Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.07

David Karmon, The Ruin of the Eternal City: Antiquity and Preservation in Renaissance Rome.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. ix, 320.  ISBN 9780199766895.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Pablo Alvarez, University of Michigan (

[Table of Contents listed below.]

In the tenth and last book of De re aedificatoria, Leon Battista Alberti discusses different techniques for the restoration of buildings in Rome and other Italian cities. At the start of this particular book, he openly complains about the role played by man in the deterioration of ancient monuments:

Then there is damage caused by man. God help me, I sometimes cannot stomach it when I see with what negligence, or to put it more crudely, by what avarice they allow the ruin of things that because of their great nobility the barbarians, the raging enemies have spared; or those which all-conquering, all ruining time might easily have allowed to stand for ever.1

Alberti was certainly familiar with the topography of Rome. Around 1432, under the auspices of Pope Eugenius IV, he wrote a survey of the monuments of the city. Some time before 1450, when De re aedificatoria was completed, Alberti was a consultant of Pope Nicholas V, who was greatly concerned about the need to restore Old St. Peter’s. Other humanists like Biondo Flavio were even bitterer in their criticism, describing a city where the building ambitions of the Church were gradually obliterating the architectural achievements of the ancients. This image would be often echoed in subsequent works of scholarship, acquiring a quasi-melodramatic tone in Rodolfo Lanciani’s multi-volume series Storia degli scavi di Roma intorno le collezioni romane di antichità (1902-1912). But is this picture accurate?

The main thesis of The Ruin of the City is that, whereas it has been a commonplace to state that the Renaissance was responsible for more destruction of ancient monuments in Rome than any other historical period, the reality was rather different. In fact, argues David Karmon, important advancements in preservation practices took place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, scholars have been unable to appreciate these preservation efforts because they have been judged according to the standards of modern conservation as they were originally defined in the wake of the French Revolution, and, especially, according to the increasingly strict demands of nineteenth-century archaeology. Karmon’s argumentation is based on the examination of three types of evidence: the artifacts themselves, antiquarian drawings of ancient ruins by sixteenth-century artists like Giovanni Antonio Dosio, Etienne Dupérac, and Marten van Heemskerck, and documentary collections held at the Vatican and Capitoline archives. To be precise, the documents under discussion have been added in a useful appendix, including the English translation of each of the Latin and Italian originals (208-233). Following an introduction where the author announces his thesis, as briefly described above, the book is divided into two parts of three chapters each. At the end of the review is a transcription of the table of contents.

In Chapter 1, “Preservation Practices in Ancient and Medieval Rome”, we are briefly introduced to some restoration initiatives that took place before the Renaissance. Obviously, and as Paul Zanker has taught us,2 one must first mention Augustus’s propaganda campaign to legitimize and to showcase his military and political achievements. He accomplished this by identifying himself with the glorious past of Rome, particularly with its religious traditions. In fact, the restoration of temples was at the heart of this program; a total of 82 temples were restored according to the Res Gestae. And Karmon is absolutely correct to emphasize how Augustus unconsciously set the stage for how future emperors and popes viewed the ruins of the eternal city. For instance, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric supported, at least in theory, the preservation of the past as it meant a continuity between himself, a barbarian king, and the imperial tradition. Furthermore, some medieval popes like Gregory the Great explicitly gave orders not to destroy the temples, but only the idols they harbored. Clearly, while the ruins were witnesses of a pagan past, they were also a splendorous background for the building of the Christian Church. But it was not until the year 1144, with the creation of the civic government on the Capitoline Hill, that there was an institution trying to stop the uncontrolled destruction of ancient monuments to build new housing and churches. However, as argued in Chapter 2, “Inventing a Preservation Program in Fifteenth-Century Rome”, the preservation efforts of the civic authorities would succeed only with the support of the papacy. The arrival of Martin V and the papal court on 28 September 1420 ended a period of decline and stagnation. The Bull of 1425 officially declared the Maestri di Strade agents of the papal administration, empowering them to issue excavation permits until this right was revoked by Pope Nicholas V, who, instead, created a papal monopoly over the ruins. But again, the Bull of 1462, issued by Pius II, handed control back to the civic authorities, specifically to the Conservators, who had emerged as the leading magistrates of the civic government of the Capitoline Hill. In 1471, Sixtus IV undermined the authority of the Conservators by the creation of the Capitoline Museum, thus turning a civic institution into a mere antiquarian landmark.

