Nymph of the Grot

Nicholas Penny

  • The Culture of the High Renaissance by Ingrid Rowland
    Cambridge, 384 pp, £40.00, February 1999, ISBN 0 521 58145 1
  • Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna, translated by Joscelyn Godwin
    Thames and Hudson, 476 pp, £42.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 500 01942 8
  • After Raphael: Painting in Central Italy in the 16th Century by Marcia Hall
    Cambridge, 349 pp, £45.00, March 1999, ISBN 0 521 48245 3

In the early years of the 16th century a Vatican official called Angelo Colocci, who had graduated from curial abbreviator (responsible for internal memoranda) to apostolic secretary (poised below the coveted position of domestic secretary, or Papal p.a.), took to prowling around the small shops and market stalls of Rome in pursuit of the heavy, polished lumps of basalt that were used by tailors and weavers to press cloth. He had noticed that some were inscribed and that they seemed to be of a regular size. Traders in antiquities got to know of his peculiar interests and a dealer hailed him one day with the offer of a brass ball. He bought it, saw that there were silver letters set into it, and soon realised that he had in his hands a standard Roman pound weight, and that the other lumps were related to this one. This was a great moment for Colocci, who was planning a treatise on ancient weights and measures. He never wrote it, however, leaving only copious, but very confused, notes – he may have devoted too much time to pursuing his career in the Vatican or to parties with his cronies – but achieved a great reputation in the scholarly world despite this, chiefly for his expertise on the length of the Roman foot.

Ingrid Rowland makes Colocci one of the heroes of her remarkable book. She describes his failings with sympathy as well as humour, but also reminds us of the immense intellectual excitement that lay behind what could seem to be mere pedantry. Colocci was doubtless distracted from making progress with his treatise by his perception that it held the key to huge parts of ancient Roman civilisation – cartography, grain supply, census and tax systems, and engineering, for example. The Renaissance, as Rowland interprets it, and as it was interpreted by Michelet, Burckhardt, Symonds and Müntz, owed much to men in libraries – something which the television survey is apt to overlook – and she even illustrates pages from printed books and manuscripts adorned with marginal commentary, in order to help the reader appreciate the scholarly procedures of that period.

The range of topics Rowland covers – or touches on – is breathtaking: the social role of the courtesan, the collecting of antique sculpture, the craze for improvised vernacular verse, the forgeries of Annius of Viterbo, the sermons of Tommaso Inghirami, the invention of the semicolon, the evolution of the abacus, the cult of Cicero, the indignation of Erasmus, the pornography of Aretino. Rowland recently completed a translation of the only surviving treatise on art written in antiquity – the ten books on architecture by Vitruvius – and this experience must have quickened her sympathy for the philological and archaeological achievements of early 16th-century Rome. Indeed, it is generally true that her own circumstances are reflected in her interests as a historian. Rowland is a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and acknowledges the help of the ‘Vat Rats’, as her fellow English-speaking researchers in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana call themselves. Her book explains how this very library was rehoused in the late 15th century and how it functioned, who belonged to the Roman Academy in the Renaissance, where they met and how they dined. Nor does she neglect to explore the equivalents to the research grants and ‘tenure-track’ appointments of today – explaining how patronage worked and what offices were available within the Curia (hence the information above about Colocci’s posts). Most unusually, she is as interested in finance as in learning, and her experience as the editor of the correspondence of the great Papal banker Agostino Chigi also colours this book. Chigi is another hero of hers. So, too, is Pope Julius II.

Rowland is expert at placing the subjects she studies in relation to each other. A jocular study of the ruins of Rome by ‘Prospettico Melanese depictore’ (‘the Perspectivist’ – or, as she whimsically has it, ‘Mr Perspective’ – ‘painter of Milan’) who is now often supposed to be the great architect Bramante, is related to the study of mathematics, to the use of the vernacular, and to the status of the painter. But Rowland does not adequately support every connection she claims to find. She likens Colocci’s quest for empirical evidence of the length of the Roman foot to contemporary ‘interest in events like the Miracle at Bolsena, which seemed to afford tangible proof that the Eucharist did result in chemical transformations’. The bloodstained linen from Bolsena which had long been treasured in the cathedral of Orvieto certainly excited the Pope’s veneration, but there was nothing new about this: confraternities all over Europe were dedicated to the Feast of Corpus Christi, which commemorated the miracle of the bleeding wafer that had left this trace behind. Moreover, relics – which were surely tangible proofs of a very different kind to those pursued by Colocci – had long been revered and coveted. Again, the explanation of how Chigi’s attempt to establish a monopoly in alum depended on aggressive political intervention by the Papacy is convincing, but her claim that a ‘search for new ways and orders’ within the world of finance and Papal foreign policy was connected with the discovery of the ‘Orders’ (the grammar that could be derived from the remains of ancient architecture) strains our credulity.

