Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Kathleen Christian and Bianca de Divitiis, eds., Local Antiquities, Local Identities: Art, Literature and antiquarianism in Europe, c. 1400-1700
by Graham Parry

Kathleen Christian and Bianca de Divitiis (eds), Local Antiquities, Local Identities: Art, Literature and antiquarianism in Europe, c. 1400-1700. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2019, pp. xx + 331.

The growth of antiquarian studies continues apace. The complex ways in which individual scholars or learned groups, rulers or civic leaders, chose to exploit the material remains of antiquity in their region have become a subject of modern academic research. Whether ancient remains should be studied or preserved as a contribution to the understanding of history or for the glory of the nation was an open question, but it is evident that from the mid-fifteenth century onwards there was a growing scholarly interest across Europe to appropriate and interpret surviving remnants of the ancient world for local or national purposes. Every country had its iconic ruins and central preoccupations which gave a focus to historical enquiry. In England, Roman remains and Stonehenge provided the stimulus to a vast amount of speculation and research. France also became fixated on its substantial Roman antiquities and its Gaulish sites. The epicentre of this intense curiosity about the remains of the ancient past was, not surprisingly, Rome. The studies undertaken by the early Roman antiquaries in the fifteenth century into the classical origins of their culture meant that they were the leaders in all the fields of antiquarian enquiry: in the study of architecture, sculpture, inscriptions, coinage and also in the Roman art of war, religion, customs, festivals, and burial practices. Scholars from other European countries took a very long time to develop similar interests. It was not until the late sixteenth century that curiosity about such matters became sufficiently well-informed to express itself in print. Before that, the reputation of Italian scholars was such that it was broadly accepted that Italians could write the history of other countries whereas it would be improbable that a scholar from northern Europe would write a history of one of the Italian states. In the later fifteenth century, for example, the Milanese writer Antonio Cornazzano wrote De Laudibus Caroli Magni (1461) and his compatriot Alberto Cattaneo compiled a history of the kings of France which he presented to Louis XII. Polydore Virgil from Urbino wrote the first history of England on modern methodological lines, his Anglica Historia, which was published in 1534. The Florentine historian Lodovico Guicciardini published his Description of the Low Countries in 1567, and had a better understanding of recent French history than many French scholars.

The current volume contains a collection of chapters that survey cultural attitudes about antiquarian objects of national or local significance, or about assumptions concerning national origins, in order to understand how antiquarian sentiment could be mobilised to strengthen an emerging regional identity. To know who one is, one needs to know where one came from, and preserve surviving traces of ancient greatness and indications of illustrious kinship in the distant past. This ambition is well illustrated by Francesco Benelli in his chapter on the Arch of Trajan in Ancona and its role in the formation of a civic identity for the town. The Arch was thought to have marked the departure point of Trajan’s fleet for the invasion of Dacia, an imperial venture also described on Trajan’s Column in Rome. It had survived the invasions of the Goths, the Lombards and the Saracens, and it helped to give Ancona an imperial pedigree that the city exploited when it became virtually an independent state in the middle ages. When Pius II tried to launch a crusade in 1464 to recover the recently conquered Constantinople from the Turks, he tried to assemble an invasion fleet at Ancona, emulating Trajan. In the frescoes by Pinturicchio in the Library at Siena cathedral commemorating the life of Pius II, we see the Pope being carried in front of Trajan’s Arch as the fleet gathers in Ancona harbour. Local historians, antiquaries, architects and painters allude time and again to this Roman remnant to elevate the status and reputation of Ancona in the competitive world of Italian city states.

