Between 1450 and 1600 ancient Rome began to emerge from beneath the shapeless pastures and deserted hills of the ancient city. Renaissance scholars identified major sites and buildings. They began the great effort of copying the ancient inscriptions that made the city itself a vast, if fragmentary, textbook about Roman history and life.
By the middle of the fifteenth century, scholars in the curia--like the brilliant architect Leon Battista Alberti and the erudite scholar Flavio Biondo--knew the ancient city better than anyone had for a thousand years. Artists recorded the ruins that survived, broken and ivy-covered, and reconstructed the original palaces and temples in all their crisp-edged glory. Architects tried to grasp the rules and methods of the Roman builders. When ancient works of art, like the Laocoon, came to light they immediately became famous and influential, finding prominent places in the sculpture collections that adorned the Capitoline hill, the Belvedere court of the Vatican, and many private houses. Drawn and printed images of them circulated throughout Europe and scholars and artists made pilgrimages to Rome to see them. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Roman scholars had recreated the whole web and texture of ancient Roman life, from its physical environment to its religious rituals, in astonishingly vivid detail. True, not even papal support could stop the destruction of individual monuments and buildings; much continued to be lost or scattered. The study of the ruins prospered even as buildings were torn down or burnt to make lime. In the course of the sixteenth century, Roman archaeologists shed new light on the Egyptian and early Christian worlds as well as on Rome itself.
By the fourteenth century, Italian intellectuals were becoming fascinated by the physical as well as the literary relics of the ancient world. Rome, of course, had the grandest of all ruins, at which medieval pilgrims had long marvelled. The Roman in the street was happy to provide misinformation about sites and statues, but in the Renaissance, scholars began to measure, excavate, and identify the statues and buildings that had long amazed travellers. True, much was lost forever. When Poggio Bracciolini and a friend climbed the Capitoline Hill in 1430, the vast view that opened out before them was a desert; the ancient forum was populated only by pigs, deer, and vegetables. But by the end of the fifteenth century, Roman scholars had identified the sites of many lost buildings, compiled notebooks bulging with information, and begun to recreate the ancient city.
Giovanni Mansionario, Historia imperialis
Giovanni de Matociis (d. 1337), known as Giovanni Mansionario because of his official office in the cathedral at Verona, used the very rich library preserved there to splendid effect. A prescient scholar, he proved that there had been not one but two Plinys, the elder who wrote the Natural History and the younger who described the elder's death in the eruption of Vesuvius. Both his erudition and his critical skills served him well in the writing of his immense Historia imperialis, a biographical compilation that began with Augustus. He shows a real interest in trying to recreate ancient Roman life in three dimensions, as 3~is clear from his stiff but fascinating marginal drawings of emperors' heads (derived from Roman coins) and a Roman circus (which he based not on the remains of the Arena in Verona but on textual information from a late antique encyclopedia).
Giovanni Mansionario, Historia imperialis. Parchment. Early fourteenth century
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Cristoforo Buondelmonti, Liber insularum archipelagi
Many Roman families took a deep interest in the exploration of ancient ruins. Cristoforo Buondelmonti dedicated this treatise on his adventurous exploration of the islands of the Aegean to Cardinal Giordano Orsini in 1420. All extant manuscripts are copies of the original, nonetheless the illustrations suggest the nostalgic and obsessive love for the classical last that made Buondelmonte risk capture by pirates and death from starvation. Here, carefully drawn ruins evoke the pathos of what he took to be the ruins of Troy.
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Poggio Bracciolini, De varietate fortunae
In the papal curia in the 1420s and after, some papal secretaries became expert archaeologists. This splendid miniature of Poggio represents one of the most adventurous of all the fifteenth- century explorers of the classical past. Poggio Bracciolini walked the streets and inspected the stones of Rome, intent on preserving and recording every detail and "stupefied" by the continuing destruction of important ancient buildings. In this book he makes the theme of fortune's power to destroy the pretext for a detailed firsthand survey of Rome's ruins. It begins dramatically, with Poggio and a friend surveying the scene visible from the top of the Capitoline, and includes detailed study of such technical matters as the composition of the city's walls.
