Evidences of Antiquity

Winckelmann and His Century

Athens, England, and Beyond


Evidences of Antiquity


Colonna Traiana

Pietro Sante Bartoli, Colonna Traiana

L'antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures

Bernard de Montfaucon, L'antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures

A treatise on ancient painting

George Turnbull, A treatise on ancient painting

Rome is dotted by columns and arches presenting idealized versions of imperial history in the form of narrative reliefs, but the scholarly appraisal of these monuments developed haltingly. John of Salisbury (ca. 1115-1180), a political philosopher of no small learning, thought that the Arch of Constantine was rendered useful only by its inscriptions. Occasionally some isolated figure would attempt to puzzle out the unlabelled pictures. The Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras learned from them "what arms and what costume people used in ancient times, what insignia magistrates had, how an army was arrayed, a battle fought, a city besieged," and so forth, but did not elaborate on his discoveries.

Attempts were eventually made to apply the methods of textual criticism to narrative reliefs, but the process was slow and the results uneven. The first full set of drawings of the hundred-foot Column of Trajan was produced around 1500 by one Jacopo Ripanda, who scaled the column in some kind of machine. In 1576 Girolamo Muziano published a series of prints based on Ripanda's drawings. Late in the 1660s, scaffolding was erected around the column, allowing antiquarians to compare their copies of Muziano to the real thing. What they saw did not please them, and Pietro Sante Bartoli (1615-1700) produced a new set of prints, published in 1665 and reprinted many times thereafter.

The textual approach to art found its fullest expression in L'antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, a ten-volume compendium by the Benedictine monk Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741). This is, in essence, an antiquarian's visual dictionary, with topically-arranged entries on ancient deities, weaponry, dress, and so forth. Montfaucon began his great project in order to clarify profane allusions in early Christian literature. A strikingly different approach appears in the Treatise on Ancient Painting of the Scottish philosopher George Turnbull (1698-1748). Turnbull argued that the study of ancient art had intrinsic merit, and as an element of liberal education contributed to the moral formation of young men.


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]