In­grid D. Row­land

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - In­grid D. Row­land

Baroque An­tiq­uity: Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion in Early Mod­ern Europe by Vic­tor Plahte Tschudi

Baroque An­tiq­uity: Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion in Early Mod­ern Europe by Vic­tor Plahte Tschudi. Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press, 300 pp., $99.99

For sev­eral decades in the early seven­teenth cen­tury, Ger­man-speak­ing vis­i­tors to Rome could tour the city with a strap­ping Swiss Guard named Hans Ru­dolf Hein­rich Hoch, who liked to use the Ital­ian ver­sion of his name, Gio­vanni Alto—Tall John. Tow­er­ing over the av­er­age Ro­man in his bil­low­ing guards­man’s uni­form, com­plete with cape, ruff, pan­taloons, rosettes­tud­ded cod­piece, and ex­trav­a­gantly plumed top hat, Gio­vanni Alto cut a dash­ing fig­ure as he shep­herded his charges through the Eter­nal City, bring­ing the ru­ins back to life with his ex­u­ber­ant de­scrip­tions while gen­tly ex­tolling the virtues of the Ro­man Catholic faith.

As a fi­nal flour­ish, he would in­vite his most il­lus­tri­ous clients to sign his guest book; to­day, four such au­to­graph al­bums sur­vive in the Vatican Li­brary. Per­haps this was the mo­ment when he let it be known that he could rec­om­mend some very spe­cial sou­venirs of Rome at a very spe­cial price: en­grav­ings of the mon­u­ments and ru­ins they had just seen, fresh from the shop of the lo­cal print­maker Gi­a­como Lauro (ac­tive 1583–1645). Sev­eral of Lauro’s prints con­ve­niently fea­ture Gio­vanni Alto ges­tic­u­lat­ing in the fore­ground (as well as other con­tem­po­rary tour guides hard at work).

En­grav­ings made ideal sou­venirs: they were light, por­ta­ble, and rel­a­tively af­ford­able. Long af­ter the tour ended, they could serve as a fo­cus for trea­sured me­mories and dis­play the won­ders of Rome to the peo­ple back home. As a fur­ther ad­van­tage, Lauro sold the im­ages loose, as in­di­vid­ual plates; cus­tomers could choose which to buy and ar­range them into an en­tirely per­sonal bound al­bum. The col­lu­sion be­tween the Swiss Guard and the Ital­ian en­graver, com­bin­ing grand tour and mem­ory book, cre­ated a per­fect, and lu­cra­tive, al­liance.

Alto and Lauro were hardly the first to profit from sell­ing mass-pro­duced prints to tourists: in the 1530s, a Rome­based Span­ish pub­lisher and book­seller, An­to­nio Sala­manca, had al­ready be­gun to pub­lish fo­lio en­grav­ings of Ro­man mon­u­ments, both an­cient and mod­ern. Copy­right as we know it was still an un­known luxury, so when a French pub­lisher, An­toine Lafréry, moved to Rome and started to pro­duce pi­rate ver­sions of Sala­manca’s prints in the 1540s, the Spa­niard re­sponded not with a law­suit but an of­fer of col­lab­o­ra­tion. The two men of­fi­cially joined forces in 1553. Sala­manca would not re­gret his de­ci­sion; Lafréry may have been a pi­rate, but he was also an ex­cel­lent busi­ness­man.

