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Born Again in Rome

The ancient Romans themselves were never quite sure whether their city’s true population consisted of statues or people. In the city’s imperial heyday, there must have been more than a million of both, each group as colorfully motley as the other. Upon a Senatus populusque Romanus that hailed from Britain, Africa, India, and everywhere in between, old Etruscan terra cottas smiled with enigmatic cheer; Olympic victors, gods, and rulers looted from Greece stared through their mother-of-pearl eyes from brazen faces. Egyptian pharaohs and reclining lions of gloss black basalt bore their exile with calm bemusement, although a portrait of Julius Caesar in the same material (now in Rome’s Museo Barracco) instead immortalizes the man’s high-strung charisma.

Stern Roman patricians, hewn from luminous marble, wore their wrinkles, flaws, and fashionable coiffures as naturally as their rank. Fat, vain Nero ordered that his hedonist’s face and several chins be cast in bronze to top a gilded nude colossus that later gave its name to Rome’s most famous amphitheater. Tiberius, and Caracalla after him, commissioned gigantic marble reenactments of ancient myths whose looming presence transformed torchlit dining rooms and baths into phantasmagoric theme parks. In a city fed by vast networks of aqueducts, every snippet of garden, every crowded corner that could afford one, flaunted a sculpted fountain: a grinning, half-feral satyr emptying a wineskin in an obscene inebriated dance, or a spitting lion whose protruding tongue cleverly channeled the spurting waters.

Tombs crowded alongside every road that led to Rome, competing for the attention of passers-by, with their decoration as elaborate as the bereaved could afford; for a successful baker named Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces this meant outfitting a marble mausoleum shaped to imitate his oven, adorned with bas-reliefs of workers making bread. More conventional Romans settled, if they could, for funerary portraits, and their faces still speak, through epitaphs or simply through their haunting presence. Others chose burial in marble sarcophagi outfitted with myths, historical scenes, chubby cupids, or earnest philosophers—there were designs for every taste and every bursa (the leather moneybag that has lent its name to the French stock exchange and the modern American purse).

Greek and Etruscan statues were brightly colored, their sculpted clothing picked out in brilliant patterns, their hair sometimes gilded, their painted eyes intently fixed on some distant vision. Sculptors of the Roman period applied color more sparingly, but they polished marble to a high-gloss patina, and applied their skill as well to the demanding medium of colored stone, including tough Egyptian granites that blunted a chisel virtually on impact and finally had to be ground down by powdered emery. Eventually Roman custom would reserve the close-grained, deep crimson granite known as porphyry for exclusive use of the imperial family, with its hue that matched the most sumptuous dye of the ancient world, Tyrian purple, and a hardness that defied all but the most patient hands.

Beckoning from rooftops, posed along highways, standing guard at intersections, huddled at the family shrine, peering with haughty remoteness from temple and forum, the gleaming statues of ancient Rome were alive in more than the ancient critics’ insistence that the best images “seemed about to speak”—or, like Pygmalion’s Galatea, come on occasion to vibrant life. The great cult statues, Jupiter Greatest and Best, Mars the Avenger, Venus the Ancestress, were regarded as fully capable of seeing the ceremonies performed in their honor; so were their more humble relatives in minor temples and household shrines. An annual bath in the little river Almo, just southeast of Rome on the Appian Way, restored an image of the divine consort Juno to her primordial virginity.

As Rome’s empire turned Christian, and then as waves of Goths and Vandals invaded Italy, the statues of the ancient city never entirely disappeared. Like the huge buildings that housed them, some fell to ruin, or were broken into bits, and fed to lime kilns. Some were reused and remodeled, like the statue of Juno that has been recarved to become Saint Helen, mother of Constantine; appropriately enough, that reconsecrated image stands in a church (Santa Croce in Gerusalemne) that was once a hall of the sainted empress’s urban residence, the Sessorian Palace. Most remarkably of all, some statues survived almost unscathed by the passage of centuries, most notably, perhaps, a gilt bronze portrait of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius mounted on an incongruously petite horse; only after eighteen centuries in the open has modern pollution finally driven him indoors.

