The Renaissance and the Ruins of Ancient Rome

Michael Greenhalgh describes how Roman architecture and Graeco-Roman statues made a profound impression upon the great Renaissance artists.

Rome as we see it today is mostly the work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and only partly the achievement of antiquity.

It requires the assistance of old prints and a great deal of imagination to understand what a small, dirty and impoverished place it must have been throughout the Middle Ages.

Even in the sixteenth century, as plates by Etienne du Perac show, the Roman ground level was buried in parts to a depth of about six feet in the detritus of successive centuries.

His etchings of the Forum with the Palatine Hill and the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Temple of Saturn, both published in 1575, show the forum as a place for the grazing and keeping of animals, and the Palatine as a weird and overgrown series of giant arcades.

The arch of Septimius Severus was still crowned by its medieval crenellations and tower (a legacy of the warring notables of Rome during the Middle Ages), and was buried in about 10 feet of earth; scant regard has been paid, even at this late date, to recording accurately the inscription on the attic storey.

Similarly, we see men going down steps cut through the rubble to enter the Temple of Saturn.

What did the plentiful ruins of Rome mean to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance? It is unwise to make any strict division between the two periods, for medieval beliefs continued well into the seventeenth century.

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