BMCR 2005.01.12

Roman House – Renaissance Palaces. Inventing Antiquity in Fifteenth-Century Italy

, Roman house--Renaissance palaces : inventing antiquity in fifteenth century Italy. Architecture in early modern Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xxvi, 382 pages : illustrations ; 29 cm.. ISBN 0521770084. $95.00.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when Emmanuel Pontremoli built the Kerylos villa in Beaulieu-sur-Mer for Théodore Reinach, or, several decades later, when Robert Langdon planned J. Paul Getty’s house in Malibu, both architects could base their reconstructions of ancient dwellings for private owners on extensive documentation, getting extremely close to the real, ancient models, even down to the smallest furnishings.

The situation was, of course, completely different at the beginning of the Renaissance, three centuries before the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Georgia Clarke’s purpose in this book is to study the influence of ancient Roman houses on the architecture of Italian palazzi from 1440 to 1500, a period that would go “from the adoption of all’antica style towards a classicisation of architecture” (p. xxvi).

As its title states, this book will interest two sorts of readers: specialised art historians, obviously, but also archeologists working on Roman housing — who, hopefully, should want to know more about the relationship between the Renaissance and its ancient legacy, in order to avoid the sort of serious misunderstandings which tend to arise when interpreting Renaissance drawings as if they were the work of a modern architect or archaeologist. Of course, if the interests of both categories of readers focus on the same topic, the point of view of an archaeologist will be necessarily quite different from that of an art historian. As more “orthodox” reviews will treat this book from the point of view of the latter, mine will offer a more specifically “classicist” reading.

Some methodological problems are in any case similar for both categories: Clarke stresses from the very beginning that the plans of the palaces she is working on — and some of the most famous ones — are often false, or too generic, to offer a good basis for a detailed study (pp. xix-xx); in the same way, archaeologists often build sophisticated theories on equally weak grounds. It is a pity that creating a corpus of plans that could give better chance to actual reconstructions, and would not collapse with future revision of basic data, is not considered as a priority by the scholarly community.

Chapter one, “Antiquity and Identity”, opens with the study of the palace of Pius II Piccolomini, built in Pienza around 1460, which illustrates the connection between the creation of the all’antica style and the contemporary effort to study, edit and translate classical texts.1 Architecture is only one part of an extremely coherent project, rooted in the very structure of the society, whose major players, pope and cardinals, were carefully equated with Roman ones, emperor or consul and senators. The project aimed to create (pp. 7-8) a new, or second Rome, a challenge, and competitive issue in a peninsula still divided in many different small states. The author concentrates on three different connections with the past that appear to have been more or less strongly based, although sometimes clearly fake: claiming a founding father, creating a local, deeply-rooted history, and boasting of famous men of antiquity — both for cities (not fewer than four for Verona, p. 15) and for individuals. But other connections are also highlighted: the taste for medals commemorating new buildings, either circulating or placed in the foundations, the association between modern and ancient great men, and therefore, the idea of the new building as a memorial of lineage.2 The question of the “real” Roman house, in a Renaissance context, rests mainly on the interpretation of Vitruvius, whose text — “never very clear” (p. 34) — has fed hundreds of books and articles.3

The problem of the “archetypal ancient house” still divides scholars deeply; the book (and still less this reviewer) could not have been expected to deal with such an intricate question. However, archaeological research tends to confirm the reality of the “mythic ‘Italic’ house” (indeed, Etruscan) here evoked with some skepticism. We now know a series of houses ranging from the VIth to the Ist century AD, from Marzabotto in the Etruscan north to the Pompeii in the south, with only minor differences. The obvious diversity in the plans of the houses can easily be explained by the different social conditions of their owners and by the disrupting effects of the addition of the Greek peristyle to the original atrium plan. However, even if the legacy of the “plan of ‘the Roman house’ “, as illustrated on fig. 19, remains clearly perceptible in numerous houses in the region of Vesuvius, this very illustration can be misleading, both from a Renaissance and from an antique point of view. No Renaissance reader of Vitruvius could imagine, before the great Vesuvian excavations, that a “typical” Roman house actually looked like that; while for the classicist this simplified plan shows something that could, indeed, be the model of the “Roman house”, but one grafted on to the peristyle, an element borrowed from the hellenistic house: the corridor to the right of the tablinum makes sense only in connexion with a peristyle, not with a simple hortus, like the one shown on the plan.4

