In 1661 Athanasius Kircher SJ made an archaeological discovery. He had gone to Tivoli, a town of villas and baths east of Rome, to restore his health and gather material for a book on the topography and history of the Lazio region. He was nearly sixty. Walking in the hills with a friend, he found a ruined church on a mountain. As he explored the ruin, he came upon a marble tablet with the inscription: ‘This is the holy place where St Eustachius was converted to Christianity.’ It also identified the Emperor Constantine as the builder of the church, which Pope Sylvester had consecrated early in the fourth century. Local priests confirmed that the church had been dedicated to St Eustachius, originally a Roman general called Placidus, who while hunting saw a stag with a crucifix between its antlers, converted, and eventually became a martyr. The ruin was not inhabited. But it was a relic of the vital period when Constantine made Christianity the faith of the Roman Empire, and a monument to the still older and purer Christianity that Placidus and others had watered with their blood.
Most exciting were two antiquities that Kircher discovered inside the building. An ancient wooden statue of the Virgin, wrapped in cheap garments, seemed to speak to him with an inner voice: ‘Behold how I am caught, deserted by all in this terrible wilderness.’ Deeply moved, he promised her that he would restore the church, even though he was a penniless priest, and laid down all the money he carried as an offering. An oak tablet from the church, preserved in the palace of a powerful local family, bore a carved relief. This Kircher reproduced and analysed. The decorative border of ivy at the top, he argued, resembled motifs to be seen in the mosaics of the oldest Roman churches. The relief itself represented Christ, ‘in the same form in which he is said to have appeared to the Roman people at the dedication of the Lateran Church that Constantine built’ (i.e. St John Lateran), and Sylvester, in the robes of papal office and attended by servants with holy vessels. True, the sculptor had failed to enter the year when all this happened. But the quality of the carvings, which resembled the crude reliefs on the Arch of Constantine, and Sylvester’s name, carved next to his figure on the panel, made the identification clear enough. Close scrutiny of ancient objects and the inscriptions and reliefs they preserved were the core crafts of the antiquarian, one of the most striking and characteristic figures of the 17th-century Republic of Letters. Kircher played this role well.
Miraculously, when he returned to Rome, Kircher found a bank draft from one of his patrons. With this money and further gifts from the good and the great, he restored the church, which he also equipped with a shrine and a residence for pilgrims. The Virgin received a new dress, and the church new frescoes. Soon Kircher and his fellow Jesuits were holding apostolic missions there on Michaelmas. Thousands came to hear sermons, sing hymns and take communion. Kircher commemorated his discoveries in a detailed little book, vividly illustrated, which he published in 1665. The shrine of Our Lady of Mentorella, today administered by the Congregation of the Resurrection, still commemorates Kircher, as well as Constantine and St Eustachius. Pilgrims and walkers still climb the hill to see the church, enjoy its splendid views and buy mugs with Kircher’s picture on them.
Yet Kircher went wrong on almost every point of fact, and some of his mistakes may not have been innocent. The marble tablet that first informed him he had made a miraculous discovery has disappeared without trace. Indeed, it may never have existed, and no other physical evidence connects the church to Constantine. The first references to it – as part of a Benedictine monastery – appear in documents from the tenth century and after. Though the date of the current structure is uncertain, it was probably raised around three hundred years after that. The fine, stiffly hieratic wooden statue of the Virgin resembles other sculptures made in Lazio in the same period. Unlike the inscription, the oak relief – an altar frontal – survives. It too is medieval, and the name of Sylvester doesn’t appear on it, though it does appear on the reproduction Kircher published.
Kircher is famous – if a learned Jesuit of the 17th century can be famous – for his daring interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs, especially those that appeared on the obelisks preserved in Rome. In the first two decades of the 19th century, long after Kircher was safely dead, Young and Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs. They showed that these inscriptions commemorated not the truths of ancient Egyptian natural and moral philosophy, as Kircher had held, but the deeds of ancient rulers. It comes as no surprise that his conjectures about Christian antiquity were also Wrong but Romantic, or that his historical method mirrored that of one of my teachers, who used to exclaim: ‘Just let me invent the evidence and I’ll prove my point.’ Kircher’s stories about the miraculous arrival of grants from his patrons were by no means the only ones he invented.