In 1573, the French­man is­sued a mas­ter list of all the firm’s avail­able en­grav­ings and then, shortly after­ward, printed a ti­tle page that en­abled cus­tomers to turn their col­lec­tions of Ro­man prints into some­thing re­sem­bling a book. This el­e­gant cover sheet fea­tured an elab­o­rate ar­chi­tec­tural caprice fram­ing the res­o­nant ti­tle Mir­ror of Ro­man Mag­nif­i­cence (Specu­lum Ro­manae Mag­nif­i­cen­tiae). To­day, li­braries all around the world have cat­a­log en­tries for the Specu­lum Ro­manae Mag­nif­i­cen­tiae, but only some of these en­tries re­fer to bound vol­umes. Many ver­sions of the Specu­lum are still kept as loose col­lec­tions, and each, bound or un­bound, is dif­fer­ent from all the rest. Gi­a­como Lauro be­gan work­ing in Rome in the 1580s, when the Specu­lum topped ev­ery well-heeled tourist’s list of de­sir­able sou­venirs. Like Lafréry, he was a rogue, an ac­com­plished pi­rate of other peo­ple’s en­grav­ings who ma­neu­vered as deftly as Lafréry had around a grow­ing body of copy­right pro­tec­tions (which he helped to cre­ate). In or­der to garner a cor­ner of Lafréry’s mar­ket, Lauro is­sued his own col­lec­tion of Ro­man en­grav­ings, Splen­dor of the An­cient City (An­ti­quae Ur­bis Splen­dor), as a three-vol­ume set in 1615, choos­ing to fo­cus on re­con­struc­tions of an­cient build­ings rather than the rapidly de­vel­op­ing ar­chi­tec­ture of mod­ern Rome. Gio­vanni Alto wrote the pref­ace.

The Nor­we­gian art his­to­rian Vic­tor Plahte Tschudi be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing Gi­a­como Lauro’s de­vi­ous ca­reer when he was a grad­u­ate stu­dent on a fel­low­ship in Rome. He dis­cov­ered how clev­erly the print­maker had pi­rated en­grav­ings of Ro­man mon­u­ments, al­ter­ing a few de­tails to avoid break­ing the let­ter, not to men­tion the spirit, of emerg­ing copy­right laws. Strictly speak­ing, Lauro could ar­gue that his slightly and de­lib­er­ately al­tered copies were not re­ally copies—never mind that the al­ter­ations he made to his im­ages also turned them into less ac­cu­rate, or flat-out in­ac­cu­rate, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the mon­u­ments they de­picted. Most of Lauro’s cus­tomers would never have no­ticed in any case, nor, for that mat­ter, would most Ro­mans; what counted above all to the col­lec­tors of these en­grav­ings was the sug­ges­tive idea, or the mem­ory, of sights like the Colos­seum or the tem­ples of the Ro­man Fo­rum. Lauro was no Pi­ranesi, tor­mented by mag­nif­i­cent visions. He scratched out his en­grav­ings to make a liv­ing, not to court im­mor­tal­ity.

Tschudi’s book Baroque An­tiq­uity ad­dresses, with cor­us­cat­ing wit, a more chal­leng­ing as­pect of Lauro’s handi­work: the fact that so many of his re­con­struc­tions of an­cient mon­u­ments fly in the face of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ac­cu­racy, not just in the de­tails, but en­tirely. In his search for why this was so, Tschudi in­tro­duces read­ers to an­other seven­teenth-cen­tury rogue, al­beit one with an imag­i­na­tion as epic as Pi­ranesi’s: Fa­ther Athana­sius Kircher, the Ger­man refugee who spent most of his life at the Je­suit Ro­man Col­lege in Rome and, like Gio­vanni Alto be­fore him, served as a point of ref­er­ence for Ger­man vis­i­tors to the Eter­nal City. Kircher’s re­con­struc­tions of an­cient Ro­man mon­u­ments are some­times as ex­trav­a­gantly fic­ti­tious as any caprice of Lauro’s An­ti­quae Ur­bis Splen­dor, and some­times, again like Lauro’s, as ac­cu­rate as mod­ern schol­ar­ship could make them. The print­maker and the Je­suit sa­vant de­parted from ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ac­cu­racy not out of ig­no­rance, but by de­lib­er­ate choice, and thereby hangs Tschudi’s fas­ci­nat­ing story.

