Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries

by Rodolfo Lanciani

published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company

Boston and New York,

Text, maps and black & white illustrations are in the public domain.
Any color photos are © William P. Thayer.


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 2



Very few students are aware that Cola di Rienzo, the Roman tribune of the fourteenth century, is the real founder of the modern archaeological school; and that to him must be adjudged the credit as regards the renaissance of classical studies, which has been almost exclusively bestowed on Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarca. They do not deserve it. Dante, "savio gentil che tutto seppe;" Dante, who collected in his wonderful "Divina Commedia" all the learning of his age, and in his wanderings through Italy and Southern France had ample opportunities of admiring the most splendid creations of Roman architecture, once only alludes to antique monuments as a subject of comparison:—

"Sì com' ad Arli ove 'l Rodano stagna

Sì com' a Pola presso del Quarnaro

.   .   .   .   .   .   .

Fanno i sepolcri tutto 'l loco varo."​1

Inferno, IX.112‑115.

 p2  This is a similitude derived from his recollections of the Roman cemeteries of Arles and Pola, the sarcophagi of which, white as fresh snow, were reflected in the blue waters of the Rhone and of the Gulf of Quarnaro. But we should look in vain in his cantos for a souvenir of the amphitheatres of the same cities of Arles and Pola, which have come down to the present age in a good state of preservation, and which he must have seen in all their magnificence; neither does he mention the Verona amphitheatre, on the steps of which he had so often sat in deep meditation, lamenting, —

"Com' è duro calle
lo scendere e 'l salir per l' altrui scale."º

Not less silent and indifferent does his Muse remain at the sight of the ruins of Rome. One episode only she drew, not from Church traditions, as it is commonly believed, but from a genuine antique monument, the remains and the memory of which have long since disappeared. I refer to those fascinating lines in which he describes the meeting of the poor widow with the Emperor Trajan. I quote the passage in Italian, that the full harmony of the verses may be enjoyed, — a harmony which can scarcely be preserved in a translation:—

"Quiv' era storïata l'alta gloria

Del roman prince, lo cui gran valore

Mosse Gregorio alla sua gran vittoria.

Io dico di Traiano imperatore:

Ed una vedovella gli era al freno,

Di lagrime atteggiata e di dolore.

Dintorno a lui parea calcato e pieno

Di cavalieri: e l'aquile dell' oro

Sovr' esso in vista al vento si movieno.

La miserella infra tutti costoro

Pareva dir: Signor, fammi vendetta

Del mio figliuol, ch' è morto, ond' io m'accoro.

 p3  Ed egli a lei rispondere: Ora aspetta

Tanto, ch' io torni. Ed ella: Signor mio,

Come persona in cui dolor s'affretta —

Se tu non torni? Ed ei: Chi fia dov' io,

La ti farà. Ed ella: L'altrui bene

A te che fia, se 'l tuo metti in obblio?

Ond' elli: Or ti conforta: chè conviene,

Ch' io solva il mio dovere anzi ch' io muova:

Giustizia il vuole, e Pietà mi ritiene."

Purgatorio, x. 73‑93.2

The bas-relief described by Dante as representing this lovely episode is not imaginary, but real; and it does not belong to Purgatory, but to this world. It was sculptured on one of the panels of a triumphal arch, which stood in the centre of the great square in front of Agrippa's Pantheon. The bas-relief, as is often the case with this class of commemorative monuments, represented and personified a conquered Nation kneeling and begging for mercy before  p4 the Roman invader. The simple and inerudite imagination of the Middle Ages gave a different meaning to this plain representation, so common on antique coins and bas-reliefs; it was supposed to commemorate the well-known legend of Trajan's soul rescued from damnation at the request of S. Gregory the Great, — a legend which is still believed by the Roumanians, who worship Trajan as their national hero and national saint. The triumphal arch opposite the Pantheon was accordingly called the Arch of Piety; a hospital close by was called the Hospital of Piety; and the name is still attached to a little church not far from the Pantheon, called the Madonna della Pietà. The arch was destroyed to the level of the foundations by Pope Alexander VII, Chigi, in order that its marbles might be employed in his restoration of the portico of the Pantheon itself.

It would be useless to deny or excuse the ignorance of Dante in this branch of human learning, and it would be equally unjust to lessen our admiration for him on account of that ignorance. The science of archaeology did not exist in his age, and he cannot be blamed if he was ignorant of what did not exist. Many years had to elapse before the dawn of the new day should lighten the darkness of mediaeval science. Even the most powerful intellects are obliged by the law of nature to proceed by slow degrees, and not by leaps. In the literary education of all nations the poetic faculties are the first to germinate and blossom; last of all comes the culture of the critic. And archaeology, founded as it is upon accurate investigation, upon the comparison of antique monuments with one another, and with documentary evidence, written and engraved, belongs to the period of criticism.

