All Roads Lead to Roman Ruins- Guest Blog by Piraneseum
Dear Diva Readers,
Piraneseum.com. Piraneseum trades in antique architectural mementos, including paintings, drawings, prints, and models spanning the 17th through 19th centuries. The subjects of many of these objects are Rome’s ancient ruins. Interestingly, this subject seems, in some ways, as current today as it did two hundred years ago. In today’s blog, Lucia shares some insight on how all roads seem to lead to Roman ruins.am delighted to share a guest blog today by Lucia Howard of
What do the fusty, musty, dusty artifacts of the past tell us of the present, or our future? If History does not precisely repeat itself, does it offer any hints or tips?
Piraneseum, named after that sublimely volatile genius etcher of Roman architectural ruins anddecay, trades in the fustiest, mustiest, dustiest, objects – souvenirs of the Grand Tour. These mementos – 17th and 18th century paintings, drawings and prints of ancient ruins (fig. 1); 19th century bronze and marble models of collapsed temples and broken monuments (fig. 2); and splendidly-realized 18th and 19th century decorative arts (fig. 3) – often share a single focus – ancient architecture brought low. Two hundred years ago, what was the appeal of these mementos? What shall we make of them now?
In the 18th century, the Grand Tour (the name given period European travel by a late 17th century Italian guidebook) was primarily a British and French activity undertaken by the most privileged. By the middle of the following century, though, and the opening of rail lines from throughout Europe to Rome, the Tour became a more popular proposition, the forerunner of an eventual tourist industry.
By the mid-18th century, England and France were at summits of their respective empires, though there were clouds on their horizons (and quite a bit closer). What did these countries’ high-born visitors to Rome think, on viewing first-hand both the extent of the ancient city’s vast architectural achievements, and their thoroughgoing, catastrophic undoing? Period responses to the spectacle of the shattered remains included astonishment both that History had taken such a turn, and that humanity had, somehow, survived.
Might this have seemed, as the late Berra observed, “like déjà vu all over again”? Grand Tourists’ focus, even fascination, with Roman ruins speaks both to the suggestive, Romantic power of the place, and, we believe, those visitors’ apprehensions over the future. At the very least, Rome offers high-flying civilizations a cautionary tale.
With the spectacular rise of Italian tourism in the 19th century came, of course, the need for souvenirs. (Which came first – the tourist or the souvenir?) While these mementos are of many varieties, a predominant type features imagery of the ancient ruins of the Eternal City. The market for this species of imagery was robust and, by the 19th century, longstanding.
Even the Roman Church got into the souvenir business. Its Vatican Mosaic Studio (fig. 4), organized in the 16th century for the purpose of reproducing, in more enduring materials, the Papacy’s collection of then deteriorating old master paintings, pivoted, early in the 19th century to the production of micromosaic views of Rome. These included the range of ruins, though, naturally, an oft-recurring image was Piazza San Pietro.
We are partial to the extraordinary variety of very wonderful souvenir architectural models fashioned in Rome and Italy throughout the 19th century (fig. 5). Subjects include nearly every ancient, ruined, Roman landmark.
These appeal in every way, especially arches, temples, columns, tombs, obelisks, and assorted statues, as they bring irresistibly to mind the pleasantest times passed in the Eternal City. Their profuse charms and interest as objects run even to their materials – often colored, figured, highly-polished marbles and alabasters, almost none of which were quarried in Italy. No, the stones from which these 19th century tourists’ mementos are fashioned were largely brought to Rome from the edges of the Empire (Greece, Egypt, Tunisia), in the time of Augustus, 2,000 years ago; and originally formed part of the city’s architectural fabric. After serial sackings leading to its fall, the ancient city’s ground was reported to be covered in shards of colored marble; the eventual material of these souvenirs. Thus the remarkable fact of these models of architectural ruins being made from ruins themselves!
As these objects lull and intrigue us, cause our minds to run to Rome, they’ve very much more sober aspects, as well; reminding both of what the city once was, and what befell it. Grasping its souvenirs, we very literally hold in our hands the corpus of the Eternal City.
Today, the American Century expired, Rome provides U.S. visitors something very similar to that offered the English and French more than two hundred years ago – the pleasures of the place, wrapped in its admonitory history. The causes of Rome’s fall – political corruption; far-flung, ruinously expensive military adventures; an ever less productive economy; civil chaos of every stripe; even, say modern historians, environmental degradation – resonate. And as we take in the grandeur of the ancient ruins, the scene spread before us acts simultaneously as a picturesque architectural canvas and, for the observant, a crystal ball.
If architectural souvenirs provoke our memories and inform our views of the present, what of the time ahead? Can there be souvenirs of the future?
Among the most provocative models, is an exquisitely-wrought, cast bronze replica of the obelisk in Central Park, New York, cast by Tiffany & Company in 1881 (fig. 6). Fashioned of red granite from Aswan, it was first installed in Heliopolis 3,500 years ago, on the order of a Pharaoh (Thutmose III, son of Thutmose II). Fifteen centuries later, in 12 AD, Egyptian dominion vanquished and Rome’s ascendant, an Emperor (Caesar Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar) directed the shaft be floated down the Nile to Alexandria, capital of the then Roman province, Aegyptus. In 1880, financed by a new species of potentate (tycoon William Vanderbilt, son of Commodore), the Needle set sail for Gotham.
Should New York’s Needle (a landmark, by the way, unrelated to the Queen of the Nile) yet again demonstrate expectation-defying get-up-and-go, it likely won’t be in Egypt’s direction, but the other way. History points in the direction of Beijing, not Alexandria or Heliopolis. And after some centuries decorating Tianenmen Square, where next?
In these ways and others, by example and by lesson, many 19th century architectural mementos seem quite up to date – offering the golden-hued satisfactions of memory while reminding of the past’s portentous presence within our glittery, onrushing future.
Thanks so much Lucia for sharing this interesting piece with us! Now I’m in the mood to shop for Grand Tour antiques…and to travel to Rome!
Until next time,
The Antiques Diva®