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, the parties thrown and pageants staged by popes and prelates amounted to a new form of life, one reimagined in a brilliant way, as a high form of performance art. In this new theater of the world, men and women spoke to one another on terms of equality—and devised expressive, harmonious forms of clothing, gesture, and speech. The patient collation of manuscripts and collection of marble fragments could not form a central part of this story—though the metamorphosis of a dead body into something like a pagan relic, and the noisy, colorful carnival that this joyous event occasioned, naturally could.

Like Burckhardt, Ingrid Rowland sees the Renaissance as the birth of a new culture and society. Like Burckhardt, too, she brings this lost world back to three-dimensional life and vivid color—for, like him, she too is a splendid writer whose words evoke unforgettable images of Renaissance society. Rowland deftly describes the young artists and warriors we know from Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, ever ready to fight or fornicate, displaying their fine legs in tight hose and their large genitals in even tighter codpieces. More remarkably, Rowland does as much for the city’s old scholars, whom she portrays in all their pedantry, ever ready to measure a plinth or emend a text, sweeping along in the magnificent scarlet robes which comfortably engulfed their more than comfortable bellies.

For unlike Burckhardt, Rowland makes no separation between life and learning. She sees the scholarly enterprises carried out in High Renaissance Rome as the core of its new culture—and as intimately related to its new forms of social life. Classical scholarship, by her account, really could re-create the past—and measure the distance from past to present. It yielded spectacular results—the facts and numbers, theories and practices that underpinned the creation of a new literature, a new art, a new architecture, and much more.


More remarkably still, this new scholarship was part and parcel of the Renaissance’s new social life. Much of it was carried out, after all, not in the cramped isolation of the modern library or laboratory, but in the light and noise of Renaissance Rome’s banquet years. The scholars loved, explored, and lived in the same Roman streets as the young artists. They too stared upward as they walked or rode, gazing not at the night sky but at the faces of the courtesans who sat in upstairs windows, awaiting customers, as well as at the ancient sculpted heads and capitals embedded in the walls around them.

Rowland’s major characters loved to throw a good dinner for their Roman friends, preferably in an outdoor garden, furnished with fragments of ancient statues and buildings and adorned with classical inscriptions, real and fake. They talked with equal passion about modern occasions and the ancient world as they sat through the long nights in the soft Roman air. The discovery of a new statue or the invention of a new poetic form excited them as much as the election of a new pope. The conversation at one beguiling dinner, staged in the famous garden of the scholar Angelo Colocci, came to a screeching halt when someone raised a problem: What was, exactly, the size of the stade with which the Romans measured the world? The stade, they agreed, consisted of millia passuum, a thousand paces. But a pace consisted of feet—and no one knew how long a Roman foot had been.

That night, the details of ancient systems of surveying and mensuration claimed the attention of humanists and prelates alike. Colocci himself, as Rowland shows, went on to ransack the city for clues. Beleaguered by dealers offering him curios, some of which proved both genuine and invaluable, Colocci scrutinized ancient texts on surveying, bought ancient weights from the tailors who used them as irons, and rescued ancient stones bearing the image of a foot in relief. One of these came from the grave of a Roman architect, another from above the door of a poor barbershop in the Jewish quarter, where a colleague had spotted it. Colocci began by working out how the masters of the ancient political universe had measured and divided it. But he eventually came to speculate, in fascinating ways, on the more profound system of measures by which God had created the orderly, lovely physical universe around him. The borders between the humanities and the sciences, the verbal and the visual, blurred and dissolved in Colocci’s circle as well as in his magnificently disorderly notebooks.

Rowland shows that scholarship like this did more than entertain its votaries. A web of common concerns joined the learned civil conversation of men like Colocci to the work and thought of artists like Raphael and Cellini. Scholars and artists, intellectuals and patrons collaborated at every level. The detailed, profound study of ancient columns and pilasters which Colocci, Bramante, and Raphael carried out had results both on paper, where Colocci helped Raphael frame the modern theory of the ancient orders, and in the Vatican itself, where Raphael’s magnificent Logge employed these discoveries to dazzling effect. Books and memoranda, palaces and piazzas, villas and chapels—all embodied deep meditation on the ruins of Rome and the remains of ancient Platonism, and all transmuted ancient raw materials into a new classical art.