The ear­li­est sur­viv­ing guide­books to Rome—twelfth-cen­tury pil­grim hand­books like Record of the Golden City of Rome (Graphia Aureae Ur­bis Ro­mae, circa 1130) and the best-sell­ing Won­ders of the City of Rome (Mirabilia Ur­bis Ro­mae, circa 1143)—served up gen­er­ous doses of fic­tion to com­pen­sate for their lack of con­crete in­for­ma­tion about the ru­ins of the an­cient city. Noah had set­tled in Rome just af­ter the Flood, long be­fore a pair of baby boys named Ro­mu­lus and Remus were ever suck­led by a kindly she-wolf in a swamp that would one day be­come the Cir­cus Max­imus. A dragon lived in the Fo­rum, not far from the place called “In­ferno” be­cause there the fires of Hell had once burst forth from the cen­ter of the earth.

The cir­cu­lar “eye” that opens to the sky in the cen­ter of the Pan­theon’s dome was once plugged by the huge bronze pinecone that stood in those days by the en­trance to St. Peter’s Basil­ica (since 1643 it has dec­o­rated the up­per gar­den of what are now the Vatican Mu­se­ums). Some medieval pil­grims must have been ob­ser­vant enough to see that the Pignone, the big pinecone, could never have stopped the eight-me­ter open­ing in the Pan­theon’s roof, let alone blow sky-high one day in a cloud of devils, fly through the air for a full city block, and fall to earth in the pi­azza that still bears its name, Pi­azza della Pigna.

On the other hand, an­cient Ro­man le­gends about the Fo­rum were scarcely more cred­i­ble than these tales from the Mid­dle Ages: the di­vine twins Cas­tor and Pol­lux wa­ter­ing their im­mor­tal horses by the house of the Vestal Vir­gins, meat rain­ing from the heav­ens, Ro­mu­lus dis­ap­pear­ing into thin air, Quin­tus Cur­tius leap­ing into a chasm on horse­back as the earth closed be­hind him, the body of Julius Cae­sar burst­ing into spon­ta­neous flame. The very strange­ness of these events, both an­cient and medieval, hinted at higher mean­ings, although it must be said that the priests of Rome never did di­vine ex­actly why the skies rained meat in 461 BC; they paid more heed to the pre­vi­ous year’s re­port of a talk­ing cow.* By the mid-fif­teenth cen­tury, this kind of fan­ci­ful tale-telling about early Rome had given way to schol­arly

*The meat rain of 461 is recorded by the Ro­man his­to­rian Livy, as are most of the other sto­ries cited here. For a pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for the phe­nom­e­non, see the dis­cus­sion of the Ken­tucky Meat Shower of 1876 by Bec Crew, “The Great Ken­tucky Meat Shower Mys­tery Un­wound by Pro­jec­tile Vul­ture Vomit,” Run­ning Ponies (blog), Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, De­cem­ber 1, 2014. See also Franklin Brunell Krauss, An In­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Omens, Por­tents, and Prodi­gies Recorded by Livy, Tac­i­tus, and Sue­to­nius (doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion, pri­vately printed, 1930).

scru­tiny. In the 1460s, the Univer­sity of Rome hired pro­fes­sors to teach the new dis­ci­pline of stu­dia hu­man­i­tatis—the hu­man­i­ties. Their stu­dents, in­clud­ing a brace of fu­ture Vatican bureau­crats and at least one sixteenth-cen­tury pope (Paul III), learned to com­pare the tes­ti­mony of an­cient writ­ers with the city’s sur­viv­ing phys­i­cal traces and imag­ine them­selves back into the world of an­tiq­uity. Rather than a story of pride brought low, Rome be­gan to tell an em­i­nently Chris­tian story of res­ur­rec­tion, of an em­pire put in place by God to spread the good news of the gospel, then and now. Af­ter cen­turies of shrink­age, the city had be­gun to grow rapidly, stim­u­lat­ing new build­ing ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing in the long-de­serted tracts called the dis­abi­tato, the un­in­hab­ited zone within the city walls.

