BMCR 2021.05.27

The Invention of Rome: Biondo Flavio’s Roma Triumphans and its worlds

, , The Invention of Rome: Biondo Flavio's Roma Triumphans and its worlds. Travaux d’humanisme et renaissance, 576. Genève: Droz, 2017. Pp. 296. ISBN 9782600047890. $57.60 (pb).

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“The aim of this volume is the further understanding of the nature, contents, driving ideas, and impact of Roma triumphans [henceforth RT]”. With this statement Frances Muecke and Maurizio Campanelli introduce (9-15) this collection of studies, which appeared in 2017 in the series Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance of Droz. Published in 1459 and dedicated to Pius II, RT forms the third installment of the antiquarian project of the Italian humanist Biondo Flavio, begun in 1446 with Roma instaurata and continued in 1453 with Italia illustrata. This trilogy is particularly relevant, for it makes the first coherent attempt to investigate and describe those aspects of Roman civilization which fall under the common, albeit complex and problematic, definition of “antiquarianism”: Roman mores and institutions (RT), the topography of the ancient city (Roma instaurata), and the historical geography of the peninsula (Italia illustrata).

This volume includes thirteen articles, divided into three sections (authors and titles are listed at the end of the review). Part I (19-53) investigates the “context, genre, and purpose” of this work. Anne Raffarin and Angelo Mazzocco deal with Biondo’s research on the Roman triumph and compare, within a developmental perspective, RT with the preceding epilogue of Roma instaurata. Whereas Raffarin points out the attempt of a syncretism between the ancient rite and the ordines Romani, framing it in an apologetical program of restoring papal authority, Mazzocco underlines the difference between the two perspectives, emphasizing the impotence of fifteenth-century Christian Europe against the threat posed by the Turks. Frances Muecke’s essay attends to the literary status of the work, which, she believes, needs to be situated in the tradition of the medieval compilation.

Part II (77-195) focuses on Biondo’s treatment of Roman “mores and instituta”. Frances Muecke lays great stress on the ambiguity of Biondo’s approach towards Roman religion and shows Biondo’s peculiar reuse of Eusebius’s De praeparatione evangelica, which was circulating at mid-century in the translation of George Trapezuntius. James Hankins challenges the prejudicial view of Biondo Flavio’s work as a mere compilation and clarifies the position of Biondo towards the humanistic debate on Monarchies vs. Republics, elucidating Biondo’s inclination for a hybrid constitutional model led by virtuous leaders.[1]

Giuseppe Marcellino concentrates on a segment of the Roma triumphans, which he rightly claims to be one of the most relevant parts of the work, since it gives Biondo’s personal canon of ancient authors, almost a short history of classical literature, both Greek and Latin. This also offers the opportunity to tackle some key concepts of Biondo’s cultural project, such as the connection between virtue and learning (see also Hankins, p. 113) and the epistemological status of history and its function(s). Ida Gilda Mastrorosa dedicates her essay to the crucial topic of military institutions, which Biondo elaborates in RT, books 6-7 and will later synthesize in his Borsus. Among other sources, Mastrorosa points out the importance of Vegetius’ Epitoma rei militaris and the Digestum, which usefully provides the historian with terminological elucidations. Moreover, this article enhances the discussion addressed elsewhere in this volume (see, e.g., Hankins and Marcellino’s contributions), about the role played by military Roman culture in promoting social mobility by giving the virtuous soldier the possibility of distinguishing himself (p. 144).

Maurizio Campanelli tackles RT, book 9, in which he sees not only an important assessment regarding the humanist querelle on the ancients and the moderns, but also an apology for Biondo’s approach to Roman ruins as it appears in Roma instaurata. Campanelli’s main point is that Biondo’s philological approach to ancient ruins makes their study basically an end in itself, as no real comparison is possible between ancient architecture and modern examples. In this, Biondo’s perspective greatly differs from that of other humanists such as Leon Battista Alberti. Peter Fane-Saunders closes this section by searching for passages concerning the architecture of ancient Rome, which he finds in books 2 and 9. In particular, he focuses on the funeral pyres (rogus), the villa (both rustica and suburbana) and the city mansion (domus urbana). Fane-Saunders interprets the passages by identifying Biondo’s sources and contextualizing them in the antiquarian and artistic milieu of the time (Alberti, Filarete, etc.). Moreover, he provides the reader with an interpretation of the data, which involves the evolution in Biondo of his approach to the problem of “moral decline”, the rapport between Roma pagana and Roma christiana, and the magnificentia of the Romans as a remedy for decadent luxuria and as a spur to virtue (see also Hankins and Campanelli).

