Learning to Read Rome's Ruins

Between 1450 and 1600 ancient Rome began to emerge from beneath the shapeless pastures and deserted hills of the ancient city. Renaissance scholars identified major sites and buildings. They began the great effort of copying the ancient inscriptions that made the city itself a vast, if fragmentary, textbook about Roman history and life.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, scholars in the curia--like the brilliant architect Leon Battista Alberti and the erudite scholar Flavio Biondo -- knew the ancient city better than anyone had for a thousand years. Artists recorded the ruins that survived, broken and ivy-covered, and reconstructed the original palaces and temples in all their crisp-edged glory. Architects tried to grasp the rules and methods of the Roman builders. When ancient works of art, like the Laocoon, came to light they immediately became famous and influential, finding prominent places in the sculpture collections that adorned the Capitoline hill, the Belvedere court of the Vatican, and many private houses. Drawn and printed images of them circulated throughout Europe and scholars and artists made pilgrimages to Rome to see them.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, Roman scholars had recreated the whole web and texture of ancient Roman life, from its physical environment to its religious rituals, in astonishingly vivid detail. True, not even papal support could stop the destruction of individual monuments and buildings; much continued to be lost or scattered. The study of the ruins prospered even as buildings were torn down or burnt to make lime. In the course of the sixteenth century, Roman archaeologists shed new light on the Egyptian and early Christian worlds as well as on Rome itself.

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