Dante confined himself to the study of the few documents  p5 which were known in his age; he increased their number, and his work was carried still further by Francesco Petrarca, to whom we are indebted for many classical texts, discovered in various monastic libraries in the shape of manuscripts and palimpsests. Still, in spite of his love and admiration for ancient authors, Petrarch no more than Dante deserves the praise bestowed on him by Tiraboschi, of having been the first student of archaeology in modern times. We know that at great expense and labor he had formed a small collection of Roman imperial coins, which he offered as a very rare present to Charles IV, but we doubt whether he could appreciate their historical or chronological value. At any rate, the letters on ancient and mediaeval Rome which Petrarch wrote are, from an archaeological point of view, monuments of ignorance. He calls the baths of Caracalla palatium Antonini; the fountain of the Aqua Julia, cymbrum Marii; the Pantheon of Agrippa, templum Cybelis. He refers to the column of Trajan as the tomb of that emperor;º and the pyramid of Caius Cestius as the mausoleum of Remus, brother of Romulus, although the title and nature of each of these monuments were carved in huge letters on its front. To explain Petrarch's negligence, Poggio Bracciolini has supposed that the inscriptions were concealed from him by plants growing in the joints of the marble blocks. This excuse is excessively poor and has in fact no foundation, inasmuch as these inscriptions were seen and copied by Petrarch's contemporary and friend, Cola di Rienzo.

According to his biographer, who wrote in the vernacular of his age, — producing a document most precious as showing the transition from the Latin into the Italian language, — Cola di Rienzo, born in 1313, became in early youth a strong admirer of the Roman classical authors, especially of  p6 Livy, Sallust, and Valerius Maximus. "Every day," says his biographer, "he would walk among the ruins, scrutinizing every piece of sculptured marble. None could read and decipher inscriptions better than he." Yet in spite of his enthusiasm for the antique world and its epigraphic records, in spite of the admiration for Roman grandeur which stirred his soul, Cola di Rienzo cannot be cited, as his biographer claims, as a model of scientific accuracy. His Latin epistles are written more in the style of the Bible than in the style of Sallust; and as regards his power of deciphering and expounding ancient inscriptions, the only evidence we possess does not speak highly in his favor.3

[image ALT: missingALT]
Rome in the XIVth century.
Miniature in the Duc de Berry's "Livre d'Heures."
From Müntz, Les Antiquités de la Ville de Rome.

Famous among ancient epigraphic documents is the bronze tablet, now in the Capitoline Museum, containing the lex Regia; that is, a copy, engraved in bronze, of the decree by which the S. P. Q. R. conferred on Flavius Vespasian imperial power, and the power of life and death. This tablet had been employed by Pope Boniface VIII in the construction of an altar in S. John Lateran, and it was set in the wall so awkwardly that it was almost impossible to read it. Cola, in 1346, caused it to be removed from its obscure hiding-place, and set up in the middle of the basilica. There, showing it to his countrymen, he was wont to speak fiery words on the rights of the people to select their own form of government. So far, so good. But when he begins to explain the text of the document he loses his way and treads upon treacherous ground. The paragraph of the law concerning the pomoerium, that is to say, the right bestowed upon Vespasian to enlarge the boundaries of the city of Rome, is interpreted by Cola as if pomoerium meant pomarium, or apple-orchard; as if  p7 this paragraph spoke of Italy as the garden of the Roman Empire. I am sorry to say that this interpretation, absurd as it is, was not his own, but was traditional in the Ghibelline party. Dante himself had already styled Italy the giardin dell' impero.

These unsuccessful attempts to explain ancient texts do not lessen the title of Cola to our gratitude; we are indebted to him for the very first collection of Latin epitaphs that was compiled according to the principles of modern science. In Prince Chigi's library at Rome, in the Medicean Library at Florence, and in the Public Library at Utrecht, three manuscript copies of an epigraphic collection were discovered many years ago, the author­ship of which was attributed, first, to Nicola Signorili, secretary of the Roman Senate, under Pope Martin V. Further researches made in the National Library at Naples led to the discovery of a much older copy of the same book, dating from the pontificate of Urban VI; that is to say, written at least seventy-five years earlier. After long and patient investigation, the original copy has been finally discovered in the library of the abbey of S. Nicola dell' Arena at Catania. There is no doubt that it is the work of Cola di Rienzo. Its materials were collected, evidently, between 1344 and 1347. At that period, nobody but Cola could read and copy ancient marbles; the book is consequently his. We shall henceforth admire the fierce tribune, not only as a great politician, leader, and agitator, but also as an archaeologist, great for his age.