Sometime in the fifteenth century, however, the statues took on a new, and perhaps an unparalleled, importance, and it is to that moment of the Eternal City’s history that Leonard Barkan has devoted his sensitive study Unearthing the Past. Most of the statues that knit together ancient and Renaissance Rome came forth from the ground, battered, discolored, robbed of context, and all the more powerfully suggestive for their incompleteness. Centuries of silt deposited by the river Tiber’s periodic floods had conspired with trash, dust, slops, and decaying masonry to raise Rome’s streets and piazzas high above the level of ancient ground. Houses and shops from the time of Caesar served now as basement foundations; many medieval churches already sat firmly among what had been imperial rooftops.

As Barkan notes in his introduction, the statues that came to light in the Renaissance were a chance sample, including the best, the worst, and, in great profusion, the average:

If the Apollo Belvedere, so universal an icon in Renaissance art and so celebrated in the encomia of Winckelmann and his contemporaries, strikes me as just a little bit stagy and vapid, if I allow myself to notice that the larger-than-life central figure of the Laocoön is a man about five feet high and that the whole group is slightly histrionic, if the Bacchic sarcophagus so extolled by Donatello that the awe-struck Brunelleschi trudged fifty miles from Florence to Cortona in his clogs just to see it turns out to have been (like most of them) a factory-made knockoff produced for the rising lower middle class of Imperial Rome, what does it all mean?

Meaning, as Barkan argues eloquently, lies in the imaginations of those first beholders of the emerging statues, whose differing tastes he chronicles with sympathy and insight. There was, he writes, a huge, puzzling discrepancy between ancient literary accounts of the great artists—the sculptors Phidias, Praxiteles, Polyclitus, Myron, Lysippus, the painter Apelles, friend of Alexander the Great—and the anonymous works that came forth from the Roman earth. Signed pieces like the Belvedere Torso preserved names of artists unknown to the critics of antiquity. Yet that gulf between past and present, Barkan maintains, created what he calls a “sparking distance” in which the bolt of inspiration could reach its flash point.

If the number of statues pulled from the soil seems to have increased enormously during the Renaissance, it is not only because the excavators suddenly had eyes to see them, but because the excavations themselves were a new characteristic of Roman life. They were made by people who were digging cellars or sinking foundation trenches as part of a huge program to rebuild the city of the popes as a wonder fit to rival the city of the emperors. The ambition seems crazy: medieval Rome had shrunk to a fraction of its former size and population, with little but the Church remaining to provide it with income. And even that income was far from secure; in 1309, the College of Cardinals had succeeded in moving the whole papal Curia to Avignon, and it was only with the accession in 1417 of a native Roman pope, Martin V Colonna, that a returned papal court began in earnest to spin the myth of Rome’s eternity. The revival of interest in ancient Rome that we know as the Renaissance was always inseparably entwined with dreams of new creation.

When a marble image of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons being throttled by serpents was pulled from the ground near the Colosseum in January of 1506, the heroic father’s rippling muscles and agonized expression captured the attention of gruff Pope Julius II, who commandeered the work for the papal collection, and of Michelangelo, who imitated the tormented priest’s physique in nearly all his subsequent creations of sculpture and paint.1 But, as Barkan writes, the Laocoön had more to recommend it than its physical presence, considerable though that was. The statue group’s description and placement also coincided with a literary account preserved from ancient times, the multivolume Natural History composed by the industrious naturalist Pliny the Elder (who died investigating the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD):

The reputation of some works of art has been obscured by the number of artists engaged with them on a single task, because no individual monopolizes the credit nor again can several of them be named on equal terms. This is the case with the Laocoön in the palace of Titus, a work superior to any painting and any bronze. Laocoön, his children, and the wonderful clasping coils of the snakes were carved from a single block in accordance with an agreed plan by those eminent craftsmen Hagesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, all of Rhodes.

With characteristic tone-deafness to matters aesthetic, Pliny put most of his remarks on famous sculpture and sculptors in the midst of a discussion on stone, but he adorned his rosters of art and artists with anecdotes, each designed to impart one of the moral lessons that ancient Romans loved to credit as the reason for their empire’s phenomenal success. It would not take Michelangelo long to discover that the Laocoön was actually made from several pieces of marble cleverly interlocked. All the same, Pliny’s idea inspired Jacopo Sansovino to carve a Virgin, Child, and Saint Anne from a single block of marble in 1512. As Barkan notes, Sansovino was also the winner of a 1510 contest to reproduce the Laocoön in wax suitable for casting; Raphael acted as judge.