Exploiting the remains of antiquity for contemporary purposes was nowhere as challenging as in Rome, where until the later fifteenth century the scale of Roman ruins still overshadowed later building schemes. The subject of the uses of antiquity in Renaissance Rome could fill several volumes. In this collection, Kathleen Christian deals with this monumental problem of investigating the ways in which the city asserted its Romano-Christian global identity in the post- classical era by focussing on four examples of antiquarian patronage: two cardinals of the Riario family, Lorenzo Manlio in the 1470s, and the Maffei family in the 1480s and 1490s. All were eager to proclaim the resurgence of Rome as a centre of power and culture, the head of a Christian empire in which the inheritance of the classical world is now in the hands of the Pope and his cardinals. The ancient virtues and the arts of architecture, sculpture, painting and poetry are being revived by a new race of cultural heroes who will equal, even surpass, the achievements of antiquity and who will re-establish Rome as the caput mundi. Even a small group of case studies provides so much material for examination that the lines of argument are obscured by an abundance of detail. The clarification of the identity and significance of the selected figures, the description of their social networks and their particular spheres of activity, the account of their activities in patronage and collecting, all promote an accumulation of information that is bewildering to the reader who is not confidently familiar with the society and cultural values of late Quattrocento Rome.

The deployment of excessive detail is a general problem with this volume. Each author is a specialist in their particular subject, and the theme of the book is – in the words of the back cover blurb – how ‘individuals, communities and regions invented their own ancient pasts according to concerns they faced in the present’. In consequence, the chapters are highly specialised investigations of localised antiquarian topics in many different countries. The expectation of previous knowledge in the reader is set too high.
It is not a wise editorial strategy, I would suggest, to open the volume with a chapter on the facades and fenestration of Florentine Quattrocento palaces by Richard Schofield. The focus is too minutely precise, and the significance of small variations of practice is inadequately explained. The density of detail and allusion is oppressive. Unfamiliar architectural terminology fails to evoke images: ‘Florentine palace-builders not only ignored diamonds and illusionistic cubes, but very rarely used opus isodomum or pseudoisodomum either’ (17). The article would suit a specialised architectural journal, but is too abstruse for a volume that aspires to offer a wide view of the application of antiquarian knowledge.

A more moderate view of how to evaluate and respond to the ancient remains of a region is provided by Fernando Marias in his account of antiquarian activity in Spain, ‘From Tarragona to Cordoba’. This area retained substantial Roman ruins, including the aqueduct of Segovia and the Arch and Amphitheatre of Tarragona. Cordoba was exceptionally well endowed with antiquities, Roman, Moorish and Gothic, and other indeterminate ruins which might have been Carthaginian. Nor surprisingly, a flourishing school of antiquaries emerged there. With relatively little expertise, and assisted by recollections of visits to Rome, they attempted to make sense of the confusion of remains, confusion compounded by the habit of Moorish builders of utilising Roman material in their own buildings. There was much pride in their deep and complicated history, and when local architects began to raise new churches in the prosperous decades of the sixteenth century, oddly hybrid structures arose that paid homage to the multicultural history of the city. Here was an inclusive local style of architecture that accepted the diversity of several cultures and was willing to acknowledge their contribution by allusions and borrowing of stylistic elements in the construction of modern buildings.

The Iberian peninsula is quite well represented in this volume, with a further chapter on Spain by Katrina Olds dealing with antiquarian investigations into the various levels of settlement in the region of Jaen in Andalusia during the Counter-Reformation, and an account by Joao Figueirdo of Portugal’s mythical past as transmitted by the national epic, Luis de Camoes’s The Lusiads (1572). Jaen like Cordoba had a great spoil heap of historical remains deposited by previous societies - going back to the Punic - for scholars to explore and exploit. Figueirdo follows the links from the Renaissance epic back to Roman mythology and to Pliny’s Naturalis Historia to examine how modern poetic history fulfils the foreshadowings of ancient mythological scenes. Both essays would benefit from a fuller context, but the main theme of the imaginative contribution of the ancient past to a richer awareness of the contemporary world is well-presented.