The story begins with the city itself. Rowland vividly re-creates the majestic, haunted Rome of the late fifteenth century—the deserted capital of a lost empire, beginning to recover from the demographic and economic collapse of the fourteenth century, but still for the most part in ruins, the Forum and Capitoline reduced to ruin-strewn pastures for cows and goats, the hills largely empty. Most of the city’s inhabitants crowded either into the papal quarter of Trastevere or the neighborhoods just across the Tiber. Chaos and color, violent Roman nobles and their followers still dominated the streets, as Rowland makes clear in a characteristic passage:

A walk through the mud and slops of a Roman street could still be a dangerous venture, when it led through baronial turf. On the most tranquil day a stroll through the city meant threading an obstacle course of soldiers, rattling carts of wine, grain, and vegetables, street vendors, prostitutes, pilgrim tourists, and endless entourages: cardinals riding to the hunt amid a retinue of yapping dogs; bankers in cavalcade on their expensive horses; popes, priests, and the faithful in solemn procession. Near Monte Giordano, Piazza Savelli, or Piazza Colonna, however, a jacket of the wrong color, the wrong badge on a hat, a swagger too jaunty, or the wrong company could bring on an attack by the neighborhood baron’s toughs, the bravi. The meandering Tiber always flowed close by, ready to conceal the evidence, as it had once concealed many a murder in ancient Rome and carried off the carnage from the arenas.

Rowland follows a number of people through the swarming, dangerous Roman streets: Colocci himself, a collector of antiquities and impresario of poets; the humanist Tommaso Inghirami, the dazzling orator whose performance as Seneca’s Phaedra gave him a nickname he could never shake, Fedro (his fall under a cart, recorded in a very curious picture, offers Rowland material rich in human interest); the banker and patron Agostino Chigi, builder of Bill Gates-like monopolies and far better than Bill Gates-like palaces and villas; the Augustinian theologian and philosopher Egidio da Viterbo, as famous for his deep knowledge of Hebrew as for the saintly pallor he attained by inhaling the odor of burning straw; and the Dominican theologian and forger Giovanni Nanni of Viterbo, who invented fantastic versions of the Italian past and really began to decipher the Etruscan language. These and other even more unfamiliar figures, as well as the great artists Bramante and Raphael, lead the historian and her reader across the crowded piazzas, across the Tiber bridges, up the great marble stairs to the old church of St. Peter, and down the grim stone steps into the dungeons of the Castel Sant’Angelo.


Though Rowland peoples her story with memorable characters, she also re-creates the institutions in which they had to make their way. She writes of the involvement of Colocci with the Roman Academy, an antiquarian brotherhood created by Giulio Pomponio Leto in the 1460s and 1470s. Leto and his friends banded together to practice the study of the Latin language and the ruins of ancient Rome. Meeting on the Palatine hill or in the catacombs wearing laurel wreaths, the members of the Academy reenacted Roman festivals, which they tended to identify with the festivals of Christian saints. They celebrated their joint love of the ancients and praised one another’s charms in powerful Latin prose and poetry.

After one disaster—the crisis of 1468, when Pope Paul II had the members of the Academy arrested on charges of paganism and tortured in the grim bowels of the Castel Sant’Angelo—they established themselves as the members of a fashionable club, “part institute for advanced study, part guild for curial humanists, part society for creative anachronism.” At the same time, they claimed possession of a vital intellectual monopoly. They, and only they, had a fluent command of Latin; they, and only they, could write the peerlessly classical documents that the popes, like other Renaissance rulers, used as projections of their own political and cultural power. The Academicians’ scholarship had a strong flavor of its period and place: they used their knowledge of Roman literature and society as energetically in composing erotic verse about one another as in reconstructing the forgotten beliefs and practices of the ancients.

But their learning also served ambitious, wider purposes in the present. Giovanni Sulpizio of Veroli, who set out to reconstruct the corrupt and difficult text of the ancient manual on architecture by Vitruvius, ended up producing a usable edition of this vitally important ancient work. More important, he also helped to create a magnificent exercise in modern classical building—the palace built by Raffaele Riario, the chief financial officer of the papacy, its façade inspired by the ancient Theater of Marcellus as well as the Colosseum.

While Colocci brings the reader into the center of the social world of Roman scholars, Agostino Chigi leads him into that of popes and cardinals. Rowland, who has edited Chigi’s correspondence, uses the career of this Sienese merchant as a thread which she follows through the labyrinthine, protean structure of the papal Curia: the complex, forbidding world of the prelates, scholars, merchants, and clerks who served in the papal government. She meticulously shows how this structure was modernized in the fifteenth century. Efficient merchant bankers competed for influence with the old barons. They bought positions in the Curia as investments and devised ways to finance the Renaissance popes’ ambitious programs of urban reconstruction in Rome, as well as diplomacy and warfare in Italy, and attempts at crusading in the Holy Land. If Leto and his followers established a cultural monopoly on good Latin, Chigi managed to create an economic near-monopoly on alum—a substance vital for Europe’s largest industry, cloth manufacture, and available in quantity at Tolfa, in the papal states, and elsewhere in Italy as well.

