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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.