Invented Antiquities

Anthony Grafton

  • Baroque Antiquity: Archaeological Imagination in Early Modern Europe by Victor Plahte Tschudi
    Cambridge, 320 pp, £64.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 107 14986 1

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.

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