BMCR 1995.04.14

1995.04.14, Jacks, The Antiquarian and the Myth of Antiquity

Philip Joshua Jacks, The antiquarian and the myth of antiquity : the origins of Rome in Renaissance thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. xix, 376 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780521441520

Philip Jacks’ book is less concerned with the actual origins of Rome than with the myth of Rome, especially the city’s mythical origins. Discussion of that topic throughout the Renaissance was founded more on contradictory, often forged, texts and sheer imagination than on physical evidence. Nor is the actual origin of Rome, particular interpretation of Varro’s reference to Romulan Rome as urbs quadrata, this volume’s only theme. Parallel to speculation about the origins of the eternal city there is the effort to graft other Italian cities onto the myths of Aeneas and Romulus. Other controversies were concerned with the origins of the Latin language and the superiority of the organized community ( civitas) to the built environment ( urbs). Little attention, however, is paid to Constantinople as the Second Rome; and none to Moscow as the third.

These themes are developed in an elliptical manner that often is difficult to follow. The structure of the book is roughly chronological, but it is easy to miss some of the references to events outside the narrative of scholarly theorizing. Jacks, moreover, writes a difficult style, using odd words like “confundity” (p. 260), which are not readily comprehended. Some sentences are so cryptic as to puzzle the reviewer. For example, the reference to Juan de Torquemada (p. 110), my own main research topic, was hard to disentangle. The author, however, has been well served by the press, which has placed illustrations near the texts describing them.

A precis of certain key points, chapter by chapter, is in order. The first chapter speaks of the Roman cult of the city’s origins, especially Augustan use of the myths of Aeneas and Romulus. Attention also is given to the figure of the lupa nutrix, depicting the she wolf which nursed Romulus and Remus. These themes and others continued long after the Western Empire fell. The Carolingians and Ottonians grafted themselves onto the Roman myth, and the Roman commune looked to the lupa and other relics to vindicate its authority. Cola di Rienzo made especial use of these relics, even as Petrarch introduced more exacting scholarly standards for the study of antiquity. Even the poet made more use of imagination than of a critical examination of monuments when he toured the city. Maps of Rome, based on medieval cartographic conventions, remained more symbolic that descriptive.

The second chapter summarizes many themes of the early fifteenth century. Alberti gave symbolic mapping of Rome a geometric turn, which continued through the sixteenth century. Other humanists in the papacy’s employ, especially Poggio and Flavio Biondo, were more interested in the ruins themselves; but even they fell back on imagination when evidence failed them. Controversy abounded, including a quarrel over the origins of Siena, which pitted Biondo against Pius II and his secretary.

The third chapter looks at the later fifteenth century, especially at the Roman Academy and Annio of Viterbo. Pomponio Leto led a concentrated effort to learn from the sources and to reconstruct the chronology of the ancient city. Here the book gains its greatest coherence, despite a diversion into the effort to establish the natal horoscope of the city of Venice. Leto’s efforts led him not only into close study of antiquity, including speculation about the urbs quadrata, but into political controversy, falling afoul of Paul II. (The author might have made reference to the work of Trame and Laboa on Rodrigo Sanchez de Arevalo, who had charge of the members of the Academy who were imprisoned in Castel Sant’ Angelo.) The efforts of scholars after Leto to wrestle with these issues were complicated by the forgeries of Annio of Viterbo, which misled many, though not all scholars interested in the origins of Rome.

The fourth chapter, even closer knit than the third, focuses on the reign of Leo X, that papal Maecenas. The Medici pope was described by propagandists as the new Numa, and efforts in his time to describe and preserve ancient monuments drew the attention of no less a figure than Raphael. Raphael’s antiquarian efforts influenced the work of Fabio Calvo, whose depiction of Roma quadrata, the city of Romulus, was followed by a picture of an octagonal under Servius Tullius, and then by a series of round figures reminiscent of Alberti’s geometric depiction of the Eternal City.

The Leonine golden age ended with the Sack of Rome in 1527. Calvo himself perished a captive of the mercenaries who had seized the city. His successors, however, continued efforts to understand and depict the urbs, even while the papacy renovated the city about them. In the last chapter, Jacks makes reference to these and other topics, though the chapter lacks the greater coherence of the preceding two. The lupa was removed to the Palazzo dei Conservatori, and the consular fasti were recovered in a damaged state. Other archeological evidence too contributed to ending the period of loose speculation based on conflicting texts, and these same researches contributed to reform of the calendar. Depiction of the city itself became more descriptive and less geometric, but round images of the ancient ruins continued through the century.

What Jacks has given us here is less the development of a single theme than a mosaic of loosely-related topics, many of them quite interesting in their own right. This approach illustrates the nature of antiquarian scholarship, both its strengths and its weaknesses; but it is left to the reader to decide which of these themes are of greatest interest to them. A tighter structure might have highlighted the most important ones in a more effective manner.