BMCR 2024.02.40

The art of discovery: digging into the past in Renaissance Europe

, , The art of discovery: digging into the past in Renaissance Europe. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2022. Pp. xiii, 308. ISBN 9780691237145.



In 1661, Athanasius Kircher ‘discovered’ a church with a shrine to St Eustachius that had been built under the patronage of the emperor Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester. Now abandoned and unknown to anyone beyond the rustics who lived in its vicinity, the church contained a number of important objects that Kircher was able to date to the period of its foundation using the latest techniques of historical criticism of material objects; but the most important support for his dating of this church was an inscription within it recording who had founded it. As it happens, he never got around to publishing this inscription, and its wording was only reproduced in his (unpublished) autobiography, not in the Historia about his discovery that he wrote as ‘a fund-raising brochure’ (9), raising the possibility that perhaps it never existed.

Beginning their book with this story (even though Kircher lies far beyond their period, the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) allows Schwab and Grafton to illustrate a number of points that are at the core their argument. Perhaps the most important is that the techniques of antiquarianism that we tend to associate with the rediscovery of classical antiquity were used equally in the rediscovery of what we now call late antiquity, including, obviously, its Christian aspects, such as churches and relics. Precise measurements, careful drawings reproducing observed sites and objects, critique of the style, and comparisons with other artifacts of the same period—all methods used by Kircher—were at the core of the antiquarians’ enterprise; and even the deciphering of inscriptions and the discovery of them in churches had been an important aspect of the Renaissance engagement with the ancient past of Italy. The fundamental premise of this book, also illustrated by the Kircher story, is that the distinction made in modern scholarship between the engagement with the secular (or indeed pagan) past on the one hand, and the Christian past on the other, is mostly spurious, and contemporary antiquarians were not necessarily as binary in their thinking as modern scholars might like; for them, ‘it was all part of the same struggle against the destructive power of time’ (20). Renaissance archaeologists were well aware that the early Church had been in Rome, inheriting the language, culture, and even architectural styles thence; there was thus no fundamental opposition between ‘Roman’ culture and its rediscovery, and early Christian culture and the reinstatements of its artefacts. Through a series of seven case studies, this book provides an examination mainly of the archaeological and inherent links between secular and Christian antiquarianisms of the authors’ period, focusing not on their results, but rather on their methods, and the reactions—emotional as well, not just scientific—that followed.

The second chapter takes us, by way of Petrarch, to the abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua, where Petrarch indulged in his habit of corresponding with the dead by writing a letter to the ancient historian of Rome, Livy—sitting by the very tomb where Livy was buried. The fact that the inscription mentioning the name T. Livius also identified him as a freedman with the cognomen Halys was an inconvenient detail that Petrarch and everyone else ignored. In 1413, in order to build a toilet, some digging had to take place, in the course of which a lead casket made an appearance: Livy! An expert was called in, who wrote to another expert; before they discovered that all antiquarian objects subject to forensic examination ought to be kept locked up, Livy’s teeth were stolen (and are still missing), after which the casket was duly locked. The abbot was absent; his assistant was nervous; finally he agreed to let the city of Padua take Livy and decide what to do with him. Livy was translated in a procession, a (probably quite conscious) parody of the translation of a saint, and interred in the façade of the city’s town hall, though even after this things continued to happen to him: a part of his right arm was given to the ambassador of Alfonso of Aragon, a diehard Livy fan, and later went missing.

All of this smacks of the very medieval, Christian practice of the veneration of the saints, in which bodies were exhumed, carried from one place to another in ceremonial procession, re-interred in a more grander fashion, and had bits and pieces of them granted to others for the benefit of their souls. Even the skepticism with which some viewed the authenticity of this find—one eminent expert wanted to be sent a shinbone in order to estimate from it the size of the whole body, since it seemed incongruous that a six-foot casket was needed to house what an earlier witness had described as a small man—was not unprecedented with regard to saints. The rigor—if that’s the right word—of efforts to silence the detractors included not just appeals to the inscription and the word of an earlier expert, Petrarch, but also a forensic examination of the bones conducted by a leading physician; and this, perhaps, is what makes the whole story very much one of the Renaissance: the latest science being used to identify an ancient body was not exactly the same thing as pure belief based on hearsay. Even if, as in this case, ultimately it was.

One of the points made by Schwab and Grafton is that all these antiquarian enterprises follow a script; and that the script is often pretty much the same (except for the details regarding miracles) for both Christian and pagan finds. Typically, the object is found by chance by persons not actually looking for anything like it; or it is found by someone searching on the basis of local but imprecise knowledge; often it has been known to exist in that spot for quite some time before the ‘discovery.’ Once found, the object is authenticated by experts (whose credentials vary, but mostly relate to their acquaintance with texts connected with or describing the object in antiquity), translated, and preserved in what is deemed to be a more suitable location. This is the script of how Constantine’s mother Helen discovered the three crosses on which Jesus and the two thieves were crucified, including authentication of Christ’s cross, in this case by miracle. The discovery of Livy’s body followed, for the most part, the same trajectory, absent the miracle and the uncorrupted body that were obviously fundamental details of the narrative when the object concerned was in fact the body of a saint.

