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Roman Holidays

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Giovanni Alto showing off the sights of Rome; engraving by Francesco Villamena, 1613

For several decades in the early seventeenth century, German-speaking visitors to Rome could tour the city with a strapping Swiss Guard named Hans Rudolf Heinrich Hoch, who liked to use the Italian version of his name, Giovanni Alto—Tall John. Towering over the average Roman in his billowing guardsman’s uniform, complete with cape, ruff, pantaloons, rosette-studded codpiece, and extravagantly plumed top hat, Giovanni Alto cut a dashing figure as he shepherded his charges through the Eternal City, bringing the ruins back to life with his exuberant descriptions while gently extolling the virtues of the Roman Catholic faith.

As a final flourish, he would invite his most illustrious clients to sign his guest book; today, four such autograph albums survive in the Vatican Library. Perhaps this was the moment when he let it be known that he could recommend some very special souvenirs of Rome at a very special price: engravings of the monuments and ruins they had just seen, fresh from the shop of the local printmaker Giacomo Lauro (active 1583–1645). Several of Lauro’s prints conveniently feature Giovanni Alto gesticulating in the foreground (as well as other contemporary tour guides hard at work).

Engravings made ideal souvenirs: they were light, portable, and relatively affordable. Long after the tour ended, they could serve as a focus for treasured memories and display the wonders of Rome to the people back home. As a further advantage, Lauro sold the images loose, as individual plates; customers could choose which to buy and arrange them into an entirely personal bound album. The collusion between the Swiss Guard and the Italian engraver, combining grand tour and memory book, created a perfect, and lucrative, alliance.

Alto and Lauro were hardly the first to profit from selling mass-produced prints to tourists: in the 1530s, a Rome-based Spanish publisher and bookseller, Antonio Salamanca, had already begun to publish folio engravings of Roman monuments, both ancient and modern. Copyright as we know it was still an unknown luxury, so when a French publisher, Antoine Lafréry, moved to Rome and started to produce pirate versions of Salamanca’s prints in the 1540s, the Spaniard responded not with a lawsuit but an offer of collaboration. The two men officially joined forces in 1553. Salamanca would not regret his decision; Lafréry may have been a pirate, but he was also an excellent businessman.

In 1573, the Frenchman issued a master list of all the firm’s available engravings and then, shortly afterward, printed a title page that enabled customers to turn their collections of Roman prints into something resembling a book. This elegant cover sheet featured an elaborate architectural caprice framing the resonant title Mirror of Roman Magnificence (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae). Today, libraries all around the world have catalog entries for the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, but only some of these entries refer to bound volumes. Many versions of the Speculum are still kept as loose collections, and each, bound or unbound, is different from all the rest.

Giacomo Lauro began working in Rome in the 1580s, when the Speculum topped every well-heeled tourist’s list of desirable souvenirs. Like Lafréry, he was a rogue, an accomplished pirate of other people’s engravings who maneuvered as deftly as Lafréry had around a growing body of copyright protections (which he helped to create). In order to garner a corner of Lafréry’s market, Lauro issued his own collection of Roman engravings, Splendor of the Ancient City (Antiquae Urbis Splendor), as a three-volume set in 1615, choosing to focus on reconstructions of ancient buildings rather than the rapidly developing architecture of modern Rome. Giovanni Alto wrote the preface.

The Norwegian art historian Victor Plahte Tschudi began investigating Giacomo Lauro’s devious career when he was a graduate student on a fellowship in Rome. He discovered how cleverly the printmaker had pirated engravings of Roman monuments, altering a few details to avoid breaking the letter, not to mention the spirit, of emerging copyright laws. Strictly speaking, Lauro could argue that his slightly and deliberately altered copies were not really copies—never mind that the alterations he made to his images also turned them into less accurate, or flat-out inaccurate, representations of the monuments they depicted. Most of Lauro’s customers would never have noticed in any case, nor, for that matter, would most Romans; what counted above all to the collectors of these engravings was the suggestive idea, or the memory, of sights like the Colosseum or the temples of the Roman Forum. Lauro was no Piranesi, tormented by magnificent visions. He scratched out his engravings to make a living, not to court immortality.