A deft banker, an expert at eliminating his partners when they encountered financial trouble, a patron with a sharp eye for new talents, Chigi never gained a complete stranglehold on the alum trade. But he did, as Rowland tells his story, buy his way from one office to another up the food chain of the papal Curia. (Such purchases represented investments in the early modern European equivalent of bonds. The popes used the cash they brought in for current expenses. If all went well, the salaries and status attached to these positions eventually more than repaid the initial purchase price.) Chigi at length bought himself a noble title in his own right, and supported the Borgias with direct loans. His example helps to make clear how Colocci and others, less spectacularly but with no less determination, also built themselves imposing careers and no less imposing fortunes.

Inside the intellectual and political structures, a new culture took shape. Prelates and scholars alike set out to live ancient lives in their vigne, the gardens in the hills where they built their summer houses and held their parties. The antiquity which these men lived by was not, as Rowland makes clear, the ancient world studied in modern departments of classics and archaeology. Forgery played as large a role as philology in the creation of a classical lifestyle. The love of ancient ruins was propagated, at first, not only by sober archaeologists like Pomponio Leto but also by fantasists like Francesco Colonna, the author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Scholars disagree violently about the identity of this mysterious writer, but concur in stressing the vast influence of his strange, romantic novel in macaronic Italian. Printed with great splendor by Aldo Manuzio, studded with lovely woodcuts of fallen buildings, priapic idols, and Ghirlandaio girls, this enchanting book expressed the romance of ruins and the mystery of ancient symbols with what most contemporary readers thought an appealing directness and clarity.

Colocci was a deeply serious student of the textures and flavors of ancient Roman life. Still, he decorated his gardens with a fountain and a statue based not on Roman statues of the goddesses associated with springs, but on an illustration from the Hypnerotomachia, in which a satyr prepares to commit politically incorrect acts on a lovely sleeping nymph. The renowned classical scholar Giannantonio Campano composed a gentle, pseudoclassical inscription for the base of Colocci’s statue:

Here I, the nymph of this place, guard of the sacred fountain,
Slumber, while gentle water’s murmur is what I hear.
Whoever touches this hollow marble, take care not to wake me;
Whether you have in mind drinking or bathing, don’t speak.

Both the statue and Campano’s verses had lively careers of their own, since they were widely taken as genuine antiques. In this, as in many other cases, extremes touch: the most up-to-date scholarship meets the tenderest of illusions about the ancient past. Rowland’s touch is never surer than when she analyzes the powerful element of historical fantasy that ran through so much of the historical and archaeological scholarship created in Rome.

Especially in the pontificate of the Borgia pope Alexander VI—who followed the ancient precedent set by Augustus and others in linking his capital of Rome not only to the ancient capital of the empire, but also to the ancient Egyptian capital of Alexandria—historical fantasies about the wisdom and piety of the ancient Egyptians occupied much scholarly attention. Giovanni Nanni forged both a number of classical objects and inscriptions and a whole set of histories of the ancient world, which he published, with no small splendor, in 1498. In Nanni’s wonderful novelization of the Flood, Noah, having used his mastery of astrology to predict the event, sailed up the Tiber following it, and created a center of high civilization in—where else?—Viterbo. The best philological evidence supported the story: after all, Noah invented wine after the flood, and the Hebrew name for wine, yayin, clearly reflected the alternate name by which he had been known in Italy: Janus. He had also, so it seems, presided over a golden age on the Janiculum, the Roman hill where, so one influential legend had it, Saint Peter had been crucified and Roman Christianity too had had its beginnings. For the brilliant orator Egidio da Viterbo as for the ferocious Pope Julius II, these genealogical fantasies mattered deeply. They proved, as none of the Greek and Roman histories of the ancient world could, the majesty and authority of the Roman Church.