Chapter two, “Variety, Magnificence, and Imitation”, deals with the theoretical and philosophical ideas that form the background of early Renaissance Italian architecture. Rhetoric plays an important part in this process, as many ancient writers — Cicero, Quintilian, Varro and, of course, Vitruvius himself —, drew close analogies between rhetorical concepts and architectural achievements. As the title of the chapter makes clear, the author has organized this material around three main ideas, but each of them is closely tied to a number of other concepts. The book provides a clear and synthetic guide to this highly complex field and to the different and often contrasting views of contemporary Renaissance architects. Varietas states that different styles are “suited to different subjects and audiences” (p. 42), both for the entire building and for its different parts, which have to fit together. Possible excesses can be constrained by another idea, tightly linked to the first, economia. Magnificentia offers two opposite faces: a positive one, decor, directly bound to the patron’s personality and status, which states that the house should be fitted to the social position of its owner in order to bring glory to himself and to his city or state; and a negative one, on moral grounds, luxuria. Important complementary and somewhat opposite concepts are imitatio and aemulatio, used by architects who aimed to create a classical “Latin” stylistic language, fitting with the modern world. This last part is illustrated by various examples of architectural “quotation” (p. 73), which involve both generic features and specific details. The problem of the meaning of such quotations is extensively illustrated by the study of the gate of Castel Nuovo in Naples: this true collage of two ancient buildings, the arches of Pola and Benevento, was intended to connect Alfonso I with the Roman emperors. However, the message delivered by this monument, largely outside the private sphere, is far more complex, insofar as it also presents straight links with medieval architecture, aiming to create continuity between pagan and Christian history.

Chapter three, “The ancient house-texts”, explores the ancient literary sources, the principal, or indeed the only, sources available for Renaissance patrons and architects. Classical texts were intensively exploited during this period, circulating on an even larger scale after the advent of printing in Italy (1465). The perplexity of Renaissance exegetes in front of certain Roman terms will hardly seem weird to modern scholars because, after a long period of optimistic positivism, modern inquiries quite frequently concede the impossibility of getting a satisfactory definition for the some of the principal architectural terms used by the ancient authors — Varro’s De lingua latina, Isodore of Seville’s Etymologiae, Gellius’ Noctes Atticae, but also quotations from Cicero, Pliny the Younger (in particular his famous Laurentine villa, which remains a crux for the Moderns), Plutarch, Tacitus and Suetonius (chiefly for the domus Aurea), or even verses from Horace, Martial and Juvenal. It is surprising to us that Vitruvius’s De architectura was not used as a fundamental source for this type of research at the beginning of this period, although many manuscripts of his work (and a few translations) did circulate in Italy during the XV century (cf. the very useful appendix at pp. 283-290). Only in the mid-eighties, just before the first printed editions of his work, do we find its importance clearly stressed by various scholars. Two main Renaissance works, Biondo’s Roma triumphans (ca. 1459) and Grapaldi’s De partibus aedium (ca. 1494) gather the ancient quotations about ancient houses, making them more accessible for contemporary architects. Even if no remains of the splendid houses built by the Romans could be seen (although many ruins of ancient public buildings inspired the Renaissance private architecture), the new patrons wanted large buildings built of costly materials and precious marbles.5