Tschudi’s book Baroque Antiquity addresses, with coruscating wit, a more challenging aspect of Lauro’s handiwork: the fact that so many of his reconstructions of ancient monuments fly in the face of archaeological accuracy, not just in the details, but entirely. In his search for why this was so, Tschudi introduces readers to another seventeenth-century rogue, albeit one with an imagination as epic as Piranesi’s: Father Athanasius Kircher, the German refugee who spent most of his life at the Jesuit Roman College in Rome and, like Giovanni Alto before him, served as a point of reference for German visitors to the Eternal City. Kircher’s reconstructions of ancient Roman monuments are sometimes as extravagantly fictitious as any caprice of Lauro’s Antiquae Urbis Splendor, and sometimes, again like Lauro’s, as accurate as modern scholarship could make them. The printmaker and the Jesuit savant departed from archaeological accuracy not out of ignorance, but by deliberate choice, and thereby hangs Tschudi’s fascinating story.

The earliest surviving guidebooks to Rome—twelfth-century pilgrim handbooks like Record of the Golden City of Rome (Graphia Aureae Urbis Romae, circa 1130) and the best-selling Wonders of the City of Rome (Mirabilia Urbis Romae, circa 1143)—served up generous doses of fiction to compensate for their lack of concrete information about the ruins of the ancient city. Noah had settled in Rome just after the Flood, long before a pair of baby boys named Romulus and Remus were ever suckled by a kindly she-wolf in a swamp that would one day become the Circus Maximus. A dragon lived in the Forum, not far from the place called “Inferno” because there the fires of Hell had once burst forth from the center of the earth.

The circular “eye” that opens to the sky in the center of the Pantheon’s dome was once plugged by the huge bronze pinecone that stood in those days by the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica (since 1643 it has decorated the upper garden of what are now the Vatican Museums). Some medieval pilgrims must have been observant enough to see that the Pignone, the big pinecone, could never have stopped the eight-meter opening in the Pantheon’s roof, let alone blow sky-high one day in a cloud of devils, fly through the air for a full city block, and fall to earth in the piazza that still bears its name, Piazza della Pigna.

On the other hand, ancient Roman legends about the Forum were scarcely more credible than these tales from the Middle Ages: the divine twins Castor and Pollux watering their immortal horses by the house of the Vestal Virgins, meat raining from the heavens, Romulus disappearing into thin air, Quintus Curtius leaping into a chasm on horseback as the earth closed behind him, the body of Julius Caesar bursting into spontaneous flame. The very strangeness of these events, both ancient and medieval, hinted at higher meanings, although it must be said that the priests of Rome never did divine exactly why the skies rained meat in 461 BC; they paid more heed to the previous year’s report of a talking cow.*

By the mid-fifteenth century, this kind of fanciful tale-telling about early Rome had given way to scholarly scrutiny. In the 1460s, the University of Rome hired professors to teach the new discipline of studia humanitatis—the humanities. Their students, including a brace of future Vatican bureaucrats and at least one sixteenth-century pope (Paul III), learned to compare the testimony of ancient writers with the city’s surviving physical traces and imagine themselves back into the world of antiquity. Rather than a story of pride brought low, Rome began to tell an eminently Christian story of resurrection, of an empire put in place by God to spread the good news of the gospel, then and now. After centuries of shrinkage, the city had begun to grow rapidly, stimulating new building everywhere, including in the long-deserted tracts called the disabitato, the uninhabited zone within the city walls.

In a process that still continues unabated, every excavation for a new foundation or a wine cellar brought up tantalizing remnants of the past. Scholars and artists clambered over the ruins, sketching, measuring, examining, comparing, seeing many sights that have long since disappeared, most of them destroyed by another five centuries of new construction or, like the intact body of an ancient Roman girl embalmed in honey, by exposure to the elements. At the same time, new generations of what contemporaries called “book gluttons” (helluones librorum) scoured libraries in the hope of finding forgotten copies of ancient texts. Yet the more the ancient world revealed itself, the more clearly an unfathomable distance yawned between ancient literature and ancient ruins. By the early sixteenth century, most visitors to Rome came seeking a literal, not a legendary, connection to the past. They wanted to walk in the real footsteps of the Apostles and Julius Caesar as they took in the new papal Rome rising before their eyes.