Part III (199-273) is entirely devoted to the reception of RT. Maria Agata Pincelli deals with the first circulation of the work, with which she is most familiar as an editor of books 1-2 of RT.[2] Her article includes the reproduction (unfortunately in black and white) of the frontispieces of the following mss.: Rome, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Vittorio Emanuele 509, Vatican City, BAV, Chig. I VIII 290 (dedication copy for Pius II); Chig. I VIII 289, and Ottob. lat. 1917, annotated by Biondo’s grandson Paolo. Paul Gwynne treats the impact of Biondo’s concept of triumph in later Renaissance scholarship. His research focuses in particular on Raffaele Maffei and Pomponio Leto but gives also an overview of the marginalia in the extant manuscripts of RT and other traces of Biondo’s work in the arts. Gwynne eventually connects this reception of Biondo with Julius II’s propagandistic portrait as a “classical triumphator”. Anne Raffarin compares RT with the antiquarian compilation of Andrea Fulvio and demonstrates, through intertextual comparisons, Fulvio’s dependence on Biondo. William Stenhouse further expands Biondo research beyond the sixteenth century, showing Biondo’s legacy in the antiquarian commitments of Hubert Goltzius, Enea Vico, Jacopo Strada, Sebastiano Erizzo, Tomaso Garzoni, the Cambridge professor Nicholas Carr, and others, all names which have never – to my knowledge – been connected to Biondo. The volume ends with useful indices of Biondo’s editions, manuscripts, printed copies and nomina.

“Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta”. This volume had to wait too long for this review; my most sincere apologies are due to the editors, the authors, and to BMCR for this. But let us suggest that the glass is half full: a good bottle of wine can be better judged after a couple of years in the cellar. And it was clear to me after the first sip that this book is as valuable as when I glanced through it for the first time in 2018. This collection of studies is the result of a colloquium held at the British School of Rome in 2014, organized with the aim of preparing the ground for the upcoming I Tatti Edition of RT, which came out with books 1-2 in 2016. The I Tatti edition doesn’t make this volume obsolete, for this collection of essays provides the reader with effective prolegomena to the edition; and even when research has gone further (see for instance Hankins’s monograph on Virtue Politics or the last volumes of the Edizione Nazionale published by Gabriella Albanese, Paolo Pontari and me), this volume still presents itself as a useful companion to navigate the vast ocean of Biondo’s learning.

The book shows a strong internal coherence, which is guaranteed not only by a wise division of tasks among the contributors, but also by the careful editing work provided by Muecke and Campanelli, who never forget to add in the footnotes useful cross-references throughout the articles. The whole RT is covered: the section on religion (books 1-2) is approached by Raffarin, Mazzocco, Hankins and especially Muecke; the section on public administration (books 3-5) is (partially) touched on by Marcellino; the army (books 6-7) is handled by Mastrorosa; private life (books 8-9) is investigated by Campanelli and Fane-Saunders; the triumph (book 10) is again the domain of Raffarin and Mazzocco.

The book offers many points of reflection about Biondo’s cultural project. For example, a significant instance concerns the precarious equilibrium that Biondo tried to find between his apologetical commitment, mainly (but not exclusively) to service on behalf of the Curia, and his clear and distinctly modern view towards history, which is to him not only celebration but rather (and foremost) a reconstruction of the past: the Invention of Rome, indeed, where inventionetymologically means discovery. This conflict of goals caused Biondo great discomfort. The papal renovatio (Biondo would say instauratio) of Rome allowed the dialectic between Roma christiana and Roma pagana to resurface, a strategy that was grounded upon one of the many Renaissance interpretations of Augustine’s City of God (see the articles of Raffarin, Mazzocco and Muecke in the first part of this collection). This comparatio was often resolved by humanists at the expense of a balanced historiographical approach that would have required a great knowledge of the Roman (and often Greek) world. In his preface to Roma instaurata, Biondo praises the many praestantes Romani who, albeit idolatrous and pagans, made Rome both great and wealthy and who, for this reason, do deserve credit (laude non fraudabo).[3] Biondo implicitly distances himself from other humanists who could not (or did not want to) avoid casting moral judgments. These humanists are the very same alioquin doctissimi to whom Maurizio Campanelli refers at p. 154 and of whom Maffeo Vegio is a very good example.[4]

