By the sixteenth century, Rome—capital of Christendom and former center of a great Empire—had been overtaken in magnificence by many other cities in Europe. To claim contemporary importance, Rome’s advocates looked to the past—the physical remnants of which were crumbling around them. The reconstructive efforts of Bartolomeo Marliani, Pirro Ligorio, and others (who did not always agree!) were part of the larger project of regaining classical knowledge. They promoted this both for its own sake and to instruct and inspire others, at a time when so much—text, art, and architecture—had been irrevocably lost. Scholars and artists used their own experience, inscriptions, archaeological evidence, and ancient literary descriptions—along with a fair amount of imagination—to portray the city as both reconstructed and ruined. The tensions between ambitious scholarly projects and the limited resources available were always present, as were tensions between antiquarians with different ideas about the past.
Vrbis Romae topographia… Bartolomeo Marliani (d. 1560) Basileae: Per Ioannis Oporinum, 1550
Rare Books Collection, Berlin Collection
Medieval guides to Rome often included a range of sites that were classical, religious, and secular. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, burgeoning antiquarian studies led to the first guides focused entirely on the monuments of ancient Rome. Bartolomeo Marliani published an early topographical guide of ancient sites. This book, originally published unillustrated in 1534, provides a region-by-region account of known buildings (and a few works of art) of ancient Rome. In 1544, Marliani added illustrations, including modern views of ruins, reconstructions, and architectural plans. On display here is a detailed plan of the Circus Maximus.
The two arches seen here represent two different ways of representing ancient monuments. On the left, we see the Arch of Titus encrusted in medieval constructions, as many ancient buildings were. On the right, the Arch of Septimius Severus is shown abstracted from its surroundings on a flat plane, restored to its former glory. Many monuments are depicted this way in the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae. Antiquarians who longed
to see Rome restored to its zenith were confronted on a day-to-day basis by scenes like the dilapidated Arch of Titus as they traversed the city.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center