BMCR 2001.03.05

Art and Archaeology of Rome: From Ancient Times to the Baroque

, , Art and archaeology of Rome : from ancient times to the Baroque. New York: Scala, 2000. 223 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 28 cm. ISBN 1878351567. $24.99.

In four sweeping chapters, this volume treats Ancient (pp. 4-59), Medieval (60-103), Renaissance (104-59), and Baroque Rome (160-223), with a single page at the end (224) devoted to bibliography, organized by chapter titles. A detailed table of contents compensates somewhat for the absence of indices, but the bibliography is at odds with a general audience. (Of fifty-four works listed, forty-four are in Italian, seven in English, two in German, and one in French.) There is no separate introduction, and Augenti’s voice, as far as this reader can tell, is either unheard or unacknowledged throughout. The high-quality illustrations are lavish, and they make the book a minor gem for a reader who loves this city and its art. (The illustrations are not numbered, but an advertising blurb specifies 482 color illustrations and six drawings.) This volume presents the most important historical sites, monuments, and artworks, as well as the best-known collections in the city, including several recently reopened ones, devoted to antiquity. Each of the four chapters includes a profusely illustrated historical overview of its period, which, in turn, is interspersed with special topical treatments. This is not a scholarly book, but it is both generally informed and informative, and also noteworthy as an arresting source of visual pleasure.

As a classicist and longtime visitor to Rome, I found this book curious and helpful, and I review it here for BMCR primarily from a classicist’s point of view. It helped me to bring together and reflect on my own disparate experience of the city’s rich artistic and architectural heritage over more centuries than my expertise reaches. The readers inscribed in the text are inquisitive and informed individuals who want to reminisce, visit, or dream about the city. Perhaps the one necessity for enjoying this book is a penchant for visiting museums, since it not only shows important objects found in museums but also displays the city itself as a museum housing the art, archaeology, and architecture that provide the book’s proper subject. We may argue about the merits of this approach, but many of the book’s subsections are devoted, literally, to the highlights of specific museums and galleries. In addition, the art and architecture in all four chapters are laid out in a way that approximates a museum catalogue. Since 1995 five major collections focusing on ancient materials have opened or reopened in Rome. Highlights from the Palazzo Massimo and Palazzo Altemps are represented, but the Montemartini Power Station (fresco of the Fabii, copy of the Hellenistic Sitting Girl, the Two Circus Judges) and the small Crypta Balbi (specializing in late antique and early mediaeval daily life) go unrepresented. The cover shows the fresco fragment of Apollo and his lyre, on display in the Palatine Antiquarium, which reopened in 1997 after fourteen years of being in restauro.

A list of what was excluded or included in this volume seems either wrongheaded or picayune, or both. Nevertheless, a few critical observations may be of particular interest to BMCR’s readers.

Etruscan work is illustrated here chiefly because each chapter pays some attention to the collections housed in the city’s museums. Thus, in a topical insertion (pp. 50-51), the collection of the Villa Giulia is exemplified by the detail of a gold pectoral from Praeneste (Palestrina), the terracotta statue of Apollo from Portonaccio, a detail of the famous Husband and Wife sarcophagus from Caere, a gold plaque from Pyrgi, the bronze votive known as the Plowman of Arezzo, and the Ficoroni cista. This last item is a Praenestine-style cista made and signed by Novios Plautios, a freedman perhaps of Campanian origin, working in Rome in the late fourth century B.C. This cista is included for its workmanship and undeniable beauty, but its curious social history is overlooked. The essay ignores the fact that this cista is inscribed, and that the inscription identifies it—unusually—as having been manufactured in Rome. This is an odd omission in a book proclaiming the art and archaeology of the city in its title. And never mind the rest of the social history of this cista: it was made at Rome for Dindia Malconia, a Praenestine aristocratic woman, who gave it to her daughter. Also problematic is the Capitoline She-Wolf, which the narrative (p. 7) attributes to an Etruscan or Greek workshop in the early fifth century B.C. without alerting the reader that the two suckling infants are Renaissance additions.

The chapter divisions and the topical insertions reflect the attractions and the drawbacks of the academic propensity for compartmentalizing. For example, the mediaeval period begins here with the Age of Constantine (defined, p. 61, as “the fourth century”). After eleven pages covering that topic, we get a single page inserted on the catacombs (p. 71), as if they had sprung full blown from the head of Jupiter in the fourth century. Thus, the treatment of the catacombs also seems to cater to the popular misconception that they are a Christian invention. No mention is made of the long-closed, and fast-disintegrating, Jewish catacombs, once promised for reopening in the early 1990s before money problems buried the project. Photographs are available, however, and their absence here, along with the still-closed Jewish catacombs, underlines the book’s role as a virtual catalogue of the city’s chief artistic attractions. Not so much what you see, but what you can see (in Rome, and sometimes elsewhere) is what you get in this book. Still, these missing pieces of the puzzle re-enact the visitor’s all-too-frequent ritual frustration: “Gallery Closed Indefinitely.”

