BMCR 2003.02.37

Aqueduct Hunting in the Seventeenth Century: Raffaello Fabretti’s De aquis et aquaeductibus veteris Romae

, Aqueduct hunting in the seventeenth century : Raffaello Fabretti's De aquis et aquaeductibus veteris Romae. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. xvi, 309 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN0472112481 $55.00.

This volume presents a translation of Raffaelo Fabretti’s three dissertations on ancient aqueducts, published together originally in 1680 (and conveniently available to modern scholars in a 1972 facsimile edition), along with introduction, commentary, and conclusion. Fabretti was a central figure in the scholarly world of late seventeenth-century Rome. He became Papal Antiquarian in 1673, and in this office explored the hinterland of the city of Rome in search of traces of aqueducts and other antiquities. His published work, although not without considerable eccentricities, gives us some idea of the research he undertook and the conclusions he felt able to draw. Evans, a scholar of ancient aqueducts, translates Fabretti’s often convoluted prose with considerable lucidity, gives a measured assessment of Fabretti and his scholarship, and provides the reader with a helpful set of notes explaining Fabretti’s treatises. These notes follow each dissertation. Strangely, it is not clear from the translation which parts will receive commentary, so this reader would be well advised to keep a finger in the index.

Why would anyone want to read Fabretti now? From a purely practical point of view, the archaeologist hoping to find some hitherto unknown topographical detail in Fabretti is likely to be disappointed. Unlike much other seventeenth-century antiquarian scholarship, Fabretti’s has not been forgotten, mainly thanks to the work of Rodolfo Lanciani and Thomas Ashby, both of whom praised Fabretti’s work fulsomely as they set out to investigate the Roman campagna. Their praise has ensured that Fabretti has kept his title as the pioneer of Roman aqueduct studies, and has meant that he is still cited by writers on ancient aqueducts today. This volume seems primarily aimed at such scholars: Evans clearly and helpfully explicates Fabretti’s topographical arguments and technical comments on the construction of aqueducts. In doing so, he provides up-to-date bibliography on, and solutions for, the problems Fabretti tackles. Fabretti is also a fascinating figure for anyone interested in antiquarian scholarship. Although groundbreaking in his discussion of aqueducts, he reveals himself to be very much a man of his time by the way he presents the results of his research. A reader expecting a dry and reasoned overview of the state of late seventeenth-century knowledge of aqueduct technology and topography will be rudely shocked. At times Fabretti seems more anxious to demonstrate his predecessors’ shortcomings than his own discoveries; his work is strikingly learned but at the same time often frustratingly vague and digressive. As such, it differs little from the writings of two of his favourite targets, Jacob Gronovius and Giovan Pietro Bellori, whose study of Trajan’s column Fabretti later attempted to demolish in a 300-page polemic posing as a review.

Fabretti’s chief innovations in the study of aqueducts were his willingness to ask how non-textual evidence could support or even contradict the testimony of Frontinus and his readiness to go outside the walls of Rome into the field to test what Frontinus said. Throughout the dissertations, he appeals to the testimony of coins, inscriptions, or the shape of remains on the ground. His friends called his horse Marco Polo, a tribute to his (or his owner’s) propensity for travel and ability to sniff out valuable ruins. In his dissertations Fabretti refers to the plumb-lines and primitive odometers with which he surveyed the countryside and the structures that survived there. In Rome, where scholars had trod before, his knowledge of the routes water took into the city and continued willingness to measure surviving structures gave his discussions more authority than previous topographical studies. His concern for accurate recording is such that Ashby reprinted several of his descriptions without comment. A considerable distance separates him from the literary-minded writers on aqueducts who came before, notably Aldo Manuzio the younger and Justus Lipsius. Fabretti’s insistence on the importance of illustrations to make his point — in one case he advises his readers to ‘learn the thing better through drawing and explanation [the key to the drawing]’ (p.48) — is notable, and one of the pleasures of this edition is the reproductions of Fabretti’s illustrations together with the keys translated by Evans. The maps that Fabretti placed at the beginning of each dissertation (of Latium from Rome to Labicum, of the upper Anio valley, and of Latium to show settlements and roads near Rome) are especially striking.

