Remaking the Renaissance

The High Renaissance in Rome began as operas often end—as a dramatic, colorful ritual in which a dead girl played the central role. On April 19, 1485, Lombard masons working on the Via Appia opened an ancient tomb. There they found a marble sarcophagus, inscribed with the words “Julia, daughter of Claudius.” Inside it lay the body of a girl, with a low, broad forehead, delicate ears, and dark eyes—an ancient beauty, so perfectly preserved in balsam, oil of cedar, and turpentine that one could move her arms and even bend her nose. Two days later, once the workmen had decamped with the treasures they also found in Julia’s tomb, her body was moved to the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitol.

All Rome came to see this tangible link with the city’s ancient past. Crowds of peddlers filled the Piazza del Campidoglio, before the palace, while scholars and artists confirmed the report that “this maiden who had lived when Rome was flourishing was as shapely as she was noble.” Like the Christian saints whose bodies underwent anxious, detailed scrutiny, before and after their deaths, Julia not only pulled in crowds, but gave off something like the odor of sanctity, and like the saints she became the object of public veneration. Pope Innocent VIII, becoming concerned, soon gave orders that her body be buried in a secret place outside the Porta Salaria. The great cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt thought that this story encapsulated all the pathos of the Renaissance’s doomed effort to make the ancient past come back to life: “The touching part of the affair was not the story itself, but the prejudice that made the ancient body which they thought they had found seem so much more marvelous than any mere living being.”1

Burckhardt, who devoted all the charm and vividness of his formidable style to retelling this story, saw it as typical of the new passion for ruins that grew up in Renaissance Rome. And this, in turn, he saw as a vital part of “the revival of classical antiquity” that helped to shape Renaissance culture. Modern readers who encounter Burckhardt’s great book are usually most struck by the sections of it that amount to a sort of cultural anthropology. Burckhardt brilliantly evoked the artistic forms of social and cultural life, of court and festival, of banquet and conversation, which the newly individualistic inhabitants of Italy created as a response to the radically new political and social world they inhabited. Though he also described, in detail, the new forms of classical scholarship and education, the Latin poetry and the academies created by the scholars of the Renaissance, these lucid and lively sections of his work do not make so powerful an impression as the rest. Sometimes the author even shows a little insecurity about the interest of this material. Perhaps these chapters reveal just a trace of Burckhardt’s distaste for the eruditissimi viri of his own age, the professional scholars, whom he regularly mocked.

By contrast,…

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