In another respect, though, Kircher’s adventures at Mentorella – and his retellings of them – may surprise even an informed reader. He is known as an intellectual adventurer and polymath, in the best bravura style of his day. A brilliant linguist, he was one of the first Europeans to master Coptic; he argued, rightly, that it derived from the language of ancient Egypt. He explored nature and history with equal flair. He descended into the crater of Mount Vesuvius in order to establish how volcanos worked, designed a magic lantern that could project frightening images, and speculated boldly about human history. Until the censors chided him, he argued that the Egyptian kingdom began before the Flood, which most scholars thought had been universal. His explanations of hieroglyphs were equally speculative, and rested, in part, on a mysterious manuscript that he never actually produced. A passion for an ancient country church seems uncharacteristic of this bold dreamer. Did he relapse in his last years into the simple piety of his German youth?
One of the many virtues of Victor Plahte Tschudi’s book is that it takes Kircher’s efforts in Christian archaeology seriously, and integrates them into a larger story: the story of what the author calls ‘baroque archaeology’, which flourished in Rome from around 1580 to 1680. Exacting patrons like Popes Sixtus V and Innocent X employed brilliant architects – Domenico Fontana, Carlo Maderno, Francesco Borromini and Gianlorenzo Bernini – to transform the city into the capital of a triumphantly revived Catholic Church. Technology and artistry combined to claim the ancient imperial city for Christianity. Obelisks were moved, erected and – at first – exorcised and capped with crosses. Statues of Saints Peter and Paul crowned the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Great palaces and spectacular churches rose to serve as stages for the city’s magnificent religious and political pageants. Kircher actively helped his adopted city go for Baroque. He advised Bernini as he created the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona and his monument in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The city became – to use some of the adjectives traditionally applied to Baroque style – ‘bizarre, rebellious, convoluted and transcendent’, and Kircher aided this.
His vision of ancient Rome was distinctly odd. He portrayed himself as a great antiquarian: an impresario of ancient obelisks, who supervised their excavation, repair and erection, and a master student of other ancient objects, on every scale from the coin to the villa. Yet the images of Rome and Roman buildings in his massive books on the obelisks and on ancient Latium swarmed with what look like gross errors. From the 15th century on, antiquarians insisted on the principle of autopsy: on seeing with their own eyes the artworks, inscriptions and buildings they discussed. Many of them learned to draw, well enough to record the outlines of monuments and objects with fair accuracy. A surviving drawing of a villa by Kircher shows that he had mastered perspective and wielded a precise pen. But when he wanted to have the Lateran obelisk illustrated, he sent the artist not to the site but to an earlier and partly inaccurate print. His reconstructions of the temples and villas of Latium, based on ruins that other antiquarians had explored with care before him, equipped them with towers no one before him had imagined and façades that looked suspiciously like the villas that Roman grandees were building in his own day. How to explain what looks like deliberate perversity?
Tschudi pairs Kircher with another, earlier witness to Rome’s transformation: Giacomo Lauro, a printmaker, whose albums of prints of Rome, the Antiquae Urbis splendor, command the lion’s share of Baroque Antiquity. At a cursory glance, Lauro’s slick, neatly engraved images give an impression of erudition and professionalism. The Colosseum and the Pantheon, theatres and temples appear in what looks like their original form. But Tschudi’s close and tenacious examination reveals that Lauro was neither a professional antiquarian nor even a skilled draughtsman. His images were adapted from a vast range of existing sources: the drawings and prints of Pirro Ligorio and others, which the enterprising publisher Antoine Lafréry had gathered in albums in the 1570s. Lauro not only copied these, he used them to represent buildings for which no ruins or records survived. When he wanted to re-create the Theatre of Marcellus, he copied, in reverse, a print derived from a drawing by Ligorio. When he wanted to re-create the Theatre of Marcus Scaurus, he copied it again. Images of the surviving Arches of Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine served as the basis not only for Lauro’s depictions of them, but also for his images, a bit lacking in distinctive detail, of four other legendary arches, those of Augustus and Domitian, an arch beside the Vatican, and the Arch of Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius. All had long since been demolished.
