Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 28, 2012
Kathleen Wren Christian Empire Without End: Antiquities Collections in Renaissance Rome, c. 1350–1527 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 288 pp.; 50 color ills.; 220 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780300154214)
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“To the Romans I assign no limit of things nor of time. To them I have given empire without end” (Aeneid, 1.278). So Virgil’s Zeus prophesized to Aeneas, encapsulating the myth of Rome’s divinely sanctioned and immortal imperium (power, authority, and sovereignty) that inspired and was exploited by centuries of later rulers, popes, nobles, humanists, and others. Rome’s imperium—how it was expressed by its ancient ruins and fragments and who could possess it during the Renaissance—forms the central theme in Kathleen Wren Christian’s book. Christian examines the cultural phenomenon of antiquities collecting in Rome during the early and critical years when this practice was being developed, i.e., the mid-fourteenth century to the destruction of the city during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Her lucid prose, meticulous scholarship, comprehensive and nuanced analyses of the motives and influences of collectors, and the high quality of the book’s production makes Empire Without End: Antiquities Collections in Renaissance Rome, c. 1350–1527 one of the most important and compelling studies of the history of antiquities collecting in recent years.

The history of the reception of antiquity has long fascinated modern scholars. Christian builds upon the pioneering research of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European archaeologists; historian Roberto Weiss; Phyllis Bober and Ruth Rubinstein and the Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known to the Renaissance (www.census.de); art historians Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny; and garden historians David Coffin and Elisabeth MacDougall. Her models include more recent social and cultural investigations of collecting and the reception of antiquity by Leonard Barkan, Stephen Campbell, Brian Curran, and Paula Findlen. Throughout the book one observes the influence of John Shearman, Christian’s doctoral advisor, and crucial studies by Patricia Falguières and Salvatore Settis. But a key strength of Christian’s book is how she combines this lengthy bibliography with her own exhaustive study of often elusive and difficult primary visual and verbal sources to interpret the motives of collectors and the meaning of their collections.

Perhaps an even greater strength of Empire Without End lies in the way it fills glaring gaps in our understanding of antiquities collections. Until now, fifteenth-century collections in Rome have largely been neglected due to the more vivid documentation of the collections of later popes and cardinals. Studies have also tended to examine individual cases as examples in an orderly and teleological progression of the appreciation of antiquity from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance (2). Few scholars have attempted to answer questions about the multifaceted reasons for the shift in attitudes toward antiquities in this period, from the medieval regard for ancient sculpture as pagan idols or raw material for building and spolia decoration, to the late Quattrocento collecting and display of works prized for their aesthetic beauty.

Christian tackles these questions with two different sections in her book: a detailed catalogue of thirty-eight prominent collections in Rome before 1527, preceded by a series of cogently argued thematic chapters discussing the development of collecting over the course of the early Renaissance. These chapters present how politics, literary discourse, economic changes, social ritual, academic societies, and artistic developments influenced the rapid rise in popularity among wealthy elites for collecting and displaying ancient figural sculpture. Probably the greatest strength of the book is how it underscores the contradictory and complex ways in which these influences weighed upon the development of collecting.

Following an introductory chapter, Christian takes up the popularization of literary themes that helped change attitudes toward the value of ancient sculpture from the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries. In chapter 2, she focuses on the critical role played by Petrarch and his political hero, Cola di Rienzo, in this shift. Looking to ancient authors, they revived the concept of the exempla virtutis, useful examples of moral behavior. Just as the Romans had displayed statues of great men as didactic illustrations of virtue, self-discipline, and civic duty, so, too, would early humanists seek such inspiration in busts, coins, and other ancient relics for their studies and libraries. Yet Petrarch and later poets of the Quattrocento believed that written history and Latin poetry were immeasurably superior to visual art in commemorating the eternal imperium of Rome.

Thus, chapter 3 concerns the growing popularity of Latin epigrammatic poetry in celebrating the glory of ancient Rome and for conferring honor upon those who endeavored to preserve its memory. Here Christian offers an insightful interpretation of the earliest known statue collection in Rome, that of Cardinal Prospero Colonna. Poets wrote verses lauding Colonna for his patronage and his virtue as demonstrated in the symbolism of his statues. They recited these verses during festive banquets and attached them to statues, marking “a turning point in Roman collecting: a group of pagan sculptures was totemicized and aestheticized in a novel way thanks, in part, to its ability to be juxtaposed with and compared to a poetic text” (58).