Church historians and feminist critics will regret the absent fresco of the communal banquet (not all agree that it is a eucharist) from the third-century Cappella Greca in the catacomb of Priscilla, which shows at least one woman among the seven figures seated around the table. The pious will miss what is possibly the earliest representation of Madonna and Child from this same catacomb; it is mentioned as a work of the second century A.D. but not illustrated. Last summer, with a group of colleagues, I benefited from a private tour of this catacomb, but even a casual walk through it would drive home the symbolic importance of two recurrent scenes from the bible—the sacrifice of Isaac and Jonah and the whale. The late fourth-century catacomb under the Via Latina has an even greater emphasis on biblical scenes generally, but especially on those from the Jewish bible. I am no expert, but, because of the Christians’ historical and polemical claim of continuity with a Jewish past, a reader might expect to see in this volume one of these two scenes or some other frequent representation from this inheritance (the three young men in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lions’ den). “Biblical subjects” here refers only to the Christian bible and includes the famous Enthroned Virgin with Child from the catacomb of Commodilla. Unfortunately, the ceiling fresco of the Good Shepherd (usually dated to the third century) from the Cappella della Velata in the catacomb of Priscilla is misidentified and confused (p. 71) with the similar scene from the catacomb of St. Callixtus, which is not shown. And shouldn’t there be at least a cross-reference somewhere in this chapter to the statue of the rabbinical, if youthful, Christ (mid-third to mid-fourth century A.D.) illustrated in the first chapter on Ancient Rome (p. 54), but not even mentioned in the narrative there?

The much-discussed cityscape found early in 1998, beneath the Baths of Trajan, is still too new to be on public display and is justifiably absent here. For the Palazzo Spada, we get a representative sampling of paintings from the famous Galleria (p. 223), although the illustration of Guercino’s Death of Dido is too small to be appreciated, and there is not even a glimpse of the colossal statue of Pompey (housed in the adjacent State Rooms), at the feet of which Caesar supposedly was slain. In any case, only the extremely lucky will ever persuade a guard to let them see that statue.

The title is misleading, and oddly—but marketably—disingenuous. Ordinarily, the phrase “art and archaeology of Rome” conjures up images of the city in antiquity—usually the classical or the palaeochristian city, possibly the mediaeval one, but surely not Rome of the Renaissance and Baroque ages. “Art and Architecture of Rome” is more accurate and more serviceable as a rubric for all four periods. Even when archaeology has something to offer for later periods, as in the case of the recent excavations in the area of the imperial forums, it is passed over. Archaeologists today cannot tear straight through to the classical layers, as they did in the 1930s, but must preserve other strata too, like the mediaeval street still littered with chicken bones. Excavators found and preserved a large limekiln that once melted down the marble from the Forum of Trajan in the destructive urban renewal we know as the Renaissance. A search of the city’s archives produced the name of the owner, “Peter at the column,” who is nowhere mentioned here—not even in the treatment of the new excavations (p. 49). Likewise, although that same subsection notes the size of the equestrian statue of Trajan (perhaps twice that of the gilded Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline) and the exact location of the deified emperor’s temple, it omits the somewhat startling news that the equestrian statue was off center, as shown by its newly discovered base. Reconstructions formerly showed the statue dead center in the open courtyard, just as the three-dimensional drawing here (pp. 38-39) appears to do, although it is hard to be absolutely certain from the bird’s eye view of the drawing.

This book provides a vast overview and a guide not so much for the perplexed as for the interested and educated. It has drawbacks for the close reader, as many of its scholarly audience will be, but within broad limits it is a useful book. The photographs steal the show, of course. For example, in the Carafa Chapel (Cappella di San Tomaso in Santa Maria sopra Minerva), the photographs (pp. 118-9) illustrate both frescoed walls by Filippino Lippi, and his frescoed altar wall is cleverly shown as part of a general view that includes the chapel’s handsome marble arch and the balustrade of its entrance as well. (This view should be compared with that of the catacomb on Via Latina, p. 71.) The Vatican’s Gallery of Maps cannot be appreciated when it is jam-packed with visitors rushing through to see the restored Sistine Chapel, which itself is represented concisely but brilliantly in this book (pp. 128-32). Once in my life, and only very early in the morning, have I ever seen the Gallery of Maps as empty of visitors as it is shown in the single, magnificent photograph here (p. 152). However, one of the chorographic maps on the lateral walls of the Gallery also deserved to be illustrated, if only because of the curious dual view these maps often provide of the chief city in any given region of Italy.

No justification is needed for a basically up-to-date, concise, and comprehensive overview of the artistic heritage of Rome, and especially not for one that achieves all that this volume does. The book is attractive, and informative for periods outside any given reader’s expertise. It deserves a place on many bookshelves and—despite its paper covers—on many coffee tables too. The text is direct, unobtrusive in its approach to the art and architecture, and generally non-controversial. It addresses past and future visitors to Rome, as well as other devotees of the city’s aesthetic attractions, and its choice of illustrations is not straight-jacketed by a rigidly executed plan. Teachers preparing to lead a group of students to the city could put this volume to good use. No reader will forget the abundance of dazzling photographs.