From Laocoön’s sublime agony, Unearthing the Past moves to the ridiculousness of Pasquino, the name and personality assigned to a mangled fragment of two marble warriors, one dead and one alive, possibly a depiction of the Homeric hero Menelaus carrying the body of Patroclus as the Iliad races toward its climax. Pasquino‘s single noseless face above twisted shoulders seemed to lend his raddled frame a single identity, an identity that somehow always lent itself to fun despite the original sculpture’s doleful subject matter. By the earliest years of the sixteenth century, Roman students were dressing Pasquino up once a year for the feast day of Saint Mark (April 25), attaching to his elaborate robes scurrilous poems in Latin and Italian that lampooned current events, cardinals, and the pope with infectious gusto. Soon the enterprising printer Giacomo Mazzocchi was collecting each year’s crop of “pasquinades” and publishing them in an attractive little pamphlet; inevitably the habit of composing pasquinades became a sport too choice to reserve for one day a year. Nonetheless, as a pasquinade of 1533 maintained, the statue itself survived every attempt at exploitation:

Every pen tires itself out on me…. My own person remains free, and whether I am praised or dishonored, I do not change condition. But whoever treats me badly, though he may believe he lives a thousand years or more, barely stays alive for twelve hours. And those pieces of paper of his, which he hoped would attain immortality, get bought up by the grocers. And such verses, which dishonor the big shots, last just as long as my costumed head.

Today, as has been the case for more than four centuries, Pasquino will still be covered with offerings whenever Romans feel like ventilating in public: he proclaimed himself a feminist for as long as the red spray-painted graffito “Pasquina” lasted on his pedestal, protested vociferously throughout 1999 against the scaffolding in which he was imprisoned during restoration for the Jubilee Year, and has most recently been displaying comments on Italy’s elections. Nor was Pasquino the only statue in Rome equipped with voices: he carried on ceaseless dialogues with the big handsome river god Marforio until the latter’s imprisonment in the Capitoline Museums in the early eighteenth century, and also engaged in conversation with the battered upper half of the Egyptian goddess Isis, known as Madama Lucrezia, who still lords it over the bus stops of Piazza Venezia.

A continuing sidelight of Barkan’s discussion concerns the sexual life of statues, from Pygmalion’s mythic Galatea, brought to life by the power of love, to Praxiteles’ provocative Venus of Cnidos, who defied would-be Pygmalions of Hellenistic Greece by resolutely retaining her stony calm against their assaults. The muchimitated bronze statue of the little boy who removes a thorn from his foot, the Spinario, gained a lubricious reputation, perhaps because he goes about his business with something of the cocky nude nonchalance of Caravaggio’s Victorious Cupid. An ancient erotic relief known to its Renaissance copyists as the Bed of Polyclitus shows a woman whose body twists an improbable 180å¡ to display every conceivable physical charm; an ancient, life-sized Sleeping Hermaphrodite, on the other hand, makes similar contortions to conceal a final surprise. It may have been an ancient cliché that the best sculpture seemed real enough to live and breathe, but under that cliché lay a bedrock of conviction that there must be a secret life of statues, a conviction by no means erased from Renaissance Christianity, animated as it was by a procession of weeping Madonnas and healing images of saints. Religious fanatics like Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola ascribed the misfortunes of sixteenth-century Italy to the Pope’s excessive hospitality to pagan monuments. As late as 1787, deep into the Age of Enlightenment, Mozart’s Don Giovanni opened his doors to a stentorian stone Commendatore whose ancestry as a statue come to life reaches as far back as antiquity, and as close by as the Renaissance.

Still more ravaged than Pasquino, the muscular marble trunk with legs known as the Belvedere Torso somehow musters an air of tragic grandeur despite its patches, nicks, and missing parts; if Pasquino‘s funny face inevitably draws attention away from the graceful brawn of his two bodies, the headless Torso admits no such distraction. Instead, together with the lithe and lustrous striding Apollo that already belonged to Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere in the 1490s, it entered the papal (Belvedere) collection when Cardinal Giuliano became Pope Julius II in 1503, soon to be joined by the Laocoön, and, in 1512, by a reclining lady of imposing presence who was immediately identified as the dying Cleopatra. (We identify her as Sleeping Ariadne, deserted on a Naxian shore by her lover, Theseus, and about to be awakened by her future husband, the god Dionysus.)