We must now pass to the time of the return of the popes from Avignon to Rome, which marks the beginning of the Renaissance, — the beginning, that is, of the most glorious period in the history of my own nation. At this period, mediaeval Italy had disappeared. A new element, the  p8 genius of the ancient world, had risen in its glory, and had fascinated the higher classes of society, the heads of the various states into which the Peninsula was politically divided, the aristocracy, the fashionable and literary circles, and, in a more modest measure, the members of the clergy and of monastic orders. That mighty genius took possession at once of the field of art and science, modified the manners and the education of the higher classes, and even shook, for the time being, the very foundations of the Christian faith. At the head of the movement marched a handful of scientific men, philologists rather than archaeologists, better known under the name of the Humanists. They became professors in the universities, they won confidential positions in princely houses as private secretaries, they attached themselves especially to the princes of the Church. Their engagements lasted only for a short period, sometimes for six months only: thus they were able to move without intermission from town to town, from court to court, from college to college, multiplying, as it were, from one end to the other of the Peninsula, and sowing everywhere the seed which was to bring forth such magnificent harvests.

The study of the Greek language and literature was the most fashionable of all studies: hence the fifteenth century has been called the Golden Age of Hellenism. The beginning of the following century saw the first decline of this pursuit; under the Popes of the Medici family, Greek had already left public life, to confine itself again within the precincts of cloisters and schools, which became, and are now, I regret to say, its last insecure shelter. In order to obtain able masters from the East, especially from Byzantine schools, fabulous prices were offered and paid to those professors who were willing to change their country; but the capture of Constantinople, May 29, 1453, very soon  p9 dried up this rich source. These circumstances enable us to understand why, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, men of letters and women of the upper classes could easily converse in Greek; whereas, fifty years later, the same language was no longer spoken, but only read, and was totally forgotten at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

It is difficult to form an idea of such a powerful movement towards classical studies; more difficult to investigate its causes. We can explain something by a reference to Fashion, that despotic and capricious goddess; but this will not explain all. Captivated by hitherto unknown fascinations, eager to tear aside the veil which concealed its mysteries, the Humanists deified and idolized archaeology, and congregated around its temple to partake of the treasures of science which had been kept there in safe concealment since the fall of the Roman Commonwealth, more than nine centuries before. Many conceived the hope or labored under the illusion that pagan science would heal the wounds of society; some followed the movement out of pure love of fascinating enquiries, others from curiosity; the profanum vulgus felt the contagion of example and fashion; the higher classes hoped to find in action philosophy the consolations which, to their own misfortune, they had ceased to expect from faith.

Paganism not only penetrated the domain of science, but conquered also the field of fine arts, although this last was exclusively and absolutely consecrated to the service of the Church. The evidence of this fact is to be found everywhere in Italy, in churches as well as in public edifices of Rome, Florence, and Venice. Those genii who surround the Blessed Virgin, holding on high the torch of life; those winged classic youths who are meant to represent angels; those nymphs whose part it is to represent the holy women  p10 of Christendom, and whose immodest forms were not considered out of place in a church, — are all nothing but a revival of paganism and of pagan art. Every one knows that Daniele da Volterra was surnamed "il Braghettone," or breeches-maker, because he contrived to cover the most crude nudities of Michael Angelo's "Last Judgment," and that the reclining statue of Giulia Farnese, near S. Peter's chair in the Vatican, the masterpiece of Guglielmo della Porta, was clothed by Bernini with clothes of painted lead. Giorgio Vasari asserts that Perugino could never be induced to believe in the immortality of the soul, although he had devoted all his life to painting saints and madonnas.

I must quote here an incident from the life of the greatest Humanist of the fifteenth century, Pomponius Laetus, because, owing to a recent discovery made in the catacombs of S. Calixtus, on the Appian Way, we are able to solve for the first time a mystery connected with the pagan tendencies of the Renaissance. Pomponio Leto founded in Rome an academy for classic studies, to which the most celebrated literary men of the period belonged: Cardinal Platina, the historian of the Church; Giovanni Antonio Campano, Bishop of Teramo, Pietro Sabino, professor of epigraphy in the University of Rome; Marco Antonio Sabellico, Pietro Pallini, and many others.​b All these illustrious members of the Roman Academy, either because they had exchanged their Christian names for names of pagan heroes, or else on account of their extravagant worship of ancient philosophy and civilization, were stigmatized by so‑called public opinion as apostates from the faith, as worshippers of false gods, as conspirators against the authority and the life of the Pope. Imprisoned and chained in the Castle of S. Angelo by order of Paul II, a religious and political action was brought against them upon the charge  p11 of conspiracy to secure the supreme pontificate of Rome for their master and president, Pomponio Leto. Cardinal Platina vindicated the innocence of his colleagues, and Pomponio himself addressed to the court of Castle S. Angelo a vigorous speech, the original of which is preserved in the Vatican archives. The lack of positive evidence and the intervention of influential friends caused them to be set free; so that the Academy was able to return to its work, amidst the applause and with the help of cardinals and prelates of the Roman Church.