Poggio Bracciolini, De varietate fortunae. Parchment. Fifteenth century
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Pomponio Leto, Lectures on Varro
Pomponio Leto, a famous teacher as well as a brilliant antiquary, lectured in Rome on many classical texts, including the work of the Roman scholar Varro on the Latin language. This text gave him the pretext for discussion of many Roman customs, places, and buildings, which he evidently described in detail and even showed to his students. The student who copied this manuscript had a lively talent for drawing, seen here in his sketches of the Baths of Diocletian. As a whole the lectures show the rich way in which Roman texts and antiquities illuminated each other in the interdisciplinary scholarship of the Roman humanists.
Pomponio Leto, Lectures on Varro. Paper. 1484
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In his view of Chios and Mytilene, Buondelmonti shows the site where he saw "the tomb of the bard Homer" (Chios) and where, as he knew, Sappho, Theophrastus, and other distinguished ancients had lived (Mytilene).
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Archaeology was a field where scholars and artists collaborated. The brilliant Leon Battista Alberti, Nicholas V's architectural adviser, roamed the entire city in order to learn how the Romans had built. His own book on architecture, the first modern one, offered modern readers a vast amount of archaeological information. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, more and more classical works of art came to light, and artists joined the pious in making pilgrimages to Rome. From tiny manuscript illuminations to huge systematic sketchbooks, the artists' record of the ancient city eloquently reveals the reverence and fascination that antiquity inspired.
Pomponio Leto, Working notebook of inscriptions
These fragments of what seems to have been Leto's field notebook contain his notes on an inscription including an ancient Roman calendar on stone. This calendar depicted the signs of the zodiac through which the sun passed, gave the lengths of days and nights, listed the agricultural tasks and religious festivals appropriate to each month, and provided other important information, like the dates of the solstices and equinoxes. The Roman calendar was complex, sophisticated, and steeped in beliefs deeply rooted in the Roman past. Leto's discovery, now known as the Menologium rusticum Vallense, was a major addition to the humanists' stock of knowledge about Roman practices and beliefs.
Pomponio Leto, Working notebook of inscriptions. Paper. Fifteenth century
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Printed version of Leto's calendars
The Menologium that Pomponio Leto copied out was printed in a little brochure in Rome early in the sixteenth century. The printer, Mazzocchi, drew his text from a manuscript collection of inscriptions compiled by one of the most expert specialist antiquaries of the late fifteenth century, Fra Giovanni Giocondo. Though texts like this circulated widely in the age of manuscripts, printing obviously made them accessible to a far larger circle of scholars than scribal efforts could.
Printed version of Leto's calendars. Rome: Iacopo Mazzocchi. ca. 1509
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Leon Battista Alberti, Descriptio urbis Romae
Leon Battista Alberti helped Pope Nicholas V draw up the first of many projects to rebuild Rome and studied the work of ancient architects building by building. In this short treatise he describes how to use a mathematical instrument to measure the distances between the most important Roman buildings and to plot them on a circular map. Alberti had seen and been impressed by the maps in the Greek text of Ptolemy's Geography and hoped to provide an equally rigorous and quantitative framework for the study of ancient and modern Rome--an enterprise characteristic of the curia.
Leon Battista Alberti, Descriptio urbis Romae. Paper. Fifteenth century
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Flavio Biondo, Roma instaurata
Flavio Biondo, papal secretary and historian, reconstructed the physical and institutional textures of Roman life in works that remained standard for a century or more. He reached a large audience through printed editions of the originals and Italian translations. His great compilation Roma instaurata, displayed here, provided the first systematic and well-documented guide to the ruins of the city. The pages shown describe the Baths of Diocletian.
Flavio Biondo, Roma instaurata. Paper. Fifteenth century
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Panoramic view of Rome, From Euclid, Geometry
This panoramic view of Rome may have been the first to use Alberti's method. It was centered on the Monte Mario, behind the Vatican, and locates principally such Christian monuments as Ara Coeli.
Panoramic view of Rome, From Euclid, Geometry. Paper. 1457
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Renaissance archaeologists loved Roman culture, but they were also fascinated by Rome's great, mysterious relics of ancient Egypt: the obelisks, some of them inscribed with mysterious hieroglyphs, that Roman emperors had brought across the Mediterranean. One of these relics, at once threatening and magnificent, was still standing by the Vatican; others were discovered underground. Scholars tried to understand their messages and functions. The imperious pope Sixtus V had five of them raised--a job so hard that Michelangelo had refused to undertake it. Once formally exorcised of their evil spirits, the obelisks clearly showed that Christianity had overtaken Rome and Egypt alike in power and glory. Still other archaeologists penetrated the buried early Christian tombs in the catacombs under the city, making adventurous trips into the dark to find a whole lost world of early Christian symbolism and imagery.