The chapter then moves on to a careful analysis of the principal and, particularly the problematic terms, of ancient architecture. I’m not sure, however, that the facade can be listed, along with the entrance and courtyard, among the elements which “shared similar functions in the past and present” (p. 105; on this problem, cf. also pp. 160-161, and infra). The ancient façade was generally plain, giving an isonomic idea of the city in which everyone was apparently equal. This was very far from the Renaissance conception. We should note, parenthetically, that, on the same page, the definition of oecus as a dining-hall is unfortunately misleading, if widespread. The terms discussed more specifically are all still very controversial. Vestibulum can hardly now be studied without taking in account the term fauces, which is not discussed here, perhaps because it is never used by Renaissance writers. Cavaedium and atrium are among the most discussed terms but are problematic. The cavaedium illustrated by Fra Giocondo, at fig. 55, would no longer be considered as a displuviatum, but a compluviatum. Fig. 54 does not present a “reconstruction of possible forms of the Displuviate cavaedium, based on Vitruvius”, but a displuviatum, on the left, and a compluviatum, on the right. Porticus and peristylium close this short list of difficult terms; unlike the other terms, these essential elements in Renaissance architecture have clearly been largely inspired by written sources but also by preserved examples of the Roman public architecture.

Chapter four, “Discovering and recording ancient houses”, deals with the research on the palaces mentioned by ancient sources and the recreation of ancient buildings based on the combination of true remains and literary legacy. Many architectural drawings from this period are preserved, but it can be difficult to state if they intend to depict ancient buildings, all’antica new projects, or a combination of both. Curiously, even if the interest is focused on few personalities (not necessarily the most famous ones), many impressive remains have not provoked any attempt at identification (classical archaeologists often find in the opposite position, in which the identification of the owner of every ruin must be identified). The best preserved private dwellings were the suburban villae, and, although Renaissance architects were quite aware (as stated by Vitruvius) that housing was different in town and in country, they equally used those remains as a source of inspiration. In town, public buildings like the Septizonium were still standing, whose huge importance for Renaissance architects failed to prevent from complete destruction ordered by pope Sixtus V a century later. The first sketches made on site can be dated around the mid-1480s (p. 140), and their copies — both for whole monuments and for single architectural designs — had a large diffusion. In Rome, where the papal court focused interest on antiquity, Biondo’s work represents the first attempt by a modern critic to collect popular traditions about ancient remains. Among other Roman monuments, both urban (the Domus Aurea had still not been found), and suburban (villa Hadriana), special attention is paid here to the “father of all the palaces”, the Palatine’s imperial palace (pp. 143-148).6

Chapter five, “Creating all’antica palaces”, explores the quite different, and progressive ways in which the all’antica style grew and spread in different parts of Italy, becoming soon an essential component for the housing of the elite. Great attention is paid, as a case study, to Palazzo Medici in Florence (pp. 164-179), one of the earliest examples of the new style. The second part of the chapter offers an analysis of different aspects of all’antica palaces, ordered thematically, but pride of place is reserved for the façade in all its varieties: of construction — stone, marble inlay, rustication, drafted masonry and/or ashlars, brick — and of decoration with statuary and sculpture. Façades are also the principal subject of the pages dedicated to inscriptions, to the lists of famous men, and to the portals, although the separation of portals from facades seems rather arbitrary (pp. 227-255). Yet, façade seems never to have been a great concern for ancient private buildings. If it could be argued that we don’t know much about the houses of the Roman élite, the silence of the sources and what we know of the cities of Vesuvius show that external austerity prevailed, fitting with the rhetoric against luxury fostered by the mos maiorum. This real, major difference between ancient and Renaissance dwellings makes it clear that the ancient quotations in these facades are part of a new architectural language, borrowed almost exclusively from Roman public buildings, and transferred into the private sphere, in a place where the ancient house would never had let it develop. The situation is quite different, obviously, inside the Roman house, where we can observe, in and around the courtyards from the archaic to the imperial periods, a series of elements borrowed from public architecture, whose Renaissance counterparts are studied at the end of the chapter. These were chiefly displayed in the most “public” areas of the house, to exalt the owner of the dwelling and his gens (pp. 255-274). It would have been interesting if this overall review had been completed by an inquiry inside the palace, in order to discover if its furniture was closely fitted with the architectural project, as was the case in the two modern cases evoked at the beginning of this review.

