BMCR 2006.05.36

Reading Inscriptions and Writing Ancient History: Historical Scholarship in the Late Renaissance. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 86

, Reading inscriptions and writing ancient history : historical scholarship in the late Renaissance. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement ; 86. London: Institute of Classical Studies, University of London School of Advanced Study, 2005. x, 203 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0900587989 £50.00.

This nicely produced book is devoted to a group of sixteenth century humanist scholars who through their work on ancient inscriptions sought to broaden the range of material that could be used by historians by attempting to collect, classify and accurately represent inscriptions, thereby laying the foundations of the modern discipline of epigraphy. Stenhouse (S.) portrays a small circle of people, but manages to outline the major trends and developments at a critical stage in the evolution of a scholarly discipline. The product of rigorous scholarship, the book is most engaging and reads like a novel, and it is designed to be of interest to both non-specialists (everything that is not in English is translated and any scholarly term is explained) and specialists (the book contains amazingly rich annotations, bibliography, and useful appendices). S.’s tender attitude towards his subject permeates every page.

As the subheading of the “Introduction” announces, S. begins in medias res with Onofrio Panvinio preparing his works on Roman chronology in Venice in the late 1550s. This exposition allows S. to outline, among other things, major issues affecting the study of inscriptions in the sixteenth century, such as the importance of personal connections, the role of patronage, the scholarly environment in which printed editions were but a small part. S. then discusses the importance and legacies of the sixteenth-century scholars whose systems of classification and methods of representation were taken over by the editors of CIL in the nineteenth century. He also provides an interesting discussion of the term ‘antiquarianism,’ which is commonly applied to the scholarly movement of which the sixteenth century students of inscriptions were a part. The term has assumed negative connotations, which, S. suggests, has adversely influenced modern appreciation of the scholarship of the Renaissance antiquarians, although all that the word really implies is “people involved with the material remains of Classical antiquity” (p. 17).

Chapter 1, “Inscriptions and the culture of humanism” opens with an overview of the fifteenth century humanists who dealt with inscriptions. After Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), for whom inscriptions were part of the remote past, the passing of which he lamented, S. proceeds to discuss briefly Cyriac of Ancona (1391-ca. 1452), who unlike his predecessors and contemporaries was interested not only in the text, but also in the structure around it. He was one of the first to bridge the divide between artists, who by then had been copying and studying ancient monuments, and humanists, who had been mostly concerned with ancient texts. By the turn of the century, scholars had gathered thousands of records of inscriptions, the relevance of which for historical investigation was quickly becoming apparent, revealing itself in the most peculiar forms. Thus, at the beginning of the 1490s, Annius of Viterbo (ca. 1432-1502) produced what has been described as the first epigraphic tract, in which he quoted six inscriptions from the town of Viterbo which were meant to shed light on the early history of his hometown. Annius in fact made up all the texts; nevertheless, his efforts attest the growing importance of inscriptions within the scholarly community.

Fra Giovanni Giocondo (ca. 1433-1515), who edited the text of Vitruvius, was perhaps the most important late fifteenth century epigrapher. He collected inscriptions and produced a pattern book for letters; he also started to record whether he had examined the inscription himself, or whether his source had done so, and he recognized that letter-forms change over time and can therefore assist in dating. Giocondo helped promote epigraphy as an important scholarly activity for any “self-respecting humanist,” securing the patronage of the most influential princes of the time. Lorenzo de’Medici commissioned a copy of Giocondo’s manuscript of inscriptions in 1488, and soon prominent patrons were happy to copy Lorenzo. The exposition of the culture of epigraphical studies in the late fifteenth century concludes with a survey of the first printed collections of inscriptions, from Desiderio Spreti’s 1489 history of Ravenna, which had a six-page documentary appendix, to Inscriptiones sacrosanctae vetustatis non illae quidem Romanae, sed totius fere orbis, a book by Amantius and Apianus which appeared in 1534 and contained over 500 pages.