As summarized above, Karmon masterfully uses the archival sources to describe the tension between conservators and popes concerning the monopoly of building licenses and preservation in Rome. By the end of the fifteenth century, popes had come to terms with the fact that they needed the conservators’ influence and expertise to stop the indiscriminate use of ancient ruins for new construction. However, we need to wait until the sixteenth century to think of anything close to what could be defined as an attempt to implement a consistent preservation policy. Chapter 3, “A Sixteenth-Century Meteor in the Roman Forum”, covers the first half of the sixteenth century, from the election of Julius II in 1503 to the death of Paul III in 1549. In those years, Rome was intensively excavated to un- earth new sources of building stone that would supply new construction sites. According to Karmon, “there is no question that the archaeological upheaval of sixteenth-century Rome also forced preservation practices to become ever more focused and precise”(79). But where is the evidence for that statement? Here it is necessary to distinguish between good intentions and what actually happened on the ground. For instance, in 1506 , Julius II decided to endorse the plans of his architect Donato Bramante to rebuild the 1200 year-old basilica of Old St. Peter’s. Bramante tried to save the original location of the historical obelisk, a symbol of ancient Egypt within an increasingly Christian environment. However, Bramante was never allowed to implement his plans to excavate and transfer the tomb of St. Peter to bring it into axial alignment with the obelisk. After Bramante’s death in 1514, the newly-elected pope Leo X appointed Raphael architect of St. Peter’s. In collaboration with Baldassare Castiglione, Raphael wrote the “Letter to Leo X”, which, Karmon states, “remains the most famous manifesto on behalf of the preservation of antiquity to be produced in Renaissance Italy” (88).

Unfortunately, and contrary to what Karmon seems to imply, the ideas contained in this manifesto did not play a definitive role in the wording of licenses. It is true that some of these building permits prohibited the removal of ancient ruins, but many others were specifically issued to allow the extraction of building materials from important historical sites like the Baths of Caracalla. Moreover, Raphael and other defenders of the past were unable to stop Romans from burning marble for lime, which provided a quick way to create mortar. And ironically, as Karmon concedes, the fact that Raphael had to select materials for the construction of St. Peter’s “represented a kind of death warrant for the ancient remains” (89). Only at the end of Chapter 3 do we actually encounter a clear example of how humanistic ideas about preservation had a practical application: Paul III’s plan to celebrate the triumphal visit of Charles V in 1536. In consultation with the papal commissioner of antiquity Latino Giovenale Manetti, a massive demolition of medieval housing took place to allow Charles V to recreate the route by which the victorious emperors of antiquity made their way to the Roman Forum. It is not only that Rome temporarily turned itself into a historical site, as Karmon argues, but also that actual restoration took place by providing a new usage to the ruins. Whereas preservationists consistently failed to stop the use of ancient remains for the erection of new buildings, small successes happened when ancient monuments were in fact re-used. The selective list of examples included in each of the three chapters of the second part of The Ruin of the City (the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Ponte Santa Maria) is a good illustration of these successes. Karmon provides us with a meticulous history of the preservation and destruction for each of these monuments. However, it seems that he does not make a clear conceptual distinction between how ruins like these were being revitalized with a new usage, and how excavation licenses allowed construction under certain restrictions. In regard to the last three chapters, we will focus on what the author has to say about restoration as re-usage of ruins.

In Chapter 4, we learn that despite consistent destruction throughout the centuries, the Colosseum probably survived because the northern arcades, the most visible portion of the monument, stood directly above the Via Maggiore, which was the main processional route connecting the basilicas of St. Peter and the Lateran (126). In chapter 5, Karmon includes a comprehensive preservation history of the Pantheon, whose survival, I strongly believe, is partly explained by the fact that Innocent VIII commissioned the construction of a high altar in the center of the rotunda in 1491. And, finally, Chapter 6 describes the constant efforts to maintain the functionality of the Ponte de Santa Maria, which, apart from being a crucial artery for commercial traffic, provided the fastest route between two of the most important religious destinations in Rome, the basilica of St. Peter’s at the northern edge, and the basilica of St. Paul to the south (170).

In brief, Karmon does an extraordinary job when using the archival evidence to describe the politics of restoration, which is, to a great extent, the story about how papal and civic magistrates issued licenses to establish alliances with important individuals and families in Rome. Also, he provides a clear narrative about how different individuals understood preservation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, ranging from the leading humanists of the time to those conservators involved in issuing licenses, who, on many occasions, could not do more than regulating destruction and controlling the export of ancient remains. However, Karmon’s insistence on judging those preservation practices in their own terms, as opposed to using our more sophisticated knowledge, might prevent us from giving a scientific assessment of how much destruction actually took place in Rome in the Renaissance.

Table of Contents

Introduction (3-20)
1. Preservation Practices in Ancient and Medieval Rome (23-45)
2. Inventing a Preservation Program in Fifteenth-Century Rome (47-75)
3. A Sixteenth-Century Meteor in the Roman Forum (77-113)
4. The Colosseum (117-143)
5. The Pantheon (145-169)
6. The Ponte Santa Maria (171-198)
Conclusion (199-206)
Appendix of Archival Documents (207-233)
Notes (237-284)
Bibliography (285-306)
Index (307-320)


1.   10.1. On the Art of Building in Ten Books. Trans. Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, Robert Tavernor. Cambridge, MA; London, England: The MIT Press, 1988.
2.   The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Trans. Alan Shapiro. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.

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