Even Lauro’s images of surviving monuments suffered from his clumsy drawing and incurable inaccuracy. His version of the Pantheon offered an erroneous version of its immense inscription. Worse still, the dome, as Lauro drew it, looks as if it is collapsing. His version of the Colosseum appears crisp and informative: a reconstruction of the building in its original, finished state, with one section cut away to reveal the interior. But as Tschudi shows, Lauro based his image on a 16th-century model, which he replicated clumsily. He lost track of the number of concentric walls, showed Romans in togas walking in the imaginary space made visible by removing a section of the building and at one point forgot that he was reconstructing the intact original rather than representing the modern ruin. Making drawn images look like convincing three-dimensional solids was the central aim of perspective. As we learn from Tschudi, Lauro never mastered it. On the whole, the most convincing of Lauro’s images were those of places and buildings, like the Flaminian Circus, that had disappeared long before his own day. No wonder that, as Kircher would do, he invented so many monuments that never existed in anything like the form he gave them.
Lauro’s apparent mistakes often turn out to have been moves in a complicated and absorbing game that he – and Kircher – understood and played, but which we have largely forgotten. In long and informative analyses, Tschudi makes clear that both men were eminently practical. Lauro wished to serve the great men to whom he dedicated sets of his work and the wealthy tourists whom his friend Hans Hoch, once a Swiss guard, later known as Giovanni Alto, guided around the city. Both Lauro and Alto kept albums in which they recorded their contacts with foreign visitors; often the same visitors appear in both men’s albums. In some of Lauro’s images, Alto and his customers are looking at antiquities that no longer existed, such as the early third-century Septizodium, a structure on the Palatine demolished under Pope Sixtus V. Traditionally, images of antiquities showed the antiquary or the artist who made them: ‘The figure of the artist is replaced by the figure of the guide, vouching for imagined antiquities.’ Eventually Alto took over Lauro’s stock of images and marketed fresh sets, transforming himself ‘from a figure within Lauro’s pictured view to a real-world protagonist’. Kircher, for his part, found that both Protestant princes and the Catholic Habsburgs were willing to subvent his magnificent images of ancient monuments, however tenuous their foundation in reality. He too maintained an archive to document the generosity of his patrons.
Lauro and Kircher, in other words, were not making and commissioning these sometimes highly imaginative prints at random. They had a precise notion of the market at which they were aiming. Their work didn’t involve creating images anew, after long weeks camped out at the ancient sites, but reusing existing prints. Both knew how to manipulate privileges: the grants of monopolies by which local authorities protected printers, authors and creators of prints from competition. They used the work of others as soon as the privileges that protected them ran out, while invoking privileges of their own to protect the value – and price – of their own work. They were not explorers of ancient sites but aficionados of modern prints.
Their images, especially those that seem wildly divergent from the sites that supposedly inspired them, were devised with a sharp eye for what their customers wanted. Fortunately, Tschudi’s is even sharper. He allows us to bring the strangest of these images into historical focus by comparing Lauro and Kircher’s imaginative versions of ancient buildings with contemporary 17th-century projects. Sometimes they were engaged in flattery, the visual counterpart to verbal flummery, much used by diplomats and orators of the day.
‘May Parma be your second Rome,’ Lauro wrote to Ranuccio Farnese, a man of many grandiose projects, whose palaces in Piacenza and Parma, long underway when Lauro finished his own work in 1610, were never completed. Since Parma could not become Rome, Lauro did his best to turn Rome into Parma, or at least a blend of Piacenza and Parma. The magnificent and wholly imaginary palace of Constantine that he conjured into being was not derived from an illustration on an ancient coin or relief, but from Vignola’s design for the Palazzo Farnese in Piacenza. Lauro’s reconstruction of the villa of Scipio Africanus looks strangely like the casino of the Villa Borghese, begun shortly before he finished work on the Antiquae Urbis splendor. Kircher’s imagined villa of the great Roman patron Maecenas derives from the casino of the Villa Doria Pamphili, built by his patron, Pope Innocent X. More striking still, his vision of ancient villa life, as Tschudi astutely argues, recalls the villa life of his own time, as ordered and managed by great families like the Barberini: a retreat where scholars and patricians could bask in a combination of leisure and learned discussion. It is even possible that with the Maecenas anachronism, Kircher hoped to inspire his patron to create something along the lines of his imagined ancient model. In every case, as Tschudi says of Lauro, these images of older structures were pitched at potential patrons and intended perhaps to nudge them towards the creation of comparable structures in the present.