Though the Roman classicists gradually gained expertise in distinguishing between the genuine and the fake, they never entirely lost the sense of humor that helped to power brilliant fakers like Nanni. Bramante, for example, publicized his meticulous study of Rome’s ruins in a cheap verse pamphlet. This celebrated in mock-heroic terms the adventures of one “Mr. Perspective,” a painter from Milan. Mr. Perspective appears on the frontispiece, holding a tight, mock-heroic pose, bald and muscular, wielding compass and armillary sphere at the same time. The text describes with cruel precision the adventures of the Roman antiquaries, who “crawl along the dirt upon our bellies,/With bread, prosciutto, apples, and some vino,/Becoming more bizarre than the grottesche” that they eagerly studied in the ruins of Nero’s Golden House.

In the end, the Vatican and the vigne in the Roman hills became the site of something like a cultural revolution. Half a century ago, Erwin Panofsky argued in a brilliant essay that the new culture of the Renaissance came into being when the barriers between what had been sharply separate cultural realms—like the visual arts and the study of natural philosophy—suddenly fell. Artists like Leonardo could claim a new intellectual status, since their mastery of anatomy and perspective gave them an understanding of nature deeper than that of the scholars who had once been their social and intellectual superiors. In her concentration on the lives of classical humanists in Rome, Rowland offers a concrete and splendid case in point of these developments. She also reconstructs one of the specific material and political environments in which they took place. Rowland reveals that these developments were highly dialectical. Each side, intellectuals as well as artists, rapidly began to occupy new territories.

The Roman humanists, as Rowland shows in some of her most original pages, did not confine themselves to the study of texts and words. Eager readers of Italian texts on practical mathematics and surveying as well as Latin orations by Cicero, they threw themselves into the effort to understand how the Romans had laid out and built, provided water for, and defended their cities. Artists like Bramante, at the same time, refused any longer to be treated as mere craftsmen. They insisted that they too were men of learning, as capable of serious scholarship and original thought as the scholars and prelates who employed them. Often the most dazzling results of Roman scholarship came about when scholars and artists collaborated—as when Colocci and Raphael produced the famous letter to Pope Leo X, which defined “the five orders which the ancient used,” the latest version of which not only incorporates Colocci’s ideas but is written in his notoriously difficult hand. The new church of St. Peter, Raphael’s School of Athens and his Isaiah in the church of Sant’Agostino, Egidio da Viterbo’s great opening call for reform at the Lateran Council of 1512, and Fra Giocondo’s great critical edition of Vitruvius, these and many other cultural projects of profound originality and continuing appeal emerge from Rowland’s analysis as the natural creations of the new interdisciplinary culture of the Curia. In this new world it seemed only natural to fuse verbal and visual forms of inquiry and creativity into a single, coherent style—and then to employ this in the interests of the triumphant Roman Church.

Especially effective—and particularly fascinating—are Rowland’s re-creations of particular Roman circles and their ways of making scholarship into art. The Neapolitan Cardinal Oliviero Carafa, who lived on the Piazza Navona, and his friends began in the 1490s to carry out a ritual, characteristically Christian and pagan at once, on Saint Mark’s Day—which was also the ancient feast of the Robigalia. They put fanciful costumes on a battered old Roman statuary group of heroes from the Iliad. Early in the sixteenth century, Carafa raised the legless, armless, noseless central figure—whom some thought to be Hercules—onto a pedestal in a little square of his own. The humanists also made the statue speak, calling him “Maestro Pasquino” and attaching Latin and Italian satirical poems to him. In some of these poems, political dissent—always hard to express in an absolutist regime—and anticlerical views found an outlet. For centuries to come, Pasquino and his colleague Marforio, a statue of a river god, would continue to serve as the witty voices of Roman discontent: “What the barbarians left,” Pasquino commented in the mid-seventeenth century, “the Barberini have destroyed.” To this day, spray-painted graffiti record Pasquino’s sour views on American imperialism and Italian machismo—among other evidences of human folly.2

More alien to us now—but just as rich with human interest—is the circle that grew up a little later around the rich Luxemburger Johann Göritz, in his gardens between the Quirinal and the Tarpeian Rock. Latinists flocked to his feasts, held from 1512 onward, on Saint Anne’s Day (July 26). Their creative faculties set free by copious drafts of good wine, they produced Latin poetry of every imaginable kind, elegantly alluding to the classics which they knew so well and recording their lively discussions of everything from cosmology to astrology. Though the collection of their poems which appeared in 1524 disappoints when compared to the art produced in the same period, it offers the most vivid of views into a world in which churchmen and lay scholars, artists and poets shared an “infatuation—even an intoxication—with ancient Rome.”3 In milieus like these, as Rowland convincingly argues, it seemed no more than reasonable for the Church’s rulers to adopt the language of imperial Rome—for Leo X to take on the persona of a modern Augustus, for Agostino Chigi to play Augustus’s friend Maecenas, the great Roman patron of literature and the arts—and for God himself to bear the classical title “Jupiter the best and greatest.” Style, in this world, was a serious matter—and the choice of a classical style implied the belief that the Church, so ennobled, would enable its loyal servants to win salvation for themselves and for the nations.