In a process that still con­tin­ues unabated, ev­ery ex­ca­va­tion for a new foun­da­tion or a wine cel­lar brought up tan­ta­liz­ing rem­nants of the past. Schol­ars and artists clam­bered over the ru­ins, sketch­ing, mea­sur­ing, ex­am­in­ing, com­par­ing, see­ing many sights that have long since dis­ap­peared, most of them de­stroyed by an­other five cen­turies of new con­struc­tion or, like the in­tact body of an an­cient Ro­man girl em­balmed in honey, by ex­po­sure to the el­e­ments. At the same time, new gen­er­a­tions of what con­tem­po­raries called “book glut­tons” (hel­lu­ones li­bro­rum) scoured li­braries in the hope of find­ing for­got­ten copies of an­cient texts. Yet the more the an­cient world re­vealed it­self, the more clearly an un­fath­omable dis­tance yawned be­tween an­cient lit­er­a­ture and an­cient ru­ins. By the early sixteenth cen­tury, most vis­i­tors to Rome came seek­ing a lit­eral, not a leg­endary, con­nec­tion to the past. They wanted to walk in the real foot­steps of the Apos­tles and Julius Cae­sar as they took in the new pa­pal Rome ris­ing be­fore their eyes.

Tschudi sug­gests that, in ad­di­tion to these time-hon­ored sources of in­for­ma­tion about Rome—the lit­er­ary legacy of an­cient au­thors and the phys­i­cal legacy of the mon­u­ments—six­teen­th­cen­tury print­mak­ers re­lied to an even greater ex­tent on a third source: other prints. By ex­am­in­ing (or sim­ply copy­ing) the work of his pre­de­ces­sors, Gi­a­como Lauro could con­coct his own re­con­struc­tion of an an­cient build­ing with­out ever hav­ing to step out­side his stu­dio. In ef­fect, he and his col­leagues cre­ated what Baroque An­tiq­uity terms an “ar­chae­ol­ogy of prints,” and in­deed the word “ar­chae­ol­ogy,” with a mean­ing roughly equiv­a­lent to “an­cient his­tory,” ap­pears for the first time in 1607, pre­cisely when Gi­a­como Lauro was per­fect­ing his Splen­dor of the An­cient City.

W ith this for­mu­la­tion, Tschudi puts his fin­ger on a phe­nom­e­non that had taken root in the pre­vi­ous cen­tury when, with star­tling speed, the printed page be­gan to cre­ate a world of its own. In Rome around 1514, when the cash­strapped Pope Leo X re­al­ized that he could never af­ford a ma­jor build­ing project, he com­mis­sioned Raphael to cre­ate, on pa­per, a re­con­struc­tion of the city dur­ing the reign of Con­stan­tine. Painfully aware of his own lim­i­ta­tions, he chose to re­call a time when the Ro­man Em­pire spanned three con­ti­nents, the in­hab­ited city ex­tended all the way to its third-cen­tury walls, and Chris­tian­ity had ce­mented its tri­umph over the an­cient gods.

