Alessandro Palma di Cesnola (Biographical details)

Alessandro Palma di Cesnola (military/naval; collector; Italian; Male; 1839 - 1914)

Also known as

Cesnola, Alessandro Palma di


Younger brother of the more famous General Luigi Palma di Cesnola (q.v.), American consul in Cyprus between 1865 and 1874 and later Director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Alessandro likewise amassed a large collection of antiquities in Cyprus. His early career saw military service in the Crimea and Italy, after which he went to the Americas. He later followed his brother to Cyprus in 1873, where he serves as honorary United States Vice-Consul in Paphos.

Between 1876 and 1878, in partnership with the London financier Edwin Lawrence (1819–1891) – whose daughter he later married – Alessandro excavated or collected a large number of artefacts on the island. These came principally from around Salamis but also from Kourion, Marion, Soli and elsewhere (though the findspots given for some objects in his popular book Salaminia (Cesnola 1882) and the earlier album (Lawrence and Cesnola 188/1881) are sometimes incorrect, partly to cover up illegal excavations but also to create the impression that his collection derived from a single site and thereby enhance its provenance and value). His attempts to flout the ban on private excavations instituted by the first British High Commissioner in 1878, and to export antiquities without a licence, resulted in prosecution followed by a token period of imprisonment, a fine and the confiscation of part of the collection. According to correspondence in the archives of the Department of Greece and Rome, he offered to excavate on behalf of the BM in the early 1880s, but was turned down by Newton in part because of his earlier encounters with the authorities but also because he demanded a Keeper's salary for he services.

Alessandro tried to sell the sell the collection to the BM and V&A in London, who both declined his offer, and eventually disposed of the bulk of the material at auction in London between 1883, 1884, 1888 and 1892 (see Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge catalogues for these years). Parts of the Lawrence-Cesnola collection however also included items acquired by Lawrence from Luigi di Cesnola and others. The BM purchased numerous items from these sales, including some important Cypriot Syllabic inscriptions in 1884. Cesnola returned to Italy in 1883 and resumed his military career. Items from his personal collection can be found in various Italian museums and pricate collections. He later authored a catalogue of the Italian manucripts in the British Library, published in Italian in 1890, though this is mainly a check-list of documents rather than a scholarly work.

Many items from the Lawrence-Cesnola sales entered public museums and private collections across the world, including large numbers bough by Pitt-Rivers for his First and Second Pitt-Rivers collection, the latter of which was dispersed from Farnham Museum from the 1960s onwards. Some items have come to the BM and other institutions in more recent years, from the collections of subsequent owners, and some items still occasionally turn up on the market that can be traced back to this original source (e.g. GR 2009,5007.1; 2012,5009.1). At the same time, confusion between Alessandro Cesnola and his brother, especially when the surname alone is given as the source, sometimes results in items acquired from the former being attributed to the collection of the more famous latter individual.

The GR and ME Departments both contain letters from Alessandro, while documents in the Central Archives (Trustees Minutes and Original Papers, including reports by Newton) also chart his relationship with the British Museum. Hetherington 2000 and numerous articles by Masson are the main published accounts of his activities.


Cesnola A.P. di 1881/1882², Lawrence-Cesnola Collection. Cyprus antiquities excavated by Major Al. Palma di Cesnola, 1876–1879 (London).

Cesnola A. P. di 1882, Salaminia (Cyprus). The history, treasures, & antiquities of Salamis in the island of Cyprus (London).

Cesnola A.P. di 1890, Catalogo di manoscritti italiani esistenti nel Museo Britannico di Londra (Turin).

Hetherington P. 2000, 'The "Larnaka Tympanum" and its origins', RDAC, 361-379.

Lo Porto , F.G. 1986, La collezione Cipriota del Museo di Antichità di Torino (Rome).

Masson O. 1957, ‘Notes sur la Collection Lawrence-Cesnola’, BCH LXXXI, 33–7.

Masson O. 1983², Les inscriptions chypriotes syllabiques (Paris).

Masson, O. 1989, ‘Les frères Palma di Cesnola et leur correspondence’m in V. Tatton-Brown (ed.), Cyprus and the East Mediterranean in the Iron Age (London), 84–9.

Masson, O. 1990, ‘Quelques episodes de la vie des frères Palma di Cesnola’, RDAC, 285–97.

Masson, O. 1996, ‘La dispersion des antiquités chypriotes: les deux Collections Cesnola’, CCEC 25, 3–27.

Masson O. 1996, ‘Les deux Collections Cesnola: quelques compléments’, CCEC 26, 25–8.

Petch A. et al. [2012], Rethinking Pitt-Rivers. [Includes much information on the material acquired by Pitt-Rivers at the Lawrence-Cesnola sales, as well as details of the sales themselves]

Sternini, M. 1998, La collezione di antichità di Alessandro Palma di Cesnola (Bari).

Vagnetti, L. et al. 2004, Collezioni archeologiche cipriote in Italia Vol. 1 (Rome).

Reports of Cesnola’s prosecution for breach of the antiquities law: can be found in The Times: 24th, 29th October 1878; The New York Daily Tribune 22nd November 1878.