The classical style that the Roman scholars adopted did not prevent them, as Rowland shows, from taking rapidly to modern technologies. In particular, they saw at once the intellectual potential of the printing press. True, scholars had always emended texts. But they had done so, necessarily, one manuscript at a time. Giannantonio Campano, who wrote the poem about Colocci’s sleeping nymph, was one of many who specialized, in the age of manuscripts, in tidying up the Latin style of ancient writers and modern humanists. He went over the autobiographical commentaries of Pope Pius II, for example, before these entered circulation. Now, however, as he exultantly wrote in the preface to the edition of the Roman historian Livy that he published in 1470, the printers could make “as many copies as they liked” of his work. All his readers would have Livy’s work in the form to which Campano had restored it. Similarly, Giovanni Sulpizio of Veroli boasted that he had prepared such clean, “emended” printer’s copy for his edition of Vitruvius that there would be little left for later scholars to add or correct.4

None of Rowland’s findings more strikingly enlarge the traditional picture of the Roman High Renaissance than her reconstruction of this alliance between scholarship and technology, which was brought into being by the same men who felt such nostalgia for sleeping nymphs and romantic ruins. Sadly, the printers often proved just as capable as scribes of corrupting the manuscripts prepared for them. They were much better, of course, than scribes at giving currency to fakes. But the technological optimism of the Roman scholars was undimmed, and some of the critical work that they carried out—like Fra Giocondo’s 1511 edition of Vitruvius, and Colocci’s further studies of the same text in this new form—had a powerful impact on art and architecture as well as classical scholarship.

Soon—all too soon—the hopes of the Roman scholars and their patrons were shattered. In 1517, Martin Luther destroyed the millennial unity of the Western Church. Ten years later, the armies of the deeply conservative Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, infiltrated by Lutherans and unpaid for months, sacked the city of Rome itself. But by that time, Rowland argues, the magnificent but fragile synthesis arrived at in the decades around 1500 was already showing fissures at many points. The monomaniacally consistent classicism of Pietro Bembo, who insisted that Cicero should serve as the only model for Latin prose style, challenged the more eclectic—and idealistic—classicism of writers like Inghirami. Literary feuds—like the one that blew up in 1519 over Pope Leo X’s decision to offer Roman citizenship, the cultural honor of honors, to a young Belgian humanist, Christophe de Longueil—split the intellectual community. They also exposed a local obsession with the niceties of Latin style which seemed more than a little exaggerated in the age of Luther and the Anabaptists.

The papacy itself slipped into discredit. Its universal claims and cultural patronage became a source of grievance rather than of respect. Even firmly Catholic northern intellectuals like Erasmus disapproved, since many of them wanted more attention paid to biblical studies and to poor relief than to architecture and ritual. Long before the Sack of 1527, in other words, the magnificent Roman collaborative experiment in creative use of the classical style was winding down. It would leave its most remarkable results in the form of buildings, paintings, and books but not in the renewed Imperial Catholic Church which these had all been intended to sustain. Like the great historian Frances Yates, Rowland clearly believes that brave, idealistic enterprises which fail, and moments of peace and harmony which never pass from the ideal to the real plane, still have their place—and a vital one—in the cultural history of Europe.5

Rowland’s remarkable enterprise in cultural history synthesizes earlier scholarship of many kinds: that of urban historians like David Coffin, Christoph Frömmel, and Charles Burroughs; of intellectual historians like John D’Amico and Charles Stinger; of historians of the classical revival in art and architecture like Otto Kurz, Elisabeth MacDougall, and Phyllis Pray Bober; of passionate delvers into Vatican manuscripts like Vittorio Fanelli and Massimo Miglio. Rowland cites this literature generously in her endnotes, and warmly thanks the many colleagues who have contributed to her research.