Broadly speaking, Fabretti’s three separate essays examine the course of the Aqua Alexandrina, the origins of the Aqua Marcia and Aqua Claudia beyond Tivoli, and finally the discrepancy between Frontinus, the Regionary Catalogues, and Procopius on the number of aqueducts flowing into Rome. This summary does not really do justice to the contents of the work: Fabretti also finds space to discuss the iconographical representation of the nymphs in ancient statuary, for example, and the exact measurement of the Roman foot using surviving representations on altars. He is self-consciously digressive, acknowledging at the end of his discussion of the nymphs that he seems ‘to have strayed from the road itself’ (p.138), but he regularly covers so much ground that it is not always clear where exactly that road is. Evans includes his own section headings in his translation of the work, which give some idea of Fabretti’s course, but the 1680 original did not include even these. Evans proposes that Fabretti was particularly expansive in the second dissertation because he wanted to show off his breadth of knowledge to his dedicatee and primary patron, Cardinal Carpegna, a prominent collector and churchman. This may be true, but I suggest that this explanation of the exuberance of the second dissertation downplays the pervasiveness of a digressive scholarly discourse in this period. Fabretti was trying to advertise himself to a wider public as well as to his dedicatee.

Indeed, Fabretti had a particularly pressing reason to try to make his mark. He had not attracted the notice of a prominent supporter of scholarly activity at a young age but rather had enjoyed a successful career as a church diplomat. These treatises on aqueducts were his first published work, and he was over sixty when they appeared. He therefore had ground to make up on the competition, most notably Bellori, who had enjoyed patronage at Rome for much of his scholarly career. This probably explains the peculiar vituperation of many of Fabretti’s references to his predecessors and contemporaries, all of whom the editor must identify. (Evans is usually thorough and secure on the details of the early modern context, although he can occasionally be misleading: a reference from Lanciani to ‘city statutes published by Pope Paul II in 1519’ (p.72) is to an edition of 1519, for Paul had died in 1471; similarly, in the discussion of the Porta S. Sebastiano, ‘identified by Poggio Bracciolini in 1518’ as the Porta Capena (p.83), the reference is to a book of 1518, long after Poggio’s death). Fabretti regularly dismisses the topographical arguments of Georg Fabricius and Pirro Ligorio from the sixteenth century, and Athanasius Kircher, Philip Clüver and Famiano Nardini from the seventeenth. A good example of the level of wit with which he did so (and of some of the problems he presents the modern translator) is the following comment on Gronovius, who replaced ‘Algidus’ with ‘Pedum’ at Livy 26.9.12: ‘Oh how plentiful a crop of jokes would that Marcus Meibom [another polemical antiquarian of the period], wounded by so many reproaches, gather from here! With them, he would attack his antagonist in turn and fart in the face of “Pedum,” so inappropriate a word!’ (p.230; the original Latin reads, ‘O quam foecundam dicteriorum, et scommatum segetem colligeret hinc tot probris dilaceratus Marcus ille Meibomius, unde suum Antagonistam vicissim impeteret, et Pedo isti tam inopportuno oppederet!’).

Fabretti spends a lot of time sneering at Lucas Holste, who had worked at Rome in the middle of the century and had published annotations to Clüver’s geographical work. Evans uncovers the passages and ideas of Holste to which Fabretti makes specific reference, but here is a case where the commentary format of this edition does not allow him to probe further. Holste was working on an edition of Frontinus at his death in 1661, and as an accompaniment for the edition had been assembling inscriptions that referred to aqueducts. His work survives in a manuscript in the Barberini collection of the Vatican library (MS Barb. Lat. 121). Fabretti had access to the Barberini archive when he compiled a corpus of inscriptions in the 1690s and may have been able to use it before as well. The reason for his eagerness to dismiss much of Holste’s published work could, therefore, be connected to a guilty failure to acknowledge having had access to Holste’s specific scholarship on aqueducts. Similarly, Fabretti makes no reference to the recent tradition at Rome of proposing to harness ancient water systems to the needs of the modern city, and so Evans does not discuss this either. Agostino Steuco had proposed a plan along these lines to Pope Paul III in the 1540s, and Holste’s friend and colleague Giovanni Battista Doni had advocated something similar in his posthumously-published De restituenda salubritate agri Romani of 1667. This tradition may be one reason Fabretti could persuade a publisher to produce an expensive illustrated edition of a work on an otherwise arcane-sounding topic.

Examining in detail the tangled intellectual threads that led to Fabretti’s decision to work on aqueducts as he did would require a much longer volume than this one, however. In Evans, Fabretti has found a sympathetic and learned translator, and this edition is valuable both for revealing the state of knowledge of aqueducts in seventeenth-century Rome and for providing an introduction to the classical scholarship of a period very different from our own.