currency used by the Church.

If the information in an inventory can be verified, the document provides an invaluable description of a collection and a sort of “portrait” of its owners.