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Pasatiempo - - Book Reviews - — Su­san Mead­ows

To Wake the Dead: A Re­nais­sance Mer­chant and the Birth of Ar­chae­ol­ogy by Ma­rina Beloz­er­skaya, W. W. Nor­ton and Com­pany, 308 pages

Imag­ine trav­el­ing the Mediter­ranean just be­fore the Cru­sade of 1444 and en­coun­ter­ing great and mys­te­ri­ous stone ru­ins cen­turies be­fore ar­chae­ol­ogy shed light on an­tiq­uity. Read­ing To Wake the Dead in my cozy, shud­der­ing bunk on the night train to Rome in rainy Novem­ber, I learned that Cyr­i­a­cus of Ancona likely walked the 130 miles to Rome in the same sea­son — the com­moner’s mode of over­land travel in 1424. His Rome was a muddy, tum­ble­down back­wa­ter ne­glected for nearly a cen­tury while suc­ces­sive popes resided in Avi­gnon, France. Awe-struck in the now-pro­tected Ro­man Fo­rum nearly 600 years later, I knew Cyr­i­a­cus fever­ishly de­scribed it in his jour­nals even as scav­engers dis­man­tled it to sup­ply ma­te­ri­als to the build­ing boom stim­u­lated by the pope’s re­turn. Ma­rina Beloz­er­skaya, a skilled sto­ry­teller and art his­to­rian, doesn’t just por­tray a man, but guides us on a jour­ney to his times.

Beloz­er­skaya’s Cyr­i­a­cus is in­trepid and cu­ri­ous. He taught him­self Latin and Greek to read the in­scrip­tions on old stones. He braved storms at sea, pi­rates, and the dan­gers of ex­otic ports where one might fall prey to slavers and thieves or deadly epi­demics to pur­sue his pas­sion for the past. What be­gan as the un­usual hobby of keep­ing detailed jour­nals de­scrib­ing the rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing an­cient sites that he en­coun­tered on his busi­ness trav­els be­came a life’s work, trans­form­ing a hum­ble ac­coun­tant and mer­chant into a diplo­mat and courtier— an emis­sary of Pope Eu­ge­nius IV to the Byzan­tine em­peror— and a scholar re­spected by Floren­tine hu­man­ists spear­head­ing the Re­nais­sance.

Un­for­tu­nately, Cyr­i­a­cus’ work sur­vives to­day only through let­ters and copies of jour­nal pages sent to cor­re­spon­dents. Beloz­er­skaya, there­fore, re­lies heav­ily on secondary sources. She builds a case that his metic­u­lous records mark the beginning of the sci­ence of ar­chae­ol­ogy, al­though other writ­ers cite Herodotus, a fifth-cen­tury B.C. his­to­rian. Many of the an­cient sites Cyr­i­a­cus care­fully de­scribed have not sur­vived in­tact or at all.

I chanced upon a seem­ing er­ror that may il­lus­trate Beloz­er­skaya’s ten­dency to mag­nify Cyr­i­a­cus’ role in his­tor­i­cal events. In­cluded in the rich body of il­lus­tra­tions in ToWake the Dead is Cyr­i­a­cus’ draw­ing of an an­cient bust de­pict­ing an old man with long hair and beard, which he la­beled, “Aris­to­tle.” Beloz­er­skaya says Cyr­i­a­cus’ Aris­to­tle was the model for Raphael’s “Aris­to­tle” in his fresco The School of Athens in the Vat­i­can Mu­seum. Beloz­er­skaya writes that this is ev­i­dence of Cyr­i­a­cus’ sig­nif­i­cant and gen­eral in­flu­ence on Re­nais­sance artists. While in Rome I viewed the fa­mous fresco by Raphael. Aris­to­tle was Plato’s stu­dent and in Raphael’s fresco is young with short hair and no beard, while Raphael’s Plato does some­what re­sem­ble Cyr­i­a­cus’ Aris­to­tle. Some think Raphael mod­eled Plato af­ter Leonardo da Vinci, how­ever, who wore long hair and a beard— sev­eral of Raphael’s fig­ures are thought to de­pict a con­tem­po­rary artist as a his­tor­i­cal philoso­pher. When I con­tacted the au­thor, she said that space pre­vented her from ex­plain­ing that Raphael “likely” knew of Cyr­i­a­cus’ Aris­to­tle, which was “cir­cu­lated widely,” and used it as a “philoso­pher type,” ap­ply­ing it to Plato in this case, and that Leonardo likely ap­plied it to his self-por­trait, also. She noted that this in­ter­pre­ta­tion has been dis­cussed by a num­ber of schol­ars.

Whether Cyr­i­a­cus in­flu­enced Raphael’s de­pic­tion of Aris­to­tle/Plato is triv­ial, but it may re­flect a gen­er­ous in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Cyr­i­a­cus’ gen­eral in­flu­ence rel­e­vant to the Cru­sade of 1444 and the sci­ence of ar­chae­ol­ogy. Beloz­er­skaya im­plies that Cyr­i­a­cus was one of the prime movers— if not the prime mover— of this cru­sade, partly for his role in heal­ing the schism be­tween theWestern and East­ern branches of the Church, in­flu­enc­ing both the pope and the Holy Ro­man Em­peror. Beloz­er­skaya as­serts that Cyr­i­a­cus sought to pro­tect an­cient Greek and Ro­man sites from the Ot­tomans— de­spite on­go­ing Euro­pean plun­der. The ci­ta­tions through­out in­di­cate ex­ten­sive re­search, but only one ref­er­ence specif­i­cally men­tions Cyr­i­a­cus speak­ing to the Holy Ro­man Em­peror on this sub­ject— seven years be­fore the Em­peror took action to­ward uni­fi­ca­tion with theWest.

Cyr­i­a­cus’ name doesn’t ap­pear in the in­dex of some older gen­eral ar­chae­ol­ogy texts I checked, but in the in­tro­duc­tion of a 2006 pub­li­ca­tion, Sor­bonne ar­chae­ol­o­gists credit Cyr­i­a­cus with be­ing the first to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of phys­i­cal ves­tiges for re­con­sti­tut­ing an­cient civ­i­liza­tions— prior to Cyr­i­a­cus, schol­ars re­lied mainly on an­cient texts.

Beloz­er­skaya is an au­thor who falls in love with her sub­jects, by her own ad­mis­sion. If this leads her to am­plify their ac­com­plish­ments, it also makes for en­joy­able read­ing. Her Cyr­i­a­cus is an ex­cel­lent trav­el­ing com­pan­ion who never com­plains about the weather or the hard­ships of the voy­age, mar­veling at the sights in­stead. Take him with you to Rome or Athens or Is­tan­bul— or set­tle into your fa­vorite easy chair and let him take you.

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