It is, no doubt, exceedingly remarkable that the evidence against these men, sought in vain by Paul II and his judges, should have come to light only a few years ago, and in a place entirely unsuspected. In the course of the excavations carried on by my illustrious master, Commendatore G. B. de Rossi, in the catacombs of Callixtus, a cubiculum, or crypt, was discovered, May 12, 1852, in the remotest part of that subterranean labyrinth which had been used by Pomponio's brotherhood as a secret place of meeting. On the white plaster of the ceiling the following inscription had been written with the smoke of a tallow candle: "January 16, 1475. Pantagathus, Mammeius, Papyrius, Minicinus, Æmilius, Minucius, all of them admirers and investigators of antiquities, and the delight of the Roman dissolute women, [have met here] under the reign of Pomponius, supreme pontiff." Many other records of the same nature have been since discovered in the catacombs of SS. Pietro e Marcellino and of Praetextatus, in which records Pantagathus (Cardinal Platina?) is styled sacerdos academiae Romanae, and Pomponius again sovereign pontiff.

It is evident that such a priesthood and such a pontificate have nothing to do with the Christian hierarchy; on the other hand, it is difficult to determine whether we have to  p12 deal with a more or less absurd pedantry, or with a solemn apostasy from the Christian faith by a handful of dissolute conspirators. One thing only is certain: that Pomponio and his colleagues were very wise in confiding their secret to the deepest and most impenetrable recesses of the Roman catacombs. One line, one word alone, of the records which have been discovered by us four centuries later, made known in proper time to the court of Castle S. Angelo, would have brought their heads under the sword of the public executioner.

In view of the failure to prove the case against Pomponio, it is no wonder that of all the popes of the fifteenth century, the promoter of the trial, Paul II (Pietro Barbo of Venice), the builder of the Palazzo di Venezia in Rome, should have been the one most violently attacked by the Humanists and the rising archaeological school, as an enemy of the grand movement of the Renaissance. Nevertheless, documents discovered by Eugène Müntz and Constantino Corvisieri prove that Paul II, without being a Humanist in the true sense of the word, loved antiquity and its masterpieces with a passionate love, and did his best to favor the development of classical instruction. He reorganized the University of Rome, and actually struck a medal for the occasion, with the legend Laetitia Scholastica; he helped the introduction of printing; granted fifty ducats to the old archaeologist Flavio Biondo, and four hundred to Filelfo. The triumphal arches of Titus and Septimius Severus, the two colossal groups on the Quirinal, and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius were restored at his expense; he caused the porphyry sarcophagus of S. Constantia (now in the Hall of the Greek Cross) and a basin of green serpentine to be artistically set up in the Piazza di S. Marco; removing the first from the mausoleum of Constantia,  p13 near the second milestone of the Via Nomentana, the second from the baths of Titus, near the Colosseum. He undertook with enthusiasm one of the favorite plans of Nicholas V, the removal and reërection of Caligula's obelisk in front of S. Peter's. The work of transportation had actually been begun under the skilful leader­ship of Master Aristotiles, but was soon after given up on account of the sudden death of the Pope.

This gifted man was born a collector: from his early youth he devoted himself to searching all over Italy for antique gems and coins, and Byzantine stuffs and jewelry; disputing the possession of every piece with his competitors Charles de' Medici and Lorenzo il Magnifico. The passion for antique and precious works did not abate with his election to the pontifical throne. There came a moment when his mania rose to almost heroic proportions. He did not scruple to lay hands on miraculous images of the Blessed Virgin, if they were remarkable or curious from an artistic point of view, such, for instance, as the one preserved in the church of S. Maria in Campitelli, made in opus sectile, that is to say, in a kind of Florentine mosaic of precious stones. He had at one time a plan for removing to his palace the library of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino; he offered to build at his own cost, for the township of Toulouse, a bridge across the Garonne, in exchange for a single cameo. As regards his personal appearance, he was in the habit of dressing with unheard-of magnificence. He was so conscious of his own beauty and majestic size and form, that on the day he was elected Pope he actually took the name of Formosus II, "the handsome," a name which the unanimous protest of the Sacred College obliged him to exchange for the more religious one of Paul. No consideration of expense could deter him from acquiring for his  p14 personal adornment any extraordinary piece of jewelry which might be brought to his notice. A single one of his tiaras cost him the enormous sum of 120,000 ducats of gold (more than six millions of francs); he justified this excess of luxury by remarking that the tiara of his uncle, Eugenius IV, had cost 38,000 gold ducats, the "ransom of a king."

