Before "Antiquity"

Petrarch and Boccaccio

The Landscape of Ancient Rome

The Landscape of Antiquity

The Inhabitants of Antiquity






The Landscape of Antiquity


Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Abraham Ortelius, Tempe

Abraham Ortelius, Tempe

Recherches curieuses d'antiquité

Jacob Spon, Recherches curieuses d'antiquité

The reconstruction of ancient Rome encouraged relatively sober, empirical inquiries, but antiquarians found other pursuits that admitted more fantasy. Their imaginative exercises played as great a role in the invention of antiquity as the study of ancient texts and monuments.

One of the earliest and most extravagant antiquarian fantasies was the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, written by the Dominican priest Francesco Colonna (1433-1527). This novel narrates the dream of its love-sick protagonist, Poliphilo, who wanders through a landscape full of ancient architecture, statuary, and inscriptions. In his dream of pagan freedom Poliphilo can consummate his love for Polia, who remains unyielding in reality. He may stand for all the antiquarians for whom an imagined antiquity satisfied desires that contemporary society could not fulfill.

After the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire, a significant portion of the ancient world became less welcoming to westerners. Accordingly, Greece itself could become a receptacle for the fantasies of antiquarians. The mapmaker Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), in most of his works a model of scientific diligence, allowed himself a reverie in his depiction of ancient Thessaly. For the craggy peaks of Mount Olympus, Ortelius drew more upon the geological inventions of contemporary Flemish and Dutch landscape painters than any empirical observation of the Greek landscape.

Even the most serious of antiquarians invented imaginary landscapes to make sense of the scattered remnants of antiquity. Jacob Spon (1647-1685), one of the few scholars who did travel to Greece after the Ottoman conquest, assembled monuments from Provence, Rome, Vienne, Athens, and elsewhere for the frontispiece to his Recherches curieuses d'antiquité. Within this conveniently compressed landscape, which anticipates the museums of the 19th century, several distinctly modern antiquarians engage in learned conversation.


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]