Francis Bacon rarely found himself at a loss for words. When he wanted to say that what his contemporaries revered as “antiquity” had been a time more primitive than his own, he expressed the thought with four lapidary Latin words: antiquitas mundi juventus saeculi—the age of antiquity is the youth of the world. Yet at times even Bacon proved willing to borrow a comely phrase or two. In the Advancement of Learning, published in 1605, he set out to describe the new kind of inquiry practiced by contemporary historians of antiquity. Their experimental, innovative research was very much to his taste. The antiquaries collected and studied the material remains of the past: ruins, inscriptions, weapons, utensils, even clothing. They preferred reconstructing past beliefs and rituals to devising the eloquent narratives that had traditionally made up the core of the historian’s art. To characterize their work, radically modern in method but eternally melancholy in its pursuit of endless, elusive fragments, Bacon quoted a Latin tag, taken from a source he did not name:
Antiquities, or remnants of history, are, as was said, tanquam tabula naufragii [like a plank from a shipwreck]: [they are found] when industrious persons, by an exact and scrupulous diligence and observation, out of monuments, names, words, proverbs, traditions, private records and evidences, fragments of stories, passages of books that concern not story, and the like, do save and recover [them] somewhat from the deluge of time.
Not long ago, the great Italian historian Riccardo Fubini identified the source from which Bacon drew his fragment of Latin. It was not an ancient text, as Bacon’s citation might lead one to expect, but a Latin work by a fifteenth-century Italian scholar: Italy Illuminated, written by Flavio Biondo, master of Roman antiquities and close friend of Leon Battista Alberti, the brilliant Italian architect and theorist of art. Biondo had gathered evidence about ancient and modern Italy as he traveled the peninsula. He now set out to compare what he had seen with the testimony of the ancient texts. He hoped to work out which modern place names corresponded to which
places and peoples of Italian antiquity, to settle the authenticity of the new nomenclature, to revive and record the names that have been obliterated, and in a word to bring some light to bear upon the murkiness of Italian history.
The task proved impossible to complete, but Biondo did write an informative and immensely readable book. At the start, he asked his readers
that I be thanked for having hauled ashore some planks from so vast a shipwreck, planks which were floating on the surface of the water or nearly lost to view, rather than be required to account for the entire lost ship.
The modesty with which Biondo formulated his claims should not distract us—any more than it distracted Bacon—from the radical novelty of what he had written. When Biondo chose the metaphor of hauling planks ashore from a shipwreck, he forcibly directed …