The museum in his Palazzo di S. Marco or di Venezia comprise forty-seven works in bronze; two hundred and twenty-seven cameos; three hundred and twenty-five intaglios, mostly portraits of emperors and empresses; ninety-seven gold coins and one thousand silver ones (among which two were forged); ten Byzantine cameos, a respectable number, if we consider that the "cabinet des médailles" in Paris and the "cabinet impérial" in Vienna contain only an equal number of these rare productions of Eastern glyptic art; twenty-five Byzantine mosaic pictures, more than all the European museums put together now possess; two pictures in stained glass; many ivory carvings; and many antique embroideries in silk and gold. As regards the works of the Renaissance goldsmiths and the silver plate, the figures of the inventory are simply astonishing. Pearls, turquoises, jacinths, emeralds, amethysts, diamonds, mostly mounted in rings and signets, are numbered by thousands. As for silver plate, I shall mention only two wine-jugs of exquisite workman­ship, each weighing one hundred and ten pounds.

What has become of all these treasures? There is no doubt that many pieces have been transferred to the "Sala delle Pietre Dure," in the Uffizi at Florence, from bequests and legacies of the Medici family. But this is almost nothing in comparison with what seems to be lost. Eugène Müntz has been able to trace the existence of one set only,  p15 from the museum of Paul II, a set of superb nielli, which belonged originally to an evangeliarium offered to Paul II by Cardinal la Balue. In 1831, half of these nielli were in the possession of the Duke of Hamilton, half in the Galerie Manfrin in Paris. I do not know where they are now.

In view of such exceptional services rendered to classic antiquities by Paul II, who can honestly condemn him for one isolated act of vandalism, the quarrying of blocks of marble and travertine from the Colosseum? In the fifteenth century, — it is useless to deny it, — the Flavian amphitheatre was considered by everybody, whether Humanists or illiterate, as a mere quarry of stone for building purposes. Nicholas V, Pius II, in spite of their laws of protection of ancient buildings, knocked down arcade after arcade, without the slightest scruple. To reproach Paul II for having followed their example would be historically unjust, since the Colosseum paid the ransom of so many other antique edifices, which were protected, restored, saved from destruction, by him. Let us reserve the severity of our judgment for those who, in a more civilized and appreciative age, have destroyed without a moment's hesitation the finest monuments of Rome: for Sixtus V, who at the end of the sixteenth century destroyed the Septizonium of Septimius Severus; for Paul V, Borghese, who employed the marbles of Minerva's temple in the Forum Transitorium to build the Borghese Chapel in S. Maria Maggiore and the fountain of the Aqua Paola on the Janiculum; for Alexander VII, Chigi, who demolished in 1662 the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius on the Corso. The responsibility of Paul II is very light indeed in comparison with the responsibility of others.

The brief account I have given of the museum collected  p16 by him in the Palazzo di Venezia (a palace the architecture of which has been wrongly attributed to Giuliano da Maiano and Baccio Pontelli, whereas it was designed and partly executed by Meo del Caprino and Giacomo di Pietrasanta) leads me to mention another subject, of which little is known even to the initiated, — the subject of the collections of early Italian art and antiquities, in the Renaissance, from its beginning to the end to the fifteenth century. In the Middle Ages, one class only of antiquities seems to have been cared for, that of engraved stones, and, as a rule, of any objects the materia prima of which is precious.

Engraved stones, even when representing profane and immoral subjects, were employed in the ornamentation of Church implements, such as chalices, evangeliaria, pontifical robes, rings, and tiaras. It was not Italian noblemen or prelates only who had a passion for accumulating this class of valuables. Charles V, king of France, owned in 1380 fifty-two cameos; Charles VI, in 1399, one hundred and one. In 1343, Philippe le Bel is said to have sent the Pope "un Joel appelé le camahieu." Boniface VIII, of the Caetani family, the illustrious contemporary of Dante and Giotto, possessed from forty to fifty cameos; the catalogue of them, dated 1295, discovered in the Bibliothèque Nationale, is remarkable because one of the reliefs is described in it as representing Hercules, an identification really wonderful for such an age. But I can give an instance, far earlier than this, of a real appreciation of antiquities. I speak of the picturesque mediaeval house in Rome near the temple of Fortuna Virilis and near the Ponte Rotto, miscalled sometimes the "house of Cola di Rienzo," sometimes "the house of Pilate." The building was erected, in fact, by Nicolaus Crescentius,  p17 son of the tribune Crescentius, and was built mostly of the fragments of ancient marble edifices and bas-reliefs, in order — as the inscription testifies — that his contemporaries might appreciate the artistic skill of their ancestors.