Alfonso Chacon, Christian Inscriptions
This notebook was made by no fewer than five artists working under the direction of an expert on early Christianity, Alfonso Chacon, in the late sixteenth century. Inspired by the need to defend Catholicism against Protestant attacks, Roman scholars studied the early Christian art of the catacombs. They identified some basic themes and conventions of early Christian art, such as the frequent representation of Christ as a shepherd. The artists' skill was not great, however, and some images--like the revival of Lazarus are almost unrecognizable.
Alfonso Chacon, Christian Inscriptions [image not available at this time]. Sixteenth century
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Cesare Baronio, Annales ecclesiastici (Annals of the Church)
This work is a classic of Counter-Reformation scholarship--an effort to show that the true church had always been Catholic. The manuscript shows that Carlo Baronio inserted his reference to the forged works of the Egyptian prophet Hermes Trismegistus--a glaring error for which he was chastised by the Protestant Isaac Casaubon--into the text of his church history only after he had composed it in draft. The manuscript, with its many corrections and additions, gives a good sense of the scale of Baronio's enterprise as well as of the occasional weaknesses of his research and criticism of sources.
Cesare Baronio, Annales ecclesiastici (Annals of the Church). In Latin. Autograph. Parchment. ca. 1600
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Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Polifili
This romantic, pseudo-Egyptian image was widely reused in the sixteenth century. The book it came from, the Hypnerotomachia, was a fanciful, romantic text, in a strange mixture of Italian, Latin, scrambled Hebrew, and imaginary hieroglyphs. Its illustrations, drawn in a skillful, austere style that seemed authentically classical to many readers, incorporated genuine Roman ruins and reliefs. The book did much to spread a taste for Egyptian relics and to heighten scholars' and artists' interest in the decipherment of hieroglyphs.
Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Polifili [image not available at this time]. Venice. 1499.
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F. Borromini, Drawing for Piazza Navona
Another obelisk, found outside the city on the Appian Way, became the centerpiece of Baroque Rome's most spectacular space--the Piazza Navona. Borromini's lovely but plain design was rejected in favor of the splendid one by Bernini, one of his most astonishing creations.
F. Borromini, Drawing for Piazza Navona. Seventeenth century
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A. Laelius Podager, Record of discovery of Augustus's Sundial
Iacopo Mazzocchi's first printed collection of Roman inscriptions was re-used by many scholars as a field notebook. In this copy a Roman scholar gives a firsthand account of how the remains of Augustus's huge sundial were discovered early in the sixteenth century, by a baker digging a latrine. As Pope Julius II had no funds to spare, it was reburied, not to be unearthed until the twentieth century.
A. Laelius Podager, Record of discovery of Augustus's Sundial. Iacopo Mazzocchi. 1521
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Pirro Ligorio, Sylloge of inscriptions
The architect Pirro Ligorio not only carried out major projects for Pope Pius IV, but also expertly studied Roman customs. Here he took details from surviving classical reliefs and worked them up into a comprehensive, imaginative picture of a pagan sacrifice, consistently classical in both its style of representation and the clothing and objects shown.
Pirro Ligorio, Sylloge of inscriptions. Mid-sixteenth century
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Lorenzo Valla, Declamatio on the Donation of Constantine
This document is one of the monuments of historical criticism. Lorenzo Valla here attacks the Donation of Constantine, an eighth-century forgery which supported the papacy's claim to supreme political authority in Europe. Valla shows that the text could not have been written in the fourth century, the age of Constantine the Great, by revealing many anachronisms in form and content.
Lorenzo Valla, Declamatio on the Donation of Constantine. Fifteenth century
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Ambrogio Traversari, Translation of Dionysius the Areopagite
The texts of a late antique Christian theologian were ascribed during the Middle Ages to Saint Paul's sole Athenian convert, Dionysius. Ambrogio Traversari, the great expert on Christian Greek among the early humanists, produced this new Latin translation of the Greek original. Pope Nicholas V was delighted by it. In his colophon, Traversari thanks God for helping him complete his translation.