Rowland is not always at her best, or most reliable, when interpreting the visual arts. The first Pope whose patronage she explores in detail is Alexander VI Borgia, whose apartments in the Vatican Palace range below the stanze which Raphael decorated for Julius II and Leo X. Pinturicchio’s frescos here, she tells us, ‘asserted over and over again’ the fact that the heraldic bull in the Borgia coat of arms ‘was none other than the Apis, itself proof of the Papal family’s ancient Egyptian heritage’. Thus, the Spanish Pope, sensitive that Italians thought of him as a barbarian, boasted of ‘an ancestral line that went back long before the foundation of Rome’. It would be rash to suggest that it was merely playful of the Pope to order – or to allow – the story of the Egyptian bull-god to be painted by Pinturicchio. It showed that he was learned, or at least a friend of learning, and he may well have been attracted by many deep meanings detected in these fables. But he cannot seriously have expected people to believe that he was descended from Osiris (of whom Apis was an incarnation) and there is no evidence that he did so, any more than there is reason to suppose that Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose name suggested laurels sacred to Apollo, supposed that people would think him a descendant of that Greek god when he used the laurel as a device, or that the noble Orsini wished to claim kinship with the bears (orsi) by which they announced their family’s presence.

We are told also that there was another ‘chosen theme’ in the Borgia apartments. Apparently Pope Alexander wished to present Rome as the ‘new Alexandria’. Rowland repeatedly reminds us that the Vatican library was on the floor below his apartments and that, as everyone knows, Alexandria had a famous library. Yet in Pinturicchio’s paintings there is no reference to any library, ancient or modern. In the ‘hall of saints’, one of the lunettes depicts Catherine of Alexandria confounding the pagan sages sent to convert her. But no attempt is made to locate this event in Egypt and indeed, a version of the Arch of Constantine occupies much of the composition. This could be taken as a way of identifying Alexandria with Rome, but the same backdrop was used for narratives of every kind at that date. Egypt, according to Rowland, is ‘again the setting’ in another lunette, in which Saint Anthony meets Saint Paul the Hermit, but the background here is the desert, not Alexandria, and it isn’t even a very Egyptian-looking desert. The other lunettes do not detain Rowland, although it is likely that Saint Elizabeth, Saint Sebastian, Saint Barbara and so on meant as much to the Pope as Catherine did, and more than the story of Apis (or the Ovidian episodes from the tale of Jupiter and Io, ‘Borgia beef in a feminine key’) on the vault above, which would, in the days before electricity, also have been very much less well illuminated.

On the whole Rowland is excellent on the way in which the enthusiasm for pagan Rome and for Greek and Egyptian mythology was reconciled with Christian faith, and her unbalanced account of the Borgia apartments is uncharacteristic. But it is odd that she hardly mentions astrology. One of the frescoed ceilings in the villa of her hero Agostino Chigi is based on his horoscope, and her other hero, Pope Julius II, had a well-documented interest in the stars. How this might have been justified by a prince of the Church should surely be of special interest in any account of the intellectual world of early 16th-century Rome.

Rowland devotes considerable space to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a blend of medieval quest romance and the picaresque of Apuleius which was printed in Venice in 1499 – the first fully illustrated book to emerge from the Aldine Press and the first in a fully roman typeface, indeed perhaps the most admired of all early illustrated printed books. The hero of the book, Poliphilo, dreams of discovering ruined temples and tombs, the relics of pagan mysteries, and indecipherable ancient inscriptions. He is infatuated with Polia, a nymph of Diana, but in love with much else (as his name may also lead us to suppose), and ecstatic at the sight of an elaborate ancient entablature – or at least at the prospect of the long and rare words with which its ornaments can be discriminated and of the complex calculations with which its proportions might be analysed.