Barkan shows how the effect of this choice assemblage on the work of the Pope’s protégés, Michelangelo and Raphael, was fundamental to the formulation of Renaissance style, not only in Rome, but indeed everywhere. The powerful muscularity of Laocoön and Belvedere Torso inspired Michelangelo’s epic vision of the human body on the Sistine Chapel ceiling—commissioned by Julius in exactly these years—and simultaneously propelled Raphael’s soft Umbrian style into a stately grandeur as he frescoed this same pope’s apartments in the Vatican. Meanwhile, from careful study of the sculpted bas-reliefs that adorned the collection’s sarcophagi, Raphael devised a new way to represent space in paintings, flat and sculptural rather than deeply perspectival; soon it would be seen on frescoed walls all over Italy and beyond.2

Of these two artists, Michelangelo was the one who always thought sculpturally, and to him Barkan devotes his chief attention in tracing the effects of the Belvedere collection, and indeed of ancient statuary generally, on sixteenth-century artistic style. Like nearly every writer on Renaissance art, he also draws extensively on the work of Michelangelo’s younger contemporary Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568) provides the most detailed biographical information about Italian artistic practice from Cimabue at the end of the thirteenth century to Vasari’s own heyday in the middle of the sixteenth. Vasari himself was an enthralling writer, a fine architect, and a successful but pedestrian painter, whose classically inspired taste and morally uplifting biographies have since dominated the understanding of Renaissance art with the oracular assurance of a Michelangelo prophet. But Vasari wrote at the same time, and for the same public, as Benvenuto Cellini, whose Autobiography firmly belongs to the category of historical fiction.3 And indeed, Vasari’s Lives take similar liberties with the facts whenever the facts unembellished fail to drive home the point he wants to make. Unearthing the Past, fortunately, is adept at unearthing this supremely interesting philosopher-gossip’s sources and in distinguishing what is tendentious talk from what is factually informative.

A final chapter centered on the thoroughly second-rate Florentine sculptor and first-rate self-promoter Baccio Bandinelli provides a surprisingly touching denouement to Barkan’s fine-spun tale; somehow Bandinelli’s genuine professionalism, close family ties, and awareness of his limitations outweigh both the bombast for which he was notorious and the comical pomposity of much of his sculpture. In the first place, Bandinelli was a superb draftsman; indeed, as Barkan makes clear, this was the artist’s chief problem: his drawings always promised wonders that his limited talents at sculpture could never quite produce. Furthermore, there is the Pietà that Bandinelli eventually put on his own tomb. Begun by his talented son Clemente, it was to show the aged Nicodemus holding the body of Jesus.

Clemente Bandinelli modeled his figure of Nicodemus on his own difficult parent, with every detail of proud posture, carefully groomed beard, and stylish clothing knowingly but compassionately rendered. Working for the man was another matter altogether, and shortly after completing his Nicodemus, Clemente left home. He died young, without ever coming back. His devastated father turned to the Pietà and finished the figure of the dead Christ, a young corpse resting on an old man’s knees. The final result is as pure an expression of a bereaved parent’s anguish as any marble ever carved to imitate life, a Laocoön caught not in a serpent’s coils but in what Virgil called “the tears in things,”

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(There are tears in things and mortality touches the mind.)

Appropriately, these words from his Aeneid were themselves prompted by a work of art.

  1. 1

    According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Laocoön, a Trojan priest of Neptune, was silenced by the sea god when he tried to warn his fellow citizens not to admit the Trojan Horse into the city.

  2. 2

    The most definitive treatment of the development of a flattened, relief-like space in sixteenth-century painting, as well as many other artistic issues raised by Unearthing the Past, is to be found in Marcia B. Hall, After Raphael: Painting in Central Italy in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

  3. 3

    Paul Barolsky has expended much good humor and ingenuity on exposing Vasari the tale-spinner. See his Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and Its Maker (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), Why Mona Lisa Smiles and Other Tales by Vasari (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991); and Giotto’s Father and the Family of Vasari’s Lives (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).

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