In conclusion, I would also like to stress the importance of Biondo’s chapters on religion. The contributions of Muecke and Hankins (as well as the I Tatti Edition of RT) urgently need to be read and digested by scholars of civil religion, a term coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe “the appropriation of religion by politics for its own purposes”, to use Ronald Beiner’s words.[5] Scholars on civil religion have indeed already sketched out a sort of a canon of thinkers who are believed to be particularly influential in the theoretical development of this concept. For virtually all early modern historians, this canon unfortunately does not go back further than Machiavelli. From this perspective, Italian humanism has never really been examined. Biondo could be a very good starting point.

Table of Contributions

Part I (19-53). Context, genre, and purpose
Anne Raffarin, La célebration des triomphes de Rome par Flavio Biondo (19-31) [Reprint of an article first appearing in G. Lachenaud – D. Longrée (ed.), Grecs et Romains aux prises avec l’histoire: représentations, récits et idéologie. Colloque de Nantes et Angers. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2003. Vol. 2, 643-654].
Frances Muecke, The Genre(s) and Making of Roma Triumphans (33-53)
Angelo Mazzocco, The Rapport Between the Respublica Romana and the Respublica Christiana (55-73)

Part II (77-195). Mores and instituta
Frances Muecke, Gentiles Nostri: Roman Religion and Roman Identity in Biondo Flavio’s Roma Triumphans (77-99) [Reprint of an article first appearing in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 75 (2012): 93–110].
James Hankins, Biondo Flavio on the Roman Republic (101-118)
Giuseppe Marcellino, Un excursus umanistico sulle letterature dell’antichità: Biondo Flavio e i classici (Roma triumphansIV, pp. 96-100) (119-133)
Ida Gilda Mastrorosa, Roman Military Discipline in Biondo Flavio’s Roma Triumphans: Punishment and Rewards (135-149)
Maurizio Campanelli, Il libro IX della Roma triumphans: una querelle umanistica degli antichi e dei moderni? (151-172)
Peter Fane-Saunders, Pyres, Villas, and Mansions: Architectural Fragments in Biondo Flavio’s Roma Triumphans (173-195)

Part III (199-273). Reception
Maria Agata Pincelli, “Librariis certatim transcribere contendentibus”: sulla tradizione manoscritta e la prima ricezione della Roma Triumphans di Biondo Flavio (199-212)
Paul Gwynne, Trumphs and Triumphators in the Wake of the Roma Triumphans (213-233)
Anne Raffarin, Fulvio lecteur de Biondo: questions religieux dans la Roma triumphans et les Antiquitates Urbis (235-258)
William Stenhouse, Flavio Biondo and Later Renaissance Antiquarianism (259-273)


[1] The frame is of course that of “virtue politics”, to which Hankins has dedicated a recent monograph: Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2019. See Carl O’Brien’s review, BMCR 2020.09.18.

[2] Biondo Flavio, Rome in Triumph. Vol. 1. English Translation by F. Muecke, Latin Text Edited by M.A. Pincelli. I Tatti Renaissance Library, 74. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard Univ. Press, 2016.

[3] See for instance Blondus Flavius, Roma instaurata. Vol. 1, ed. F. Della Schiava. Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Biondo Flavio, 7/1. Roma: Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo, 2020. XXX-XXXII, 8.

[4] F. Della Schiava, ‘Roma pagana e Roma cristiana nel primo libro del “De rebus antiquis memorabilibus” di Maffeo Vegio (1407-58)’, in L. Rotondi Secchi Tarugi (ed.), Roma pagana e Roma cristiana nel Rinascimento. Atti del XXIV convegno internazionale (Chianciano Terme – Pienza, 19 – 21 Luglio 2012). Firenze: Cesati, 2014. 39–50.

[5] R. Beiner, Civil Religion: A Dialogue in the History of Political Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 1.