In 1515, Holy Ro­man Em­peror Max­i­m­il­ian I, as deeply in debt as Pope Leo, com­mis­sioned a colos­sal tri­umphal arch from Al­brecht Dürer—on pa­per. Soon en­thu­si­as­tic Luther­ans would be past­ing huge pa­per prints of Martin Luther on their walls in place of mar­ble stat­ues. In 1615, as Lauro is­sued his An­ti­quae Ur­bis Splen­dor, an­other trans­plant to Rome, the aris­to­cratic scholar Cas­siano dal Pozzo, con­ceived the idea for a “Pa­per Mu­seum” to en­com­pass ev­ery branch of hu­man knowl­edge. Tschudi nav­i­gates through this pa­per uni­verse, which he de­scribes as “a his­tor­i­cal land­scape twice re­moved,” with sparkling in­ge­nu­ity, ideas swarm­ing as densely and provoca­tively as a fly­ing squadron of Baroque cu­pids. To en­grave an im­age of the tem­ple of Honos and Vir­tus, men­tioned by an­cient writ­ers such as Cicero and Vitru­vius but long since oblit­er­ated, Lauro, like the writ­ers of Rome’s twelfth­cen­tury guide­books, re­sorted to fic­tion. Honos and Vir­tus are not quite equiv­a­lent to Honor and Virtue; they are some­thing more akin to Mil­i­tary Jus­tice and Bat­tle Courage, val­ues ap­pro­pri­ate for a tem­ple ded­i­cated by the Ro­man gen­eral Quin­tus Fabius Max­imus Ver­ru­co­sus as a vic­tory pledge, and val­ues the Ro­mans them­selves re­garded as es­sen­tial to their suc­cess. Lauro imag­ined the shrine as a domed build­ing with a domed vestibule, set within a statue-stud­ded cir­cu­lar precinct: a Pan­theon tai­lored to con­tem­po­rary seven­teenth-cen­tury taste.

His re­con­struc­tion, in turn, would in­spire the great ar­chi­tects of Baroque Rome to turn his pa­per vi­sion of Ro­man virtue into phys­i­cal re­al­ity, as Gian­lorenzo Bernini would do in 1662– 1664 with his Church of the As­sump­tion in Aric­cia, a vil­lage just out­side Rome. For Lauro’s An­ti­quae Ur­bis Splen­dor sold not only to vis­it­ing tourists, but also to the artists and ar­chi­tects en­gaged in cre­at­ing the splen­dor of the mod­ern city. His pa­per an­tiq­uity helped to trans­form Rome’s most tan­gi­ble re­al­ity.


Rome en­gen­dered yet an­other il­lus­tri­ous pa­per city, this one res­o­lutely pro­jected into the fu­ture: a col­lec­tion of manuscripts in the Vatican Li­brary as­sem­bled be­tween 1655 and 1667 by Pope Alexan­der VII. These mag­nif­i­cent fo­lios, a bound col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal drawings, con­tain plans for the pope’s am­bi­tious build­ing pro­gram. Some of the projects were never re­al­ized, like the plan to glass in the “eye” of the Pan­theon and the mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal idea of mov­ing both the Trevi foun­tain and Tra­jan’s col­umn to join the col­umn of Marcus Aure­lius in a colos­sal ur­ban as­sem­blage, but here we can also see the be­gin­nings of real mon­u­ments: Bernini’s great colon­nade for Saint Peter’s Basil­ica, Bor­ro­mini’s floor plan for the church of Sant’Ivo, and the smirk­ing ele­phant that car­ries an Egyp­tian obelisk on its back in a pi­azza just be­hind the Pan­theon.

The ele­phant, with its sin­gu­lar bur­den, shows the un­mis­tak­able touch of Pope Alexan­der’s long­time friend Fa­ther Athana­sius Kircher, the sin­gle res­i­dent of Rome who claimed to read Egyp­tian hi­ero­glyphs. An in­vet­er­ate prankster, he must have col­lab­o­rated with the pope on draft­ing the in­scrip­tion that adorns the ele­phant’s pedestal: “It takes a hearty spirit to bear up wis­dom.” Of all the Baroque fig­ures who shifted be­tween phys­i­cal worlds and worlds of pa­per, Kircher ruled over the most ex­ten­sive em­pire of all, limited only by his own imag­i­na­tion, which was ap­par­ently lim­it­less.