The translation by Joscelyn Godwin of this extraordinary book, beautifully printed by Thames and Hudson with all the original plates, is an intelligent compromise: it is less loaded with Latinate neologisms than the original but captures its mixture of the erotic and the pedantic and is quaint without being insufferable. The only previous effort at translation into English was a fragmentary effort by ‘R. D.’, dedicated to the Earl of Essex in 1592. But there is a complete French translation of 1883 by Claude Popelin which must surely have helped to stimulate the cult status the book enjoyed a hundred years ago, and which is reflected in Beardsley’s Under the Hill and in the elegant productions of the Veil Press. There is an excellent discussion of the Hypnerotomochia in Patricia Fortini Brown’s Venice and Antiquity (1996), which introduces us to the artistic context that made it possible – one not explored in Rowland’s book. There is a theory that it was written by the Roman nobleman Francesco Colonna, but the author is more likely to have been a Dominican friar who died in 1527 aged 94, having lived in Venice and Treviso. Poor man, he was bound not only to follow Christ rather than Cupid, but to do so in male company.

In Angelo Colocci’s garden there was a fountain with a sleeping nymph. Rowland claims that this ‘re-created’ one illustrated in the Hypnerotomachia, although, unlike the fountain in the story, the nymph did not emit cold water from one breast and hot from the other. She does not illustrate Boissard’s engraving, which shows that there were many other differences. It was adorned with the celebrated little Latin poem (of relatively recent composition): ‘Huius nympha loci’, Alexander Pope’s ‘Nymph of the Grot, there sacred springs I keep/And to the murmur of these waters sleep.’ The poem itself would have been an adequate inspiration for the creation of such a fountain, as it was for others at a later date.

Marcia Hall’s thorough survey of 16th-century painting in central Italy includes a valuable assessment of the changes in subject-matter and character discernible in the decoration of chapels, palaces and villas under the influence of reforming Popes. Fountain nymphs were lucky to survive and some did indeed get boarded up or sold off. Relaxed religious houses like the convent of SS Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, where Colonna pined for an exquisite pagan world, were disciplined. But by the end of the century the values of the Papal court during the pontificate of Leo X had been triumphantly reintroduced, most conspicuously in the gallery of Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

Annibale and Agostino Carracci’s frescos of the loves of the pagan gods in this famous room (now, alas, hard to visit) are – with good reason – generally held to have started something new, yet in Hall’s book the gallery is seen as a splendid recapitulation of previous decorative schemes, as witty in its layered fiction as those devised by Perino del Vaga or Salviati in the middle of the century, and recalling the sensuous beauty, the fair flesh and fresh air of the loggia painted by Raphael for Agostino Chigi and the muscular nude youths and fictive sculpture with which Michelangelo articulated the vault of the Sistine Chapel. The youths, ignudi, are more relaxed than in Michelangelo’s work, more like real models resting in the life class to which the Carracis attached such importance, but the general effect is one of complex artifice. Hall writes well about elaborate ornamental art, but also about alternatives to it – for example, the deliberately, indeed intelligently, bland Santi di Tito or the hard and austere, but often very vivid, Scipione Pulzone (to name only two artists about whom little has been published in English), as well as Caravaggio, whose art belongs as much to the 16th as to the 17th century.

Sometimes Hall describes at length pictures for which no illustration is supplied, and some of the colour plates (bunched into two sections) are poor, but what would most improve her book would be the jettisoning of modern stylistic terminology. When we read of a painter ‘embracing the counter-maniera’ we are bound to think of an act akin to taking Holy Orders or reversing a political allegiance, but surely it wasn’t like that. In as much as artists were aware of adopting or rejecting a style, they saw themselves more like members of a family, dissociating themselves from a foreign branch, revering and reviving a grandfather’s achievements, rejecting a father but working alongside an uncle. Models taken from religious or political practice, or from the ‘movements’ to which artists, and sometimes also art historians, have belonged during the last century, do not help us to assess the ideological implications of stylistic change with which Hall is so intelligently concerned.