Chapter 4 turns to how collections of antiquities expressed identity and power. The use of ancient history to forge genealogies substantiating one’s romanitas and right to Roman imperium had been long practiced by medieval barons. It also became a standard practice for the new “native noble” class of wealthy merchants and cattlemen who overshadowed the barons in the fifteenth century. Christian deftly shows how collections of ancient inscriptions, busts, and reliefs, along with all’antica forgeries, were used by Roman families to advertise a grand and virtuous ancient family lineage.

Chapter 5 describes similar efforts to claim authority via antiquity by papal collectors. But Christian argues against the traditional view of Paul II and Sixtus IV as links in a progressive chain of the humanistic appreciation for antiquities and convincingly shows that they were driven by acutely different motives. Paul II saw his ancient treasures as statements of his personal and papal authority in the face of threats and criticism. Sixtus IV dedicated a group of famous ancient bronzes to the Roman people in a public display on the Capitoline Hill. With this act, Sixtus IV demonstrated his generous largess while simultaneously asserting absolute imperium as the lone authority to grant such a gift. Virtue, Christian posits, was not located in the ancient objects themselves or in the act of collecting, but in their civic restoration (118–19).

Self-commemoration and self-celebration through collecting is approached differently in chapter 6, which discusses Pomponio Leto’s literary academy. Leto’s impact on antiquarianism is well known; Christian instead emphasizes the experimental poetry about statues written by Leto’s academicians. Their fascination with the paragone, or competitive comparison, between sculpture and poetry gave rise to notions of the creative and symbolic power of nude figural sculpture, further promoting its desirability for collections. Through their panegyric poems praising collectors and funerary festivals honoring deceased academicians, the sculpture garden came to be understood as the “ideal spot for the cult of poetry and the preservation of individual fame,” solidifying collecting as a requisite activity for elites in Rome (149).

The final chapter examines a new model of collecting which emerged in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This model paralleled a shift in the socio-political landscape of Rome as popes, foreign cardinals, and wealthy curialists eclipsed the power and prestige of the native nobles. During this period, the popularity of reliefs and inscriptions was surpassed by the desire for figural sculpture; new topographical and thematic displays of statues were invented based on Virgilian poetry and mythology; and artists focused more intently upon ancient sculpture as models for inspiration and imitation. Collections and their landscaped garden spaces increasingly formed the backdrop for lavish dining and literary competitions, and collectors sought to manage the perception of their collections as proclaiming their magnificence, pious civic virtue, and immortal fame.

The book’s epilogue focuses upon similar poetic, artistic, and self-commemorative themes appearing in the hanging garden of Cardinal Andrea delle Valle—one of the first major architectural commissions completed after the Sack of Rome. But at this point, the fortunes of Rome’s nobility changed dramatically and collecting became almost exclusively the domain of popes and cardinals who featured their ancient possessions in elaborately planned gardens and galleries. Collections of ancient sculpture had become the unequivocal sign of aristocratic status and imperium.

Enriching the discussion in the first half of the book is Christian’s catalogue of major pre-1527 collections. Each entry contains a concise description of the history of the family or individual collector, highlights of the collection and its display, discussion of provenance and dispersal, and a select bibliography of descriptive primary sources (often transcribed) as well as secondary literature. This painstakingly researched section is full of new insights and precious details about each collection, and makes accessible sometimes obscure and difficult primary sources.

Christian’s clearly articulated and well-documented arguments are abundantly illustrated by numerous high-quality color and black-and-white photographs throughout the text. Together with her essays and catalogue, these images make her book an invaluable resource for scholars and students alike. Empire Without End is an absorbing work—one that will no doubt become essential reading for anyone studying the history of collecting, antiquarianism, Renaissance art and culture, and the history of the Eternal City.

Katherine Bentz
Associate Professor of Art History, Fine Arts Department, Saint Anselm College

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