In 1651, Kircher turned a ver­sion of Cas­siano dal Pozzo’s pa­per mu­seum into a real col­lec­tion, with talk­ing stat­ues, wooden obelisks, a stuffed ar­madillo slung from the ceil­ing, Etr­uscan vases, Ro­man coins, Egyp­tian amulets, a nar­whal horn, a saw­fish bill, ex­otic shoes, a statue carved from a me­te­orite, and a plant he claimed to have res­ur­rected from its own ashes (un­til it, and its glass bell, fell from an up­stairs win­dow one win­ter evening). In this vaulted king­dom within the Je­suit Col­lege he re­ceived heads of state, from a suc­ces­sion of popes to Queen Christina of Swe­den, as well as a stream of tourists. Like Gio­vanni Alto, he had a knack for qui­etly at­tract­ing Ger­man Luther­ans to the Catholic faith, but he could also con­verse in most Euro­pean lan­guages, Ara­bic, and He­brew.

This was Kircher’s tan­gi­ble world. But he also ruled over a vast em­pire of print, fa­cil­i­tated, once again, by his friend­ship with Alexan­der VII, whose pro­tec­tion en­abled him to flout the cen­sors within his or­der and with­out. Like Martin Luther, Fa­ther Kircher wrote pro­lif­i­cally enough to sus­tain an en­tire print­ing in­dus­try sin­gle-hand­edly. From a first work on mag­netism, he moved on to acous­tics, light, mu­sic, China, ge­ol­ogy, cos­mol­ogy, sym­bolic logic, to­pog­ra­phy, Egyp­tol­ogy, Noah’s Ark, and Latium, the re­gion around Rome. In 1661, he struck a long-term agree­ment with a Dutch Protes­tant pub­lisher, Jo­hannes Jans­son, which al­lowed him to pro­duce lav­ish fo­lio books with en­graved il­lus­tra­tions by the best pro­fes­sion­als Am­s­ter­dam could of­fer. Kircher was an en­thu­si­as­tic drafts­man him­self but, as his manuscripts show, not a par­tic­u­larly gifted one. Jans­son’s en­gravers made him look like a mas­ter. Baroque An­tiq­uity zooms in on one of Kircher’s later works from the Jans­son press: Latium, pub­lished in 1671, which, typ­i­cally for its au­thor, presents re­con­struc­tions of an­cient Ro­man ru­ins along­side a plan to drain the malar­ial Pon­tine Marshes (a project that only came to fruition in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury). Here Tschudi shows how Kircher’s pa­per re­con­struc­tion of the huge hill­side sanc­tu­ary of For­tune at Palest­rina clev­erly chan­nels re­con­struc­tions of an­other an­tique struc­ture, the villa of Mae­ce­nas, the leg­endary pa­tron who spon­sored so many peo­ple and projects dur­ing the reign of Au­gus­tus. Mae­ce­nas was an Etr­uscan, de­scended (so claimed the poet Ho­race) from a line of lo­cal kings, and so, at least in fancy, was the sev­en­teen­th­cen­tury owner of Palest­rina, Car­di­nal Francesco Bar­berini, him­self a great pa­tron and a loyal son of Tus­cany. By recre­at­ing the sprawl­ing ru­ined tem­ple on Bar­berini’s prop­erty as a gen­er­ous Etr­uscan spon­sor’s sanc­tu­ary for learn­ing and the arts, Kircher paid homage to the car­di­nal’s good taste in his­toric real es­tate, his Tus­can her­itage, and his mag­na­nim­ity. The tem­ple, of course, never looked re­motely like Kircher’s re­con­struc­tion (for which he en­listed the help of the bril­liant Tus­can ar­chi­tect Pi­etro da Cor­tona), but un­til a bomb­ing raid in World War II pul­ver­ized much of Palest­rina, no one knew what it looked like; the ru­ins had been cov­ered for cen­turies, if not for mil­len­nia, by the vil­lage. Thus Kircher, like Gi­a­como Lauro, used his pa­per king­dom with sovereign mas­tery “to flat­ter, in­struct, con­vert.” And above all, as Baroque An­tiq­uity demon­strates on ev­ery page, to be­guile.

Gio­vanni Alto show­ing off the sights of Rome; en­grav­ing by Francesco Vil­la­mena, 1613

The Tower of Ba­bel; en­grav­ing by Athana­sius Kircher, 1679

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