Especially striking – and well analysed – are the cases involving religious structures. Ever since the 15th century, when humanists like Flavio Biondo and Filippo Beroaldo Sr began cheerfully assimilating the Catholic priesthood and its rituals to those of their Roman predecessors, scholars had noted that many Christian churches were pagan temples put to new use, or new sacred buildings on the site of older pagan ones. Lauro took this comparison and ran with it. When he reconstructed the temple of Venus Genetrix, he located it on the site where Christians later built the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian and endowed it with a strikingly similar façade. When he conjured up the Temple of Saturn, he followed tradition and located it in what was left of the Church of Sant’Adriano al Foro. This was a stark brick structure converted in the seventh century from the Curia Iulia, where the Roman Senate met. In form Lauro made his temple resemble the Curia. But he based its façade on a modern one, that of the late 16th-century Church of S. Girolamo dei Schiavoni. And when he re-created the grandest of pagan temples, that of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, he ignored any Roman evidence for the façade, basing it instead on contemporary plans for the façade of Saint Peter’s, the grandest of Christian churches, still in the making.
Kircher praised the wisdom of the ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus, who prophesied the coming of Jesus. Implicitly Lauro endorsed the wisdom of the ancient pagans, whose temples prefigured the churches that would supersede them, often in astonishing detail. Baroque archaeologists went about their business in reverse, bent on unearthing the present in the past. Seen through their eyes and in their prints, ancient Rome was as breathtaking as the modern cities going up around them.
Tschudi’s recovery of Kircher’s enterprise at Mentorella is more revealing than he knows. When Kircher had to explain why the ancient oak relief he found on the altar was so crude, he compared its workmanship to the carvings on the Arch of Constantine. He then cited the book that he identified as his chief authority for the history of Christianity: the great 12-volume Annals of the Church, compiled in the later 16th century by Cesare Baronio. Baronio, as Kircher noted, explained that Roman persecution had killed off all the competent Christian artists when Constantine took charge of the empire: hence the poor quality of the arch the Senate raised in his honour. But Kircher – and Lauro – took more than facts from Baronio, who had argued, in the teeth of contrary evidence, that the Church had been a stable order, semper eadem, from the birth of Jesus to his own day. He defended its traditions – which included the notions that Hermes Trismegistus and other pagans had prophesied the coming of Jesus and that Constantine had built Rome’s great churches. Like Lauro and Kircher, Baronio had brought past and present into alignment. Like Kircher, he believed knowledge was not acquired simply by burrowing into the source, but derived from divine illumination of the kind enjoyed, in Catholic tradition, by saints and mystics.
Despite his insistence on continuity, Baronio knew that the Church had not always and everywhere been the same. Some of his varied efforts to re-create its past – which included a brilliant reconstruction of the much altered ninth-century Church of SS Nereo e Achilleo, near the Baths of Caracalla – made that clear. But the main thrust of his argument – and his histories – was that ancient and modern Rome were one and the same. Proper study of Christianity, with its wealth of pagan precursors, could narrow or even erase the gap between past and present. For all their astute marketing, Lauro and Kircher drew their ideals – and typically their practices – from Baronio and other authoritative historians of Christianity. Kircher didn’t turn back to tradition simply because he was a tired old man. He approached Mentorella in the spirit in which he deciphered obelisks, drawing on – or claiming to draw on – the same sort of direct inspiration. Like the print maven Lauro, the intrepid explorer of volcanoes and interpreter of obelisks was a true man of the Counter-Reformation.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.