[image ALT: missingALT]
The House of Crescentius.

Arnaldo da Brescia, the reformer of the twelfth century, proclaimed in 1150 the necessity for rebuilding the Capitol. I have spoken above of the modest set of Roman coins offered by Francesco Petrarca to the Emperor Charles IV at Mantua, in 1354. This set was by no means the first collected in Italy; Petrarch had been preceded by another numismatist, Oliviero Forza, or Forzetta, a wealthy citizen of Treviso, who must be considered, if not the originator, certainly one of the first promoters of the new tendencies, and of the new artistic and archaeological  p18 tastes. His inventory, written by himself, speaks so seriously and freely of medals, coins, bronzes, marbles, engraved stones, and manuscript books that one would think it written fully two or three centuries later.

[image ALT: missingALT]
From a drawing by Martin Heemskerk, now in the Berlin Museum.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Florence, which had preceded so many other Italian towns in the reform of literature and art, showed hospitality within its walls to the most remarkable collections of the time. Architects, sculptors, antiquarians, worked harmoniously and simultaneously towards the development of refined tastes. The names of the three greatest Italian masters of the fifteenth century — Filippo Brunellesco, the creator of the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore; Donatello (Donato Bardi), the inimitable sculptor of the S. George on the façade of the church of Or S. Michele; and Lorenzo Ghiberti, the designer and caster of those bronze doors of the Baptistery which Michelangelo considered worthy of being the doors of Paradise — are strictly connected with this archaeological revival. Brunellesco and Donatello, during their visit to Rome in 1407, spent all their time and leisure in measuring ancient buildings and in excavating ruins; so much so that they were nicknamed by the populace of Rome quelli del tesoro, "searchers for hidden treasures." On his return to Florence, Donatello inspired his protector, Cosimo de' Medici, with his love and passion for antiques, and restored with his own masterly hand the statues which ornamented the mansion of the noble patrician. Lorenzo Ghiberti felt even a deeper sense of admiration for ancient statuary and gems. The commentaries published by Lemonnier in the first volume of his Florentine edition of Vasari, speak eloquently of his admiration for a statue of the Hermaphrodite discovered in Rome under his eyes, for a statue by Lysippus (?) discovered at Siena, for an  p19 engraved stone belonging to Niccolò Niccoli, and so forth. To him was entrusted the delightful task of mounting in gold the famous cornelian of Giovanni de' Medici, representing Apollo and Marsyas, and it is touching to see with what sincere enthusiasm he speaks of a stone and of an engraving the subject of which is a mystery to him.

Poggio Bracciolini, of Florence, born in 1380,​c has left interesting records of the ancient marbles which he collected during his travels in central and southern Italy. He speaks of a room in his museum entirely filled with busts, all noseless save one; a particular which shows that the disfigurement of statues and heads is the work of the Romans of the decadence, and not the work of the Middle Ages, as commonly supposed. I must quote here a fragment of a letter written by Poggio to one of his learned friends, because he speaks of his acquisitions, and of his hopes and fears as a collector, with such good sense and enthusiasm that one would be ready to believe the letter written in our own days by Marchese Campana or Alessandro Castellani. Poggio's letter makes evident, also, the fact, almost incredible, that, at the very beginning of the Renaissance, works of art were collected by passionate admirers, even from the shores of Asia Minor and from the islands of the Greek archipelago. "I received yesterday a letter from Chios, in which my correspondent, Master Francis, of Pistoja, announces that he has secured for me three marble heads, one of Juno, one of Minerva, one of Bacchus, the work of Polycletus and Praxiteles (as he says), which he expects to ship at once to Gaeta. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the alleged author­ship of these three marbles. Modern Greeks, as you know, like large talk, and in this instance I suspect them to have mentioned those grand names to justify an exorbitant demand. I hope I am giving  p20 voice to a false suspicion. My correspondent says that he bought the heads from a certain Caloiro, who, not many months ago, discovered in the deepest recess of a grotto in the same island of Chios about one hundred marble statues, of marvelous beauty and preservation. Do you not share my wish, in hearing of these wonders, to be able to spread wings and fly to Chios?"

