IN OTHER WORDS
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.