But this book really rests more on primary than on secondary sources. Rowland makes use of dozens of illegible manuscripts, such as the antiquarian collections of Colocci and the letters of Chigi. She works through piles of early printed books, like the forgeries of Giovanni Nanni and the genuine text of Vitruvius. And she analyzes many works of art and architecture. Rowland, who began scholarly life as a classical archaeologist, has been engaged for almost a generation in a heroic work of modern textual archaeology. Her view of Roman intellectual life, her sense of personal interactions and intellectual collisions, derive directly from the cornucopia of documents she has discovered, evaluated, and edited. Her closely printed endnotes amount in themselves to a treasury of humanist eloquence and learning. Rowland’s classical training pays off repeatedly, as when she draws on recent work on the language and meaning of patronage in ancient Rome to illuminate both modern texts and their context. And she herself has the eye of a detective for revealing details—like the manuscript notes left behind by early readers who worked their way, with enthusiasm or fury, through the fantasies of Nanni and Colonna.

The limitations of this fine book are, to a large extent, directly connected to its strengths. Rowland loves her documents so much that she prints them as they are—even when textual corrections seem absolutely required by the sense of a given passage.6 She does not make as much use as she could of complementary sources—like the rich line of Roman chronicles produced in the Renaissance, or the diaries of events at the Curia by Burckhardt and Paris de Grassis, which inspired earlier historians of Rome like Ferdinand Gregorovius. And at times, one could also wish that she provided more detailed explications of such works of art as Raphael’s School of Athens, which she has described and analyzed at greater length in preparatory articles.7 Her brief account of the School of Athens, which she treats as both an animated vision of the Vatican Library’s “holdings in philosophy” and a re-creation of the library’s users in conversation, is vivid and witty. Her reading of Raphael’s allusive visual language, in which “familiar figures” were “marshaled…in particular combinations in connection with particular ideas,” carries conviction. But the reader—or at least this reader—is left wanting still more.

Rowland’s immersion in the Roman sources that illuminate cultural life in the decades around 1500, finally, sometimes narrows her historical vision, both chronologically and geographically. She never explains whether the interdisciplinary culture that she reconstructs so convincingly had roots not only in the experiences and interests of her main characters, but also in the Roman culture of the mid-fifteenth century, when Leon Battista Alberti and Flavio Biondo, among others, pursued a rich combination of scholarly and technological interests, on which they wrote what became standard works. And she shows little sympathy for the views of outsiders to the Curia—for example, for Erasmus’s severe criticism of the lifestyle and literary tastes of his onetime friends in the Vatican. Rowland uncharacteristically misdates the Ciceronianus, the satirical dialogue in which Erasmus dissected their Ciceronian obsessions with great intelligence and wit, and does not offer much analysis of the work’s alternate view of what Christian Latin rhetoric should be.

These criticisms, however, do not detract from the central achievements of Rowland’s book, which offers a splendid re-creation of a splendid world. She makes one see even familiar scenes and figures in a new way. One banquet that took place in High Renaissance Rome is still famous: the one to which, as Benvenuto Cellini described it, the best artists of the time, including Michelangelo, invited their favorite courtesans. Cellini himself brought a particularly pretty boy, whom he had dressed and made up as a woman, and who easily outshone the genuinely female “crows” at the table. The conversation at table was enlivened by songs, as wine spread good cheer and sun streamed down through the pergola. But it reached a dramatic climax when two of the women began to explore the supposed woman’s nether regions and exposed the truth, with screams of irritated laughter.

Did this cheerful story emerge, like so many of the documents Rowland analyzes, from the collaboration of artists with intellectuals? From Alberti on, critics emphasized, borrowing a story from Cicero, that the artist who wished to create a really beautiful man or woman could not simply use a single model. The ancient painter Zeuxis, asked by the citizens of Croton to provide a uniquely beautiful image of a goddess, shocked them when he insisted that he must see their most beautiful young women naked. They offered him a visit to the gymnasium, where he could see the Crotoniate girls’ brothers exercising naked and extrapolate their sisters’ beauty from their muscular bodies. But he insisted on seeing the women. According to Cicero, Zeuxis had his way. The story, Alberti argued, showed that only a new combination of elements from the most beautiful of bodies would yield true beauty. Perhaps Cellini also knew the anecdote. Perhaps he even dressed up his young friend, or claimed he had, not only to make a good story but also to prove that he, too, was a consummate artist, one who knew how to create an artificial beauty more perfect and harmonious than the beauties of nature. Painters and writers, life as art, style as meditation, banquet years: Ingrid Rowland, like a contemporary Burckhardt, brings a lost world to life. She has given us a genuinely metropolitan High Renaissance, not only passionate and learned, but also sexy, urbane, and fascinating.

This Issue

March 4, 1999