The most successful and liberal Florentine collector of his age was, beyond doubt, Niccolò Niccoli, a simple citizen, who without having large means at his disposal, by skill and perseverance, and with the help of such friends as Ambrogio Traversari, of Camaldoli, and Leonardo d'Arezzo, got together a library and a museum which formed the pride of his native town. Here is an instance of the sureness and perspicacity of his coup d'oeil in artistic matters, which is described in the life of Niccolò. In walking through the streets of Florence, Niccolò spied, one day, a child, from whose neck a chalcedony, most exquisitely engraved, was suspended. He coaxed the boy to come and speak with him; asked the name of his father, and in what place they lived. The next day he offered five florins in exchange for the stone. The good man, having never in his lifetime seen five florins at once, was enchanted with the bargain, and Niccolò became thus at once the happy possessor of the masterpiece. However, it did not remain long in his hands. During the pontificate of Eugene IV, the Pope's vicar, having heard of the famous stone, sent for Niccolò, in passing through Florence, and offered him two hundred gold ducats, which Niccolò, not without hesitation and sorrow, decided to accept. After the death of the vicar, the stone was bought by Paul II, and fell ultimately into the hands of Lorenzo de' Medici.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

The Wolf in the Fifteenth Century. From the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, Rome, 1499.

As for Rome herself, she can boast of having had a  p21 museum, not of small objects, however precious, but a museum containing the grandest productions of ancient art, at least since the time of Charlemagne and the ninth century of our era. The museum was kept in and near the Pope's palace at the Lateran, and comprised, first, the equestrian bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, now on the Capitol, commonly asserted to have been found between the Scala Santa and S. Croce in Gerusalemme. It was never found, because it was never lost: it was constantly kept, after the fall of the Empire, near the Pope's residence at the Lateran, until Paul III, Farnese, caused it to be removed to the Piazza del Campidoglio. Besides this colossal bronze, the Lateran museum contained the celebrated Wolf, which is wrongly asserted to have been found in the seventeenth century near the church of S. Teodoro; the colossal head of Domitian, now in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori,º wrongly asserted to have been found in the fifteenth century near the basilica of Constantine; and the lex Regia, or decree by which the Senate and people of Rome elected Vespasian as their emperor, a document which I have already mentioned in speaking of Cola di Rienzo. All these bronzes were removed to the Capitol from the Lateran by Sixtus IV.

[image ALT: missingALT]
From Kock's Operum Antiqq. Romanor. Reliquiae, 1562.

The  p22 founding of the Capitoline museum, considering the conditions of the age and the elementary state of general culture, is one of the greatest glories of Pope Sixtus IV, Riario della Rovere, and exonerates him in a certain measure for many acts of wanton destruction of ancient buildings which took place under his pontificate. The museum, solemnly inaugurated on December 14, 1471, was the very first thrown open to the public after the fall of the Empire. It contained the boy extracting a thorn from his foot; the Hercules of gilt bronze discovered in the Forum Boarium; all the bronzes of the Lateran; the Camillus, which was then called, I know not why, the "Zingara," or Gypsy; a marble group of a lion devouring a horse, discovered in the bed of the river Almo; the cinerary urn of Agrippina the elder, wife of Germanicus and mother of Caligula, which urn had been transformed in the Middle Ages into a standard measure for grain, rubiatella di grano; the bust of Brutus, and the marble statue of Charles d'Anjou. It is to be regretted that this venerable nucleus of the Capitoline collections, a truly national glory, should have been dispersed all over the municipal palaces of Rome, without any regard for the mutual connection of the various pieces in the history of art and science, or for the memory of the founder of the museum., Sixtus IV, whose name is dear to all who appreciate taste, refinement, and liberality. The Riario della Rovere family is certainly one of the most sympathetic, I might say attractive, families of the Renaissance: even the defects and the errors of some of its members have their bright side, and can be excused on account of their very magnitude. Take, for instance, the Pope himself: after blaming the memory of his predecessor, Paul II, for his extravagant luxury, Sixtus IV, near the very end of his life, orders a tiara, worth 110,000 gold ducats. As for his nephew, Pietro Riario,  p23 whom he had named Cardinal of S. Sisto when only twenty-six years old, with a yearly income of 60,000 ducats, corresponding to $600,000, he was capable of spending and squandering during the two years of his cardinal­ship not less than $2,800,000. We may have instances in our own times of more colossal expenditures; but who among these modern spendthrifts could boast of having left to mankind such souvenirs as those left by the Riarios? — the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the porch and convent of SS. Apostoli, the cloister of S. Agnese fuori le mura, and many similar masterpieces of the Renaissance.

