The Journey of
Art Culture Specimens Heritage

Art moves around the world. The fact is, we do not know that.

When a work of art attracts our attention, as we walk through the halls of a museum, the first questions that suddenly come to our mind are: where does it come from? What story is hidden behind?

Rarer is to wonder how many places it has passed through to get here . In how many parts of the world has it been to? What are the traces it had left in its passages? What is the memoir of its journey?

Broad and popular is the view that artworks have been, are and will always be in the place where we have connected them, as a milestone in history.

What would be your reaction if the Mona Lisa was moved from the Louvre, an ensign for the museum (if not for the entire country!), when the impression that it has never been away from there is so wide? In reality though, Leonardo's masterpiece landed in the Louvre only during the period of the French Revolution, while before it had been sold to King Francis I for 4,000 gold coins. Even after the acquiring from the Louvre, it had been missing for two years, and when found, had travelled to Tokyo, Moscow, Washington, and New York .

It is not the only work of art having had such an adventurous journey. Each creation has a story to recount about travels in places and time.

All these journeys leave marks and traces on the way, imprinted in the mindful lands of archives, catalogues and collections. Our aim is to retrieve and explore them, to restore the lost but written essence of art as ‘removable' .

It is the exploration itself that starts a new journey:

an expedition to art specimens chronicles.


The route to follow has a clear definition for all art history experts:


The concept refers to the history of the ownership of a work of art, and includes the sequence of all the owners an artwork has had through the time. It allows to examine where it started its journey, what were the halts on the route and where that expedition reached its end. Provenance is therefore a litmus test for the journeys of an art piece, the passport in which all its passages around the world are stamped.


And if the provenance is the route to follow, an archive will be the map on which we orient our steps. Facing the impossibility to give an answer for the chronicles of all, the known so far, works of art, our research will be focused on the ones gathered under the largest online catalogue of Italian Art available on the web: the one of Federico Zeri's Photolibrary curated by the University of Bologna. This rich source of information, more unique than rare, for the possibilities it offers to consult the data in LOD format, is the perfect ground to enter and follow the movements of Italian paintings through history and world.

the Online Catalogue of
Federico Zeri's Photolibrary

available photographs: 180,000

photos of Italian paintings: 150,000

artworks from: 12th-20th


Finally, our cardinal points will be the data available in the Catalogue. In particular, from a first exploration of its LODs, it is possible to circumscribe the area of ​​our trip to

paintings that have at least one recorded act of provenance

the average times paintings have been moved during their life

From this data, it is finally possible to start our journey.

As in every journey, in ours as well are involved a variety of places and entities. In a deep-seated exploration into the granularity of information, we will gradually approach four different levels of italian atrworks relocations.

Αt the first level we will see countries and national entities, in dealing with the general picture of the geographical dispersion of works of art and the direction around the world. In the second level there will be presented their position at the city level, while for the third one exchanging acts will be analyzed at the more detailed point of institutions. Finally, we will embark on a journey in pursuiting the most intriguing travel stories , retracing the stages of the paintings that for several reasons, have traveled the world the most.


The big picture, which will reveal in a general but extremely important degree the expansion of Italian art specimens around the world, is their geographical location. It is important to understand that art cannot be limited to geographical borders, as a fact for the aforementioned and the intuitive aspect of the movement is that, despite their Italian origin a vast amount of them are being kept in foreign institutions. The map bellow demonstrates the number of Italian paintings that are outside the borders of Italy and their current location , while it proves, our initial speculation, the wide spread of Italian works of art, even in places where we would hardly think that we could find hints of it (e.g. Egypt).

According to the data presented in the map, about 425 pieces of Italian artworks are located in Europe, with the exception of Italy as the predecessor, while more than 1770 pieces are located outside Europe, with the main holder being the United States of America (1141 pieces).


At an even more detailed level than the national one, art often travels from city to city. Addressing the problem of provenance from the point of view of cities allows us to also take into consideration all internal movements within the same country. Furthermore, we can introduce the concept of exchange of works of art and investigate their movements from the point of view of acquisitions and disposals by cities.

Each city carries out a certain number of acts of exchange which, alone, are already able to restore the dimension of the art relocation:

These exchanges can be mainly of two types: acquisitions and disposals of artworks. Cities around the world ditinguish for the quantity of exchanging acts performed:

Of course cities are also places, and a larger sight on them allow to draw a sort of geography of art exchanges. Indeed, the most relevant cities for exchanging acts are placed along the two side of the Atlantic Ocean, drawing a very precise route of art movement. At the same time, some countries result to be completely outside from this route, eg. Asia and Africa. It is an almost totally Western-centric exchanging.


Nevertheless, the real protagonists of the exchange of works of art are the institutions. Museums, private collections and even auctions: art travels in different ways.

As was to be expected, Italy turns out to be the largest exporter of Italian paintings due to the exchange acts of its institutions. Among the 20 that sell Italian paintings, there are as many as 12 Italian entities, public and private, with the absolute dominance on the market of the Private Collection, which stands out among all the others for the large amount of paintings sold over time.

But the same thing can be said, about acquisitions as well. 10 Italian institutions are among the 20 largest acquirings of Italian art in the world, a data that returns the relevance of art movements happening within the same country.

However, not all art trading institutions are created equal. Some of them are more focused on import, others on export.
Nonetheless, a glance to the four most relevant ones returns how all the majors have been focused on acquisitions rather than disposals:

Finally, art exchanges allow us to reconsider the role of institutions as well. They are no longer atomic entities that gealously keep their treasures, but parts of a larger whole, building with their relationships a real network through which art is able to move and link the most different places in the world:


Throughout this expedition we explored the geographical location of Italian works of art on a global scale, their journey through the fabric of cities and the final position held by institutions in the process. We acquired important information about the way in which the active cultural network extends beyond the Atlantic as well as the influence of Italian art.
In the last stop of our exploration we retrace the stages of the paintings that have traveled the world the most while looking at their passages overseas

This project was carried out by Marina Christodoulou, Giulia Renda and Elisa Silva for the Electronic Publishing and Digital Storytelling (a.y. 2020-2021) final exam, as part of the Digital Humanities and Digital Knowledge Master's Degree at the University of Bologna.



Marina Christodoulou

Master's Degree student, DHDK @UniBo.
Graduated in Humanities.



Giulia Renda

Master's Degree student, DHDK @UniBo.
Graduated in History.



Elisa Silva

Master's Degree student, DHDK @UniBo.
Graduated in Humanities.