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Early Modern Material Pasts: Architects, proto-archaeologists, and the power of images in the eighteenth century

Giovanna Ceserani and Thea DeArmond

In approaching early modern classics, historians of archaeology face a terminological problem, one that immediately undermines any assumption of a linear disciplinary continuity: the word ‘archaeology’ did not even come into general use until the nineteenth-century institutionalization and professionalization of classical studies. Not that the materiality of the ancient past had gone unnoticed before that: indeed, a variety of artists and scholars had studied this, and the recent surge in works on the history of antiquarianism has shown the richness of that tradition (since Momigliano 1950, see especially Schnapp 1996 and 2014).

This paper grows out of the resurgence of interest in antiquarianism, exploring a previously overlooked aspect of the history of ancient materiality in the early modern age. Focusing on the eighteenth-century Grand Tour, where proto-archaeological folios (illustrated works on the ruins of