Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 7, 2021
Arthur J. DiFuria Maarten van Heemskerck’s Rome: Antiquity, Memory, and the Cult of Ruins Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2019. 548 pp.; 380 color ills. Cloth $165.00 (9789004380462)

Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574) is best known as the author of the earliest and largest corpus of Netherlandish drawings of Rome and its ruins, made during the years he spent in the Eternal City after the 1527 sack. These drawings are the primary subject of Arthur J. DiFuria’s book, which concludes with a catalog. DiFuria’s commendable task throughout the book is to place these drawings in the context of Heemskerck’s training and overall artistic vision, and of the cult of ruins and memory in sixteenth-century Rome and the Netherlands.

Part 1 focuses on the pre-Roman Heemskerck, in an era of budding Netherlandish antiquarianism. DiFuria makes analogies between Erasmus’s approach to ancient Roman proverbial sayings and his interest in comparing these to Netherlandish proverbs (Adages, 1500), and the interests of Netherlandish painters in Rome prior to Heemskerck’s sojourn there; they too blended familiar northern motifs with those traceable to antiquity. Jan Gossaert (1478–1532), who traveled to Rome in 1508–9, visited the Vatican with the future Philip II of Burgundy while Julius II was collecting antiquities for the Belvedere, and he made studies in several collections.

DiFuria claims that Gossaert’s antiquarian manner, and the prestige it won him in the circle of Philip II, were the most important factors in Heemskerck’s decision to associate himself in 1527 with the atelier of another painter who had traveled to Rome (and had been a pupil of Gossaert’s): Jan van Scorel (1495–1562). Van Scorel, whose Italian sojourn lasted from 1518 to 1524, benefited from the brief papacy of the Netherlander Adrian VI (r. 1522–23), who made him superintendent of antiquities. Van Scorel drew careful studies of ancient ruins, but ultimately assimilated a classicizing manner more through the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. By the time Heemskerck entered van Scorel’s Utrecht workshop, Netherlandish culture had become increasingly hungry for pictorial knowledge of antiquity, even as moderated by Italian Renaissance artists. But, given the paucity of careful drawings after the antique in the north, there were few resources that allowed artists to produce antiquarian works with real authenticity. The urge to do so increased with the devastation caused to Rome’s antiquities by the troops of Charles V in the 1527 sack of the city.

Part 2 considers the desolation after the sack and how the destruction motivated scholars, artists, and patrons who returned to the city in the 1530s to document and preserve its antiquities. Arriving in 1532, Heemskerck joined other artists including Baldassare Peruzzi (1481–1536), Francesco Salviati (1510–1563), and Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) in drawing a large part of the patrimony of the city. DiFuria speculates that Heemskerck may have shared drawing sessions with Salviati, from whom he could have learned techniques for drawing in red chalk. Paul III, elected pope in 1534, immediately took actions aimed at the regeneration of Rome, its antiquities, and its urban fabric. In this context, Heemskerck was able to establish himself in high Roman circles of artists, patrons, and collectors. Karel van Mander (1548–1606) stated that Heemskerck became attached to the household of an important cardinal—either Willem van Enckevoirt (1464–1534), as argued by DiFuria, or Andrea della Valle (1463–1534), as posited by Nicole Dacos (Roma quanta fuit: Ou l’invention du paysage de ruines, Somogy, 2004). During this time, Heemskerck created drawings of individual pieces of statuary and of the arrangement of collections of antiquities, although DiFuria concentrates on the drawings of the remains of ancient Roman buildings as part of the desire to preserve the memory of Rome’s greatness in the face of intense destruction. Through visual analysis, DiFuria shows how Heemskerck’s drawings are evocative of Rome as a site to be visited, discussed, and documented, but also as a site already full of decay, which the artist sometimes exaggerated by the addition of extensive vegetation pulling the ancient buildings apart. The drawings of ruins are often received as objective eyewitness documents—records of what could be seen in the 1530s—but, as DiFuria shows, they are manipulated through point of view (the artist standing on a bell tower or lying flat on the ground to get a compelling view), combinations of points of view, dramatic foreshortenings, the excision of medieval buildings, and other forms of creative alteration, thus becoming living witnesses of a process of seeing and understanding. A case in point is catalog number 17, showing an overturned capital amid creeping vegetation near the Colosseum, evoking “antiquity’s ephemeral place within nature’s sphere of dominance, his viewer’s place within this epochal spectacle, and his own crucial role in portraying it as such” (120).  