Ambrogio Traversari, Translation of Dionysius the Areopagite. Fifteenth century
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Etienne Dupérac, I vestigi dell'antichità di Roma
The many views of Rome published by Etienne Dupérac late in the sixteenth century, like this splendid, nostalgic view of the Circus Maximus and the Palatine, both provided newly accurate visual information and conveyed a rich sense of the decayed state in which Rome's antiquities lay. Collectors assembled albums of these printed views, which often varied from one another in content. These albums circulated widely and provided the reading public of the age of print with something of the satisfaction afforded previously by artists' notebooks.
Etienne Dupérac, I vestigi dell'antichità di Roma. Rome. 1575
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Giuliano da Sangallo, Sketchbook
Architects and artists recorded and reconstructed the ruins of Rome, and their sketchbooks were vastly important for the spread of visual information (and remain so as a record of sites and buildings that have since been altered or destroyed). Here Giuliano da Sangallo portrays, among other sites, the Palatine hill, the Colosseum, and the Porta Labicana. This manuscript sketchbook, derived in part from the work of earlier artists, shows how rigorously the artists scrutinized Rome's ruins.
Giuliano da Sangallo, Sketchbook. Sixteenth century
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View of Rome, from Ptolemy, Geography
Plans like this one by Pietro del Massaio, along with the maps that naturally accompanied the Geography, helped to make the book one of the best-sellers of fifteenth-century Europe. In this plan by Pietro del Massaio, the Castel Sant'Angelo, the Borgo, and Saint Peter's appear at bottom right, separated from the city by the Tiber. Within the city proper, the ancient monuments rise, stripped of modern buildings and urban sprawl. The Pantheon, the Forum, the Capitoline and Palatine hills, and the Colosseum dominate the central space, though a few churches appear beside them. Other monuments, like the Pyramide (top right), can readily be identified.
View of Rome, from Ptolemy, Geography. 1469
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A. Kircher, Obeliscus Pamphilius
The formidably learned Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher, directed the excavation of the obelisk on the Appian Way and probably composed the inscriptions that were placed on its new base in the Piazza Navona. The book presented his interpretation of the hieroglyphs of the obelisk, with rich, but necessarily fantastic, documentation.
A. Kircher, Obeliscus Pamphilius. Rome. 1650
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Bartolomeo Marliani, Topographia
Printed collections like this one by Bartolomeo Marliani presented the chief antiquities of Rome to a European public. In this case we see the Laocoon, a famous group of sculptures discovered early in the sixteenth century and displayed in the Vatican gardens.
Bartolomeo Marliani, Topographia. Rome. 1541
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Poggio Bracciolini, Collection of Inscriptions
Poggio copied down in notebooks inscriptions from the dozens of Roman monuments which survived, often incorporated into churches and other buildings. In time, the inscriptions would prove to be among the richest sources of information for many areas of Roman history, from social life and funeral customs to religious beliefs and political propaganda. But in Poggio's day many were hard to read and all were vulnerable to attack from Rome's heedless citizens. He was very proud of his firsthand record of these materials, of which this manuscript preserves fragments.
Poggio Bracciolini, Collection of Inscriptions. Fifteenth century
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J. Annius, Antiquitates
This image of the earliest stage in the development of Rome is much cruder than Pietro del Massaio's. Though the unknown artist tried to represent the small compass and exact contours of the early city, and labeled the Forum and other places of note, the crenelated walls and towers reveal the limits of his imagination. Unfortunately the text he illustrated was even less accurate; it was a forgery by the papal theologian Giovanni Nanni of Viterbo.
J. Annius, Antiquitates. Rome. 1498
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A. Bosio, Roma sotteranea
Bosio, who used only two artists, produced fairly reliable records and images in his book on the underground city of the catacombs, which remained standard for two centuries.
A. Bosio, Roma sotteranea [image not available at this time]. Rome. 1632
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G. P. Valeriano, Hieroglyphica
Pierio Valeriano, one of the most cultivated Roman scholars in the decades before the Sack of 1527, studied and edited Egyptian hieroglyphic lore exhaustively. His book, derived from late Greek sources, tries to argue that the symbolic wisdom of the Egyptians basically agrees with the fundamental teachings of Christian theology and that the hieroglyphs were relics of a separate Revelation. On display is a portrait of Valeriano.
G. P. Valeriano, Hieroglyphica. Basel. 1556
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