Chapter 2, “Collecting, comparing, and representing inscriptions” focuses on three collectors of inscriptions who were active in Rome in the mid sixteenth century. Jean Matal (ca. 1517-1597), a native of Besançon, arrived in Rome in 1545 and mostly remained there until 1551. His work was methodical, and among other things he paid careful attention to documenting provenance: if he saw the inscription himself, he recorded, when possible, the circumstances of discovery and the whereabouts, and if he received information from his correspondents, he noted the source. He was as enthusiastic as he was meticulous, and he believed that stones would lead to ‘a complete understanding of antiquity’ (p. 44). Another collector was the Flemish scholar Martin Smet (ca. 1525-ca. 1578), who worked in Rome from 1545-1551. From Smet we have a presentation manuscript which he made for his patron, Cardinal Rodolfo Pio da Capri, and another edition which he completed in 1565 for his patron at home, Marcus Laurinus. A third man, Pirro Ligorio (ca. 1513-1583) from Naples, was living in Rome from the 1530s, and by mid-century he was working primarily for the Este family. He collected antiquities for them and excavated their properties, which included Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli. He also gathered information about inscriptions; his legacy survives primarily as drafts and notes for an extensive encyclopedia of antiquity. All three cooperated with each other, often duplicating each other’s work, and did not have their works printed (the supplemented version of Smet’s work was published ten years after his death in 1588). In exploring how these three scholars advanced the study of inscriptions, S. detects three trends in what interested collectors of inscriptions before the 1540s, which were reflected in the way inscriptions were presented in manuscripts: a) inscriptions were used by philologists as evidence for spelling; b) historians, particularly local ones, started collecting inscriptions for their research; c) some scholars started to consider the monumental setting as part of the context in which inscriptions appeared. Consequently, for those concerned with philological aspects, accuracy of copying meant primarily philological concerns; texts of inscriptions would be rendered in lower-case letters, with little or no attention paid to the monumental setting. For them, copying was a kind of interpretation, and the interpretation was possible because they could actually read what was written on the stones. The antiquarians who dealt with Greek and hieroglyphic inscriptions, however, had to be more careful of the shapes, since the very lack of understanding of the texts obliged them to be attentive to details. Matal and Smet attempted to combine these trends and applied the same care to the physical appearance of Latin inscriptions as they did to the Greek ones. Matal sometimes put a scale on the page or described the sizes of the letters. Among his papers survives a squeeze taken from a bronze inscription which was made by one of Matal’s correspondents, and on the back of it Matal recorded how the impression was made (p. 53). He was conscious that letter-shapes depended on the period to which the inscription belonged, but he seems to have thought of letter-forms as indicative of historical periods, as if the quality of art in general or letters in particular reflected the period’s level of civilization. Thus, he would assign an inscription with poor lettering to a barbaric era, which, understandably, led to a problem when two different hands were employed in the same inscription. Smet too was conscious of the importance of letter forms, discussing them in the introduction to his 1565 collection and attempting to chart significant changes in them: a simple letter form was characteristic of the Republican period; the most elegant and well-proportioned forms were considered typical of the Augustan to the Antonine period; and there was a steady decline afterwards. In his manuscripts, he also tried to preserve the layout of an inscription, render erasures, both accidental and deliberate, and indicate the letters he was uncertain about.

Another concern that was addressed by these scholars was the ordering and indexing of collections of inscriptions. Earlier collections were ordered primarily geographically by the find or location spot, but as the volume of material grew, the need for more comprehensive ordering was felt. S. points to Ligorio and Smet as introducing the most significant improvements. In the two manuscripts that Ligorio devoted to inscriptions, he divided material into six separate books: monuments to gods and heroes of Rome; those in Latium and Campania; those in Tuscany; Greek inscriptions mentioning gods and heroes; Greek epitaphs; and epitaphs in general. He thus tried to arrange the material first by function and area, then by the content within a given section (monuments to the same deities, epitaphs to men and women of the same occupation). Wishing for a more comprehensive and internally consistent arrangement, Smet worked out a six-fold division: inscriptions from public buildings; fasti; inscribed laws; inscriptions from altars and statues to gods; honorific inscriptions to living mortals; memorials to the deceased. The final section he divided by occupations, like Ligorio. Later he simplified his system to a four-fold arrangement: inscriptions from public works and places; inscriptions from religious structures; honorific inscriptions; memorials to the dead, subdivided by occupations (S. notes that Pio da Capri, Smet’s patron in Rome, used this system of classification for his physical collection of inscriptions in his Roman palace). The scholars were well aware that their work was rather of a reference type and therefore required indexing. In fact, Smet produced 17 indices! In Chapter 3, “Transmission and forgery,” S. begins his examination of the creation and use of forgeries to support scholarly arguments with Annius of Viterbo, the most famous and best studied of the Renaissance forgers. On the assumption that inscriptional evidence was more trustworthy than any literary author, Annius set out to prove that his home town of Viterbo was founded by Janus and his son Cameses and was the cradle of Etruscan civilization; to prove his point Annius produced in 1492 an edition of six made-up inscriptions (at least three of which he actually had carved). A few years later this epigraphic material was included in a large printed work Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium, produced in Rome, and thus became available to a wider audience, securing immediate fame for Annius. Despite the attacks of critics, Annius’ work remained influential for many years. In a letter written in 1530, Fabio Vigili warned Benedetto Egio against the dangers of forgery in general and Annius in particular, and in the 1540s Matal considered it important to include a copy of this letter in his annotations to Mazochi’s Epigrammata. By then scholars were exchanging names of suspected sources and discussing signs of forgery, from suspicious circumstances of finding to Matal’s general advice to suspect anything from Spain. S. demonstrates how with the development of epigraphical knowledge scholars were becoming especially good at detecting inscriptions concocted on the basis of literary records. The same development, however, altered the nature of forgeries, and there started to appear counterfeits based on other inscriptions, rather than on literary sources, the detection of which proved harder. Here S. offers a most fascinating discussion of Pirro Ligorio, who prolifically forged inscriptions, basing them on existing ones, but also sometimes relying on literary and other evidence. His creativity was not confined to inscriptions alone—he made up figurative monuments, too, such as a monument featuring the figure of the Dea Syria and a Greek inscription to Isis, after the description in Lucian, which he supplied with ample commentaries and discussions of the cult of mother-goddesses.