In part 3, DiFuria discusses the drawings as a wellspring of ancient motifs and a springboard for the artist’s imagination in Heemskerck’s subsequent work as a painter and designer of prints in Haarlem, where he was well positioned to cater to a rising cult of antiquarianism around midcentury. The Colosseum became part of Heemskerck’s own identity as an artist and antiquarian, as documented in his 1553 Self-Portrait with the Colosseum (Fitzwilliam, Cambridge). The mature Heemskerck stands facing the viewer, before a fictive painting of his younger self drawing the Colosseum. As DiFuria argues, the artist is shown in the act of making an actual drawing (no. 19), the view of the northwestern break in the amphitheater’s vaults, that probably served as a source for one of Hieronymus Cock’s etched views in a 1551 series of prints of Roman antiquities. Heemskerck thus positions himself as a key player in the antiquarianism of his day, someone who has seen and closely studied the remains of Rome’s great past.

Years later, in 1569, Heemskerck included his self-portrait in the frontispiece to the series The Disasters of the Jewish People, which includes a further twenty-one narrative scenes engraved by Philips Galle (1537–1612). DiFuria sets these images in the context of the iconoclastic attacks occurring throughout the Netherlands in 1566, sparked by tensions over the assertion of Habsburg-Vatican authority and the deterioration of citizens’ freedoms in Haarlem. Each of the narrative prints includes scenes set within landscapes occupied by ruins, many of them based on Heemskerck’s Roman drawings, while others are fanciful inventions. The frontispiece shows Heemskerck’s bust in relief on one side of a plinth, the other visible side identifying him as “an Apelles of our age.” Another inscription states that the series describes Roman ruins, “shown as observed,” as reminders from the past for the future. The warning, from the eyes and the hands of an artist who had been in Rome soon after an imperial sack, was that “civilization is fragile and easily ruined” (281).

While DiFuria convincingly situates Heemskerck within his social and artistic milieu and establishes his importance as “Pictor doctus”—an artist who through his learned approach to the ruins was capable of discoursing with the intelligentsia about Rome’s past greatness—it is the catalog of the topographical drawings of Roman ruins (part 4) that will probably be the chief attraction for historians and art historians. Eighty-six entries cover drawings of architectural ruins, panoramas of Rome, and views of Roman collections of antique sculptures. Many of the drawings discussed are part of two sketchbooks in Berlin, first published in the 1913 Die römischen Skizzenbücher von Marten van Heemskerck by Christian Hülsen and Hermann Egger, and which also include drawings ascribed to other artists. DiFuria has, importantly, added Heemskerck’s ruin drawings from several other European collections. The catalog is arranged topographically, allowing readers to compare the various viewpoints from which Heemskerck drew them; DiFuria explains from which direction the view is seen, what Heemskerck altered in those views, and in what position the artist himself was standing, sitting, or lying as he drew. Thus, the reader can in a sense travel through Rome with Heemskerck, exploring the ruins one by one, like the small figures seen scrambling over and pointing to the ruins in several of the drawings. The author also notes when a drawing served as an aide-mémoire for Heemskerck in the production of later paintings or prints—a good reminder for the reader concentrating only on the catalog that Heemskerck also had an extensive body of work in other media.

The book is filled with excellent reproductions of paintings, prints, and drawings. In the case of the drawings, they allow readers to see Heemskerck’s remarkable skill and range even in the use of pen and ink, though he also drew in red and black chalk and sometimes incorporated ink wash. In some cases, particularly in the deattributions at the end of the catalog, it would have been helpful to see enlarged details so that hatching techniques could be fruitfully compared with accepted drawings. Most of the deattributions seem convincing (especially in those where the draftsperson used looped hatching), but catalog number 86 (View Looking Southeast from Capitoline over Forum Romanum Towards the Colosseum, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin) appears to me to be by Heemskerck and not, as DiFuria believes, a poor copy after number 5. At the very least, the drawing at the top of the sheet of a column drum topped with lions’ heads is entirely in keeping with Heemskerck’s vigorous style of delineation and hatching.

Overall, Arthur DiFuria has written an important study of Heemskerck and the way he understood the potent symbolism of Roman ruins: in providing a view of the partial destruction of Rome’s glorious past, the author allows us to witness what remains and to reinvent Rome through memory, just as Heemskerck himself did in the many works of art that this book documents and contextualizes.

Sharon Gregory
Professor, Department of Art, St. Francis Xavier University