BMCR 2011.04.50

Cipro e la memoria dell’antico fra Medioevo e Rinascimento: la percezione del passato romano dell’isola nel mondo occidentale. Memorie 133

, Cipro e la memoria dell'antico fra Medioevo e Rinascimento: la percezione del passato romano dell'isola nel mondo occidentale. Memorie 133. Venezia: Istituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere ed Arti, 2009. xix, 409. ISBN 9788895996158 €45.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

Most scholarship on classical traditions and reception in the pre-modern period has focused exclusively on Western Europe. With this book, Lorenzo Calvelli turns our attention to Cyprus. He analyzes in rich detail a series of accounts of the island’s past (the “passato romano” of the title is to be understood broadly) dating from the medieval Lusignan era to the fall of Venetian rule, written by pilgrims, merchants, scholars, and administrators. For the most part, these writers came from the Italian peninsula and German-speaking territories to the north, and when they tried to describe Cyprus’s history and remains they did so through the lens of their classical and religious education. Calvelli presents a series of revealing vignettes to show how visitors applied their textual knowledge of Cyprus to the remains they saw in the ground; their experience of the island itself challenged or modified their preconceptions. His book makes an important contribution to scholarship on developing ideas of the classical past in the Renaissance, as well as to ideas about the history and significance of Cyprus in particular.

Calvelli divides his book into two parts. The first examines what accounts of the island from a variety of contexts, and in a variety of genres, have to say about the Roman past. These accounts begin with Wilbrand von Oldenburg’s description of his pilgrimage in 1211-12, and end with Stefano Lusignan’s Chorograffia et breve historia universale dell’isola de Cipro of 1573, written patriotically in exile after the Ottoman defeat of the Venetians in 1571. Collectively, Calvelli’s evidence, divided into admittedly porous categories of “Viaggiatori,” “Eruditi,” and “‘Archeologi’,” provides an essential supplement to Claude Delaval Cobham’s Excerpta Cypria, first published in 1908. Not surprisingly, the most detailed descriptions date from the sixteenth century, from the pens of humanistically-trained Venetian administrators and their advisors. In 1546, for example, Giovanni Matteo Bembo took over as Captain of Famagosta, a key military office. His interests were not primarily martial, however (his uncle was the cardinal, scholar, and collector Pietro Bembo), and he took the opportunity of his foreign posting to commission deliberate, successful excavations of classical remains. Some of his finds contributed towards the beautification of Famagosta, including the so-called “tomb of Venus” from Paphos and a monumental inscribed dedication to Trajan from Salamis. Others he sent home; Calvelli agrees that an anthropoid sarcophagus, now in the Museo Correr, arrived in Venice via this route, doubtless not an isolated example. But pilgrims also recorded what they thought were pagan antiquities. For example, in 1480 the Dominican Felix Fabri stopped in Cyprus on his journey to the Holy Land. In the cathedral at Nicosia he was naturally drawn to the chapel dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, where he found a huge sarcophagus, carved from one block of a colored stone. He measured and recorded its height, width, and depth, and described its lid, offering sufficient detail for Calvelli to point out that it cannot have been classical. (A few years earlier, the French pilgrim Pierre Barbatre had mentioned a block of porphyry that had been brought from Jerusalem, which is almost certainly the same piece). The church canons, however, told a slightly skeptical Fabri that it had originally been created by Mars as a couch for Venus – the jealous lover thought that the stone would calm her ardor – and that on the goddess’s death her followers preserved it in place of an idol. For Fabri, this last detail was vital. He knew from Virgil, via Boccaccio’s Genealogie deorum, that the simulacrum of Venus did not have a human form, and, as Calvelli argues, he was typical of learned visitors in his willingness to write down the canons’ story because it accorded with what he had read.

In the book’s second part, Calvelli applies his research to two case studies. In the first, he looks at the development of Saint Catherine of Alexandria’s connection with Cyprus. He shows that previous scholars have conflated two sites for her cult: beginning in the 1330s sources record a chapel in the ruins of Byzantine Constantia, supposedly on the site of her birth-place; and only from 1493 do we have evidence of a second site at some distance from the chapel in the area of the necropolis of Salamis, where she was said to have been imprisoned by pagans, and which is still known as the prison of Saint Catherine today. The second case study focuses on accounts of Paphos, which attracted antiquaries looking for the temple of Venus, and pilgrims interested in St. Paul’s visit to the island. Calvelli shows how early modern visitors compared the written accounts of Strabo, and especially Ptolemy, with what they found, and examines in particular their various attempts to distinguish Old and New Paphos.

Calvelli’s sources are often frustratingly imprecise. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century geographical writers were happy to draw implicitly on their classical and more recent predecessors, and determining which observations are copied, which are inventions, and which are the result of autopsy is not easy. Their laconic descriptions of particular ruins fight for space with reflections on the buildings’ sad decline or the unchanged lubricity of Cyprus’s inhabitants; Venus had a lot to answer for. Even in cases where accounts give specific details, their descriptions leave plenty to be clarified. Stefano Lusignan, for example, included a relatively long account of discoveries at Kouklia (which he called Citherea), which Calvelli calls the first evidence of an explicit antiquarian interest in a west coast site. These discoveries, however, included “un carbonchio,” “un re quasi intiero,” and “un licorno tutto intero et secco con il corno.” (p.313) Calvelli identifies the first of these as a reddish stone, but it is not at all clear what the other two were. Typically, rather then spending more space describing these finds, Lusignan adds the detail that “il villano che ritrovò queste cose, per la ignorantia sua, perdé assai et fu ingannato.” (p.313) Indeed, collectively Calvelli’s sources are better evidence for a well-established market for antiquities than for individual objects. Florio Bustron, a Venetian official, wrote that in the middle of the sixteenth century villagers regularly dug deliberately for coins and earthenware near Salamis (just as Bembo did), and his account is supported by the accounts of visitors. Thanks to a Bavarian, Wolfgang Gebhardt, we learn of a 1560 discovery there of shields, two spurs, and a golden bowl, and other objects, which Calvelli suggests came from an eighth- or seventh-century BCE tomb. Gebhardt writes that the Venetian authorities immediately paid money for the finds, presumably ready to put them on the antiquity market back home.

Because of the imprecision of the sources (late sixteenth-century accounts of Crete, for example, are more specific and detailed), Calvelli’s book is probably of more immediate interest to scholars of early modern antiquarianism and related fields than to archaeologists and historians of classical Cyprus, though the latter can access information about particular sites or accounts through the detailed index and full bibliography. Calvelli is sensitive, for example, to the resonances of Venus as an imperial signifier in Venice, and to the ways in which travelers pitched their accounts to their audiences (some works, like Lusignan’s, were written for publication; others were written in manuscript for a deliberately limited circulation). He demonstrates very clearly how those travelers pondered the island’s deep and more recent past. His detailed and thorough research makes this an important work of reference as well as a revealing insight into early modern attitudes to place and the past.