The difficulty of unfolding a subject and exploring its implications within the fairly narrow compass of a chapter is solved quite effectively by Konrad Ottenheym in his article on ‘Romans, Batavians and Giants: the quest for the true origin of architecture in the Dutch Republic’. Scholars in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries devoted a good deal of thought to the Batavians, the Germanic tribe described by Tacitus, who were considered to be the original inhabitants of the Low Countries. Rather like the Ancient British, they were warlike and strongly resisted the Roman invasion of their territory, but once subdued they became loyal but independent allies of the Romans, retaining their Germanic character but benefiting from their contact with classical civilisation. They were worthy ancestors, in fact. Roman remains of any kind were rare in Holland, but the circle around the humanist Constanijn Huygens paid admiring attention to whatever they could find - stone altars, sculpture, coins, pottery or inscriptions - and used these objects to promote an awareness of the classical inheritance of the Low Countries. In particular, they wished to encourage the adoption of classical forms of architecture for modern building, replacing the traditional Flemish or Dutch forms. The revived classicism that resulted served to announce that the new Holland of their time had in a way attained a level of civilisation comparable to that of antiquity, with the suggestion that the moral virtues of republican Rome had also been restored.

An odd sideshoot of this research into national origins arose from Tacitus’s suggestion (in De Germania 34) that the Pillars of Hercules might have been erected in this region, and not by the Straits of Gibraltar as was more commonly believed. Patriotic antiquaries attempted to identify the remains of megalithic sepulchral monuments in Frisia, built with large erratic boulders, as the eroded remains of these Pillars. The size of these boulders and the scale of the monuments gave rise to the theory that the original inhabitants of the region were a race of giants - one of which was Hercules - and so fortified the idea, common to many nations, that giants inhabited the earth in early days, as was affirmed in Genesis 6:4. The presence of classical giants was perhaps even more gratifying to humanist scholars than biblical giants. Classical footprints were a national asset. In Britain, similar beliefs had been attached to Stonehenge by medieval writers, and still lingered on in popular belief in the seventeenth century.

Britain, in this volume, is represented by a chapter from Jenna Schultz, who explores the way in which English topographical and antiquarian writing emphasised the superiority of England over Scotland in the contest to assert national identity. In the discussion of foundation myths, in the study of genealogy, language, institutions, legal systems and even ruins, England always came out on top. After 1603, when the countries were united under a Scottish king, historical writing tended to disparage the Scots while praising the king, with a growing emphasis on the Saxon inheritance as a distinctive and admirable contribution to the national character. Richard Verstegan in his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities (1605) even contrived to give King James a Saxon lineage. This is an observant and instructive chapter, with a clear narrative drive, which covers the fairly familiar ground of late Elizabethan and Jacobean history writing yet comes up with a well supported argument.

France fares very well in this survey of European attitudes to antiquity in the early modern period. William Stenhouse’s discussion of the uses and abuses of antiquities in southern France makes absorbing reading. In the second half of the sixteenth century, antiquaries, collectors, local magnates and even town councils began to take a serious interest in the Roman remains that were so numerous in the region. Stenhouse describes the mixed fortunes of these remains, which ranged from amphitheatres and arches to statues and inscriptions. He gives particular attention to those in the major centres of Nimes and Arles, including the early Christian cemetery of Les Alyscamps in Arles where the greatest concentration of antique sarcophagi in Europe survived. We hear stories of destruction and preservation, of enlightened interventions and benighted indifference. The wars of religion complicated the fate of antiquities in many ways. But amongst these vicissitudes a broad movement is discernible, as understanding of the ancient buildings and their functions developed, as hostility to pagan remains lessened, and appreciation of antique sculpture and other artefacts grew. Towns began to prize their Roman inheritance, and exhibited their trophies proudly and competitively. There developed a tradition of giving the best portable antiquities to the monarchs of France, to be placed in royal palaces and collections, to the greater honour of the nation. The centralising tendency in the French state showed itself early in the drift of treasures to the crown. This chapter is a well told story of the growth of enlightenment, narrated at a moderate pace with clear detail and resulting in credible judgements; very satisfying.

In all, fourteen chapters are devoted to the vitalising effects of ancient remains on Renaissance societies. The panorama is very broad, the detail often very dense. The level of scholarship throughout is remarkably high. The breadth of subject matter is such that many readers will be selective in their choice, for there is altogether too much diversity here for even the most encyclopaedic of antiquaries to encompass.

Graham Parry

University of York



  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Graham Parry, "Kathleen Christian and Bianca de Divitiis, eds., Local Antiquities, Local Identities: Art, Literature and antiquarianism in Europe, c. 1400-1700," Spenser Review 49.2.13 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
Not logged in or