Most interesting is S.’s attempt to put Ligorio’s forgeries in the context of humanistic scholarship. Even though many scholars such as Vigili, Matal, or Augustín made clear their dislike of forgery, and quite often suspected Ligorio, they were eager to see Ligorio’s collection published. How can this paradox be explained? It appears that sixteenth century scholars preferred to accept Ligorio’s texts unless they could prove them to be counterfeit, and Ligorio’s skills were good. While scholars might have worked out how to distinguish earlier forgeries, which were connected to events and ideas attested in literary texts, Ligorio had moved on and thus his forgeries were harder to detect. Another reason, S. suggests, was the patronizing and dismissive attitude of scholars to Ligorio, and their refusal to believe that Ligorio, a painter who had never been to university and was not expected to know Latin well—even his commentaries were in the Neapolitan dialect of Italian!—could deceive his learned contemporaries.

Finally, S. addresses the question of Ligorio’s motives. Local pride, campanilismo, and greed—actual forged stones could be sold to patrons—are the obvious ones, but they could hardly explain forging of records of inscriptions. In the latter case, perhaps more important is, in Matal’s words, the desire ‘to bewilder the ignorant and test the learned’ (p. 95). Many humanists forged material to deceive their fellows since the ability to emulate antiquity was proof of expertise and knowledge; S. proposes the attractive suggestion that Ligorio might have wanted to show that he was equal to his learned and differently-trained colleagues. The story of Michelangelo who buried his sculpture of sleeping Cupid to have it discovered as an antique piece, S. suggests, is a close phenomenon. Michelangelo’s successful ruse raised his reputation as an artist, but only after the trick was revealed; Ligorio, however, does not seem to have counted on the revelation of his forgeries. Whatever the truth is, Ligorio succeeded in being valued as a source for inscriptions not only by many of his contemporaries, but even throughout the seventeenth century. By the early eighteenth century, however, scholarly consensus was that Ligorio was a forger, and by the time work began on CIL his reputation was so bad that all the inscriptions for which Ligorio was the only source, which numbered nearly 3,000 from the city of Rome alone, were rejected as falsified. S. does well to emphasize that the complete rejection was probably too hasty since some inscriptions may have been genuine.

Chapter 4, “The reliability of ancient texts,” examines the attitude of sixteenth-century scholars to the validity of inscriptional evidence in comparison with that of a literary text, especially when the two disagree. The idea that a stonecutter could make a mistake was as old as Cicero, and by the 1550s skepticism concerning the reliability of epigraphical evidence had become fairly common. The result of this skepticism was that later scholars felt the need to defend the reliability of inscriptions when they cited them, and attempted to explain discrepancies. They proposed, for example, that official imperial inscriptions were less likely to have mistakes than municipal ones.

Chapter 5, “Inscriptions as evidence,” opens by addressing the question of how the achievements of sixteenth century scholars were disseminated and how they contributed to historical scholarship. S. points out that sixteenth century scholars did not necessarily want to go into print, nor did they believe “that printing offered fixity and reliability” (p. 116). It was hard to find a reliable printer and a good wood-cutter for illustrations, and it was also very expensive. By keeping their works in manuscripts, authors could have a better say in who would have access to them. Still, S. continues, there were reasons why people would want to go into print: “to enhance the fame of the author, or of the patron, and because print was an effective way of disseminating information across Europe” (p. 118). S. concludes the chapter with an overview of five printed books in which authors used inscriptional evidence and which were printed during the second half of the sixteenth century (the works of Wolfgang Lazius, Ambrosio de Morales, Giovanni Battista Fontei and Giulio Giacoboni, Vincenzio Borghini, and Marcus Welser,).

The book closes with an epilogue about the legacy of sixteenth-century epigraphical scholarship. There follow two appendices (one features biographical notes on scholars discussed in the text, and the other contains an annotated bibliography and index of manuscripts mentioned in the book); a bibliography; an index of ancient passages, and a general index. There are twenty-four black/white and color illustrations, all accompanied by detailed annotations.