I ought now to mention the illustrious group of the cinquecento masters, at once artists and archaeologists, whose researches, descriptions, measurements, and drawings of the ancient buildings of Rome rank among the finest documents which our favorite science possesses. These documents, which are numbered by the thousands, each more precious than the other, were not known until a few years ago. Abeken, the editors of the Florentine edition of Giorgio Vasari, and Baron Heinrich de Geymüller had occasionally mentioned, or actually published, some samples of the collection; but from these fragmentary indications we had conceived the idea that the drawings of the cinquecento masters would be more useful to illustrate contemporary than antique art. As an instance of the generosity with which archaeology repays from time to time the devotion and the zeal of its students, as an instance of the healthy joys and emotions which the study of the ancient world is capable of affording to the initiated, I beg to be allowed to relate a personal experience. In spite of more than twenty years of uninterrupted research, both in the active and the speculative field, many of our Roman ruins were still an enigma to me, their origin, their  p24 design, their history, being absolutely unknown. How many hours have I spent before and around such antique buildings as those transformed into the church of S. Adriano, of SS. Cosma and Damiano, of S. Stefano delle Carozze, and others, trying, like Oedipus, to solve the mystery of the Sphinx, to snatch the secret which seemed to have been buried under those ruins with the fall of the Empire! After giving up all hope of success, having in fact classified these buildings as "nameless," I appeared one day to enter the department of drawings and engravings in the Galleria degli Uffizi at Florence, under the kind guidance of their keeper, Signor Nerino Ferri. The original and unpublished architectural sketches of Florentine cinquecento artists were shown to me as a simple matter of curiosity. I could not possibly describe what I felt at that moment, when I saw (at once) the solution of nearly every topographical problem pass slowly before my eyes, in the shape of sketches taken on the spot when those monuments were first excavated, three or four centuries ago, and taken by such men, artists, and archaeologists as the eight Sangallos, Baldassare and Sallustio Peruzzi, Raphael Sanzio, the two Albertis, Bramante, Sansovino, Giovanni Antonio Dosio, De Marchis, and so on. I do not think that the naturalist who discovers a new species of coleoptera, the chemist who discovers a new chemical element, the astronomer who discovers a new asteroid, can feel what the archaeologist feels under the blessed influence of such important and utterly unexpected discoveries. When my master, Commendatore de Rossi, discovered in the Biblioteca Marciana at Venice the famous codex of Pietro Sabino, he spent thirty-six hours in devouring, as it were, the volume, with no consideration whatever for food or rest, and did not leave his long-sought‑for prey until he actually fainted from exhaustion. Archaeology is a  p25 science which, different from others, begins at once to repay the zeal of the student with deep moral satisfaction without obliging him to serve a dull, tiresome apprentice­ship. It is a science so noble and fascinating that it helps wonderfully to form the character of intelligent youths; and so protean in form, in its various aspects and branches, that it can suit any taste, any inclination. It is true that its study requires the spirit of enterprise, plenty of means, a subtle mind, and constancy of application. To the young men of America, however, to whom these pages are especially dedicated, these elements have been supplied even more liberally than is the case, perhaps, with other nations. The first movements the present generation has made in the archaeological field, such as the exploration of Assos, the contribution to the investigations at Naukratis, the institution of the school at Athens, the establishment of first-class scientific journals, and the like, prove that American students bring to the antiquarian field the same amount of successful enterprise which has made them take the lead in many other fields of science. Let me express the hope that the account of our recent discoveries in Rome which is given in the following chapters will confirm, and even increase, their fancy for these noble and useful pursuits, and entice a greater number of bright young men into the ranks of our sympathetic brotherhood.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Sketched by Antonio da Sangallo, Jun. (1482‑1546.)

The Author's Notes:


Even as at Arles, where stagnant grows the Rhone,

Even as at Pola, near to the Quarnaro,

.   .   .   .   .   .   .

The sepulchres make all the place uneven."



There the high glory of the Roman Prince

Was chronicled, whose great beneficence

Moved Gregory to his great victory;

'Tis of the Emperor Trajan that I speak;

And a poor widow at his bridal stood,

In attitude of weeping and of grief.

Around about him seemed it thronged and full

Of cavaliers, and the eagles in the gold

Above them visibly in the wind were moving.

The wretched woman in the midst of these

Seemed to be saying: "Give me vengeance, Lord,

For my dead son, for whom my heart is breaking."

And he to answer her: "Now wait until

I shall return." And she: "My lord," like one

In whom grief is impatient, "shouldst thou not

Return?" And he: "Who shall be where I am

Will give it thee." And she: "Good deed of others,

What boots it thee, if thou neglect thine own?"

Whence he: "Now comfort thee, for it behoves me

That I discharge my duty ere I move;

Justice so wills, and pity doth retain me."

Longfellow's Translation.

3 A complete edition of Cola's epistles will shortly be published by A. Gabrielli, under the auspices of the Historical Society of Rome.

Thayer's Notes:

b Paolo Giovio, or Paulus Jovius, a contemporary, wrote biographical sketches of many of these humanists, brief but interesting. See these pages of his Italian Portrait Gallery:

Pomponius Laetus Giovanni Antonio Campano Pietro Sabino Marco Antonio Sabellico

c See again Paolo Giovio's Italian Portrait Gallery at Elfinspell.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 19 Aug 20