The concluding chapter, “Emulation and a new architecture”, sums up and stresses the many different results in different regions of the “growing sense of a universal, classical Antiquity” (p. 274), from pure imitatio to true inventio. At the end of the century, however, the increasing power of Rome would change this frame, bringing more uniformity and “archaeological correctness” to architecture, and opening a new, quite different season for the all’antica style.

Illustrated with 178 black-and-white figures and 9 attractive and useful colour plates, the volume is, in its most part, easy to read. Its text is complemented by more than 1500 notes, grouped according to the sadistic practice of many publishers at the end of the volume and numbered chapter by chapter, probably to discourage the reader. The nearly 30 pages of bibliography are up-to-date until the 2000.7 The general index is carefully conceived, and seems exhaustive.

The book’s inviting title may disappoint archaeologists: indeed, there is absolutely no significant connection between the real Roman houses and the XV century palace. First, because though interest for Roman houses was high in this period, the visible remains of private dwellings were too few, and the problem of the exegesis of the ancient texts too great to give more than a general idea of what an ancient — “Greco-Roman” rather than “Roman” — house could have been. Second, because the background ideology of these two periods is so different, in that they stress totally different parts of the house: crudely, internal for antiquity, external for Renaissance. Third, because the overall presence of antique references in all’antica style palaces reflects a stylistic language which is not borrowed directly from the private sphere but rather from the public sphere: among the fifteen ancient parallels quoted here, five come from honorific arches, three from buildings for spectacles, two from temples, two from fora, and two others from the imperial palace in Rome; the last one is an atypical building at Anguillara Sabazia.

It is remarkable, if not depressing, when closing this rich and useful volume, to realize how ideas, debates and controversies already vivid in the ancient world regained attention, often in quite similar terms, during the Renaissance, and how some of them are still very acute today. It clearly means that the dialogue between archaeologists and Renaissance art historians should be much closer than it is nowadays and that Georgia Clarke’s book could make a significant contribution to this goal.


1. In reality, with its central peristyle, fig. 2, it looks much more like a Greek Hellenistic house than a Roman one! Cf. also pp. 137f.

2. Chiefly Augustus; for the ambiguous case of Lucullus, p. 33, I would add Cassiodorus, who makes several allusions to opera lucullana, exclusively in architectural issues, to the list of ancient authors quoted at note 212.

3. Among those recently issued, the translation and commentary of De architectura Book 6, on domestic housing, by L. Callebat, Collection des Universités de France, Paris, 2004.

4. A minor, topographical remark: pace Lemprière, and an anonymous, absentminded copyist of Servius, who confuses it with the Capitolium ( Aen. 6.783), the Janiculum was never “later to become one of Rome’s seven hills” (p. 9).

5. Curiously, Foresti’s quotation reported on p. 103 directly echoes a passage of Diodorus Siculus, 5.40.4, dedicated to Etruscan houses.

6. Cf., recently, M. Royo, Domus imperatoriae, Rome, 1999, and A. Hoffmann, U. Wolf, Die Kaiserpaläste auf dem Palatin in Rome, Mainz, 2004.

7. Among many more or less recent contributions, useful information directly related with this book’s topics can also be found in E. De Albentiis, La casa dei Romani, Milan, 1990, in A. Zaccaria Ruggiu, Spazio privato e spazio pubblico nella casa romana, Rome, 1995, and in the two volumes of P. Gros, L’architecture romaine, Paris, 1996 and 2001 (the second one is chiefly dedicated to private constructions). For ancient buildings in Rome, reference to M. Steinby’s Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, Rome, 1993-2000, is now compulsory.