Since Livy, though venerated by the learned Paduan community as a great man of antiquity, was not thought by anyone to be a saint, the fact that he was now a skeleton caused no problems. The opposite was true in the case of an unidentifiable young female body found on the Appian way by a team of Lombard laborers: this was a body that had indeed not decayed. Since it seemed unlikely to be that of a saint—no written record or oral testimony suggested anything about a saint buried at this spot—science immediately went into action, though given the vastly diverging reports about this body, Schwab and Grafton wonder how many of the experts actually saw her. Much was speculated about the substance the body was covered in that preserved her, albeit without any widely accepted conclusion. Even more speculation concerned her identity; the most popular theory was that she was Cicero’s daughter. Unfortunately, “Tullia” disappeared: the papal curia, unnerved by a body clearly unsaintly and equally clearly uncorrupted, got rid of her before her existence could make things too confusing. The theories and counter-theories of antiquarians continued to be produced, however, long after the physical evidence was no longer accessible.

The scripts of the stories of Livy and “Tullia” are the common themes for all the case studies of this book, including those not just of bodies, but equally of other objects such as the Titulus of the True Cross (‘discovered’ in a place where, as recently as three years earlier, a travel guide had stated it could be found) and the Laocoon, each of which receives a chapter to itself. Ancient texts were sought as witnesses to the object’s authenticity, and quasi-scientific arguments based ultimately also on ancient accounts were adduced, rejected, and reintroduced into debate. Sometimes, the finds could not be translated, and were not even what they ought to have been. The paintings in Nero’s Golden House (the subject of chapter six) did not conform to the aesthetics expounded by Vitruvius, the ancient author whose rediscovery proved influential on humanist theories of art. Ancient practice and ancient theory appeared to clash; and while the humanist writers (untrained in art) often followed Vitruvius in their judgements, the Golden House paintings were viewed and studied mostly and most carefully by contemporary artists, who were happy to be inspired by the practice and cheerfully ignored Vitruvius and his contemporary followers’ aesthetic strictures. Artists’ copies of Roman decoration in their notebooks, however, proved equally to be vehicles of translation of the ancient object into a context where it took on a new meaning, and the recycling of that decoration in art was as diverse as the arguments brought forth regarding movable relics.

The last two case studies depart from Italy, humanism, and the Renaissance, moving the reader to England and Germany just before the Reformation. The English example displays both how humanist influence and forensic technique had slowly percolated northwards, and how they were in many ways similar to properly medieval means of authenticating relics. The archbishops of Canterbury and Glastonbury disagreed on where the relics of St Dunstan were to be found—a matter of material importance to both places, which stood to earn substantial sums from visitors to the true relics of this saint. Both primates cited authorities in support of their case, earlier chronicles and ancient accounts of Dunstan’s life. As the humanists were also discovering in their use of ancient sources, these texts were often inconclusive, and Glastonbury’s argument rested not on disproving the evidence of Canterbury as much as finessing it: Glastonbury had the major bones, and Canterbury only scraps. In such a situation, the sources on Dunstan’s life and death, and indeed on the translation of his body, proved ultimately insufficient. But the larger point made here by Schwab and Grafton is that the stories of the rediscovery of Livy and “Tullia”, viewed from the vantage point of non-humanist England, ‘were in some ways more normal, more ordinary than those who framed and told them realized or believed’ (243): the exhumation of Livy and the dispute that followed was not all that different from what happened with Dunstan, which followed procedures long used to authenticate relics. Similarly, the Seamless Robe (the last garment worn by Christ) at Trier was instrumentalized to bolster the emperor Maximilian’s public persona as a worthy successor to Constantine, the first Christian emperor; but its authenticity was disputed and examined by ill-informed but meticulous forensic examination of the cloth and dye, and ultimately also the style in which it was cut, which for the most prominent defender was something of a clincher: Jesus in this robe would have looked like a rabbi and that is, after all, what he was.

The antiquarian impulse was driven, ultimately, by feelings and desires, not solely or primarily by some sort of rational empiricism. These were complex, and could include both veneration and venality simultaneously. Antiquarianism, the authors conclude, was not just a scientific endeavor, but equally a creative enterprise, resulting—and intending to result—not just in dry-as-dust prose, but ritual and performance too. It is not always clear that the latter were not more important, nor that the feelings and desires were less motivational than a rational, empirical, quest for knowledge. When these often competing drives were present in the same individuals, then, at least in the period covered here, it was frequently not the empirical and rational, which we tend to think of as characterizing humanism and the Renaissance, that won. Is it possible that contemporaries, even those within whom these impulses competed, were aware of what was happening, and the results? Schwab and Grafton end their enchanting monograph, full of historical vignettes of interest and humor, by raising just the tantalizing whiff of possibility that the accounts that were are left with might contain more than traces of irony. Kircher, and the archbishops of Canterbury and Glastonbury, and Petrarch, and countless others, were certainly smart enough to know what they were doing, and perhaps they did indeed know—and went ahead and did it anyway.