Tschudi suggests that, in addition to these time-honored sources of information about Rome—the literary legacy of ancient authors and the physical legacy of the monuments—sixteenth-century printmakers relied to an even greater extent on a third source: other prints. By examining (or simply copying) the work of his predecessors, Giacomo Lauro could concoct his own reconstruction of an ancient building without ever having to step outside his studio. In effect, he and his colleagues created what Baroque Antiquity terms an “archaeology of prints,” and indeed the word “archaeology,” with a meaning roughly equivalent to “ancient history,” appears for the first time in 1607, precisely when Giacomo Lauro was perfecting his Splendor of the Ancient City.

With this formulation, Tschudi puts his finger on a phenomenon that had taken root in the previous century when, with startling speed, the printed page began to create a world of its own. In Rome around 1514, when the cash-strapped Pope Leo X realized that he could never afford a major building project, he commissioned Raphael to create, on paper, a reconstruction of the city during the reign of Constantine. Painfully aware of his own limitations, he chose to recall a time when the Roman Empire spanned three continents, the inhabited city extended all the way to its third-century walls, and Christianity had cemented its triumph over the ancient gods.

CPA Media/Pictures from History/Granger
The Tower of Babel; engraving by Athanasius Kircher, 1679

In 1515, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, as deeply in debt as Pope Leo, commissioned a colossal triumphal arch from Albrecht Dürer—on paper. Soon enthusiastic Lutherans would be pasting huge paper prints of Martin Luther on their walls in place of marble statues. In 1615, as Lauro issued his Antiquae Urbis Splendor, another transplant to Rome, the aristocratic scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo, conceived the idea for a “Paper Museum” to encompass every branch of human knowledge. Tschudi navigates through this paper universe, which he describes as “a historical landscape twice removed,” with sparkling ingenuity, ideas swarming as densely and provocatively as a flying squadron of Baroque cupids.

To engrave an image of the temple of Honos and Virtus, mentioned by ancient writers such as Cicero and Vitruvius but long since obliterated, Lauro, like the writers of Rome’s twelfth-century guidebooks, resorted to fiction. Honos and Virtus are not quite equivalent to Honor and Virtue; they are something more akin to Military Justice and Battle Courage, values appropriate for a temple dedicated by the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus as a victory pledge, and values the Romans themselves regarded as essential to their success. Lauro imagined the shrine as a domed building with a domed vestibule, set within a statue-studded circular precinct: a Pantheon tailored to contemporary seventeenth-century taste.

His reconstruction, in turn, would inspire the great architects of Baroque Rome to turn his paper vision of Roman virtue into physical reality, as Gianlorenzo Bernini would do in 1662–1664 with his Church of the Assumption in Ariccia, a village just outside Rome. For Lauro’s Antiquae Urbis Splendor sold not only to visiting tourists, but also to the artists and architects engaged in creating the splendor of the modern city. His paper antiquity helped to transform Rome’s most tangible reality.

Seventeenth-century Rome engendered yet another illustrious paper city, this one resolutely projected into the future: a collection of manuscripts in the Vatican Library assembled between 1655 and 1667 by Pope Alexander VII. These magnificent folios, a bound collection of original drawings, contain plans for the pope’s ambitious building program. Some of the projects were never realized, like the plan to glass in the “eye” of the Pantheon and the megalomaniacal idea of moving both the Trevi fountain and Trajan’s column to join the column of Marcus Aurelius in a colossal urban assemblage, but here we can also see the beginnings of real monuments: Bernini’s great colonnade for Saint Peter’s Basilica, Borromini’s floor plan for the church of Sant’Ivo, and the smirking elephant that carries an Egyptian obelisk on its back in a piazza just behind the Pantheon.

The elephant, with its singular burden, shows the unmistakable touch of Pope Alexander’s longtime friend Father Athanasius Kircher, the single resident of Rome who claimed to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. An inveterate prankster, he must have collaborated with the pope on drafting the inscription that adorns the elephant’s pedestal: “It takes a hearty spirit to bear up wisdom.” Of all the Baroque figures who shifted between physical worlds and worlds of paper, Kircher ruled over the most extensive empire of all, limited only by his own imagination, which was apparently limitless.

In 1651, Kircher turned a version of Cassiano dal Pozzo’s paper museum into a real collection, with talking statues, wooden obelisks, a stuffed armadillo slung from the ceiling, Etruscan vases, Roman coins, Egyptian amulets, a narwhal horn, a sawfish bill, exotic shoes, a statue carved from a meteorite, and a plant he claimed to have resurrected from its own ashes (until it, and its glass bell, fell from an upstairs window one winter evening). In this vaulted kingdom within the Jesuit College he received heads of state, from a succession of popes to Queen Christina of Sweden, as well as a stream of tourists. Like Giovanni Alto, he had a knack for quietly attracting German Lutherans to the Catholic faith, but he could also converse in most European languages, Arabic, and Hebrew.

This was Kircher’s tangible world. But he also ruled over a vast empire of print, facilitated, once again, by his friendship with Alexander VII, whose protection enabled him to flout the censors within his order and without. Like Martin Luther, Father Kircher wrote prolifically enough to sustain an entire printing industry single-handedly. From a first work on magnetism, he moved on to acoustics, light, music, China, geology, cosmology, symbolic logic, topography, Egyptology, Noah’s Ark, and Latium, the region around Rome. In 1661, he struck a long-term agreement with a Dutch Protestant publisher, Johannes Jansson, which allowed him to produce lavish folio books with engraved illustrations by the best professionals Amsterdam could offer. Kircher was an enthusiastic draftsman himself but, as his manuscripts show, not a particularly gifted one. Jansson’s engravers made him look like a master.

Baroque Antiquity zooms in on one of Kircher’s later works from the Jansson press: Latium, published in 1671, which, typically for its author, presents reconstructions of ancient Roman ruins alongside a plan to drain the malarial Pontine Marshes (a project that only came to fruition in the twentieth century). Here Tschudi shows how Kircher’s paper reconstruction of the huge hillside sanctuary of Fortune at Palestrina cleverly channels reconstructions of another antique structure, the villa of Maecenas, the legendary patron who sponsored so many people and projects during the reign of Augustus. Maecenas was an Etruscan, descended (so claimed the poet Horace) from a line of local kings, and so, at least in fancy, was the seventeenth-century owner of Palestrina, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, himself a great patron and a loyal son of Tuscany.

By recreating the sprawling ruined temple on Barberini’s property as a generous Etruscan sponsor’s sanctuary for learning and the arts, Kircher paid homage to the cardinal’s good taste in historic real estate, his Tuscan heritage, and his magnanimity. The temple, of course, never looked remotely like Kircher’s reconstruction (for which he enlisted the help of the brilliant Tuscan architect Pietro da Cortona), but until a bombing raid in World War II pulverized much of Palestrina, no one knew what it looked like; the ruins had been covered for centuries, if not for millennia, by the village. Thus Kircher, like Giacomo Lauro, used his paper kingdom with sovereign mastery “to flatter, instruct, convert.” And above all, as Baroque Antiquity demonstrates on every page, to beguile.

  1. *

    The meat rain of 461 is recorded by the Roman historian Livy, as are most of the other stories cited here. For a possible explanation for the phenomenon, see the discussion of the Kentucky Meat Shower of 1876 by Bec Crew, “The Great Kentucky Meat Shower Mystery Unwound by Projectile Vulture Vomit,” Running Ponies (blog), Scientific American, December 1, 2014. See also Franklin Brunell Krauss, An Interpretation of the Omens, Portents, and Prodigies Recorded by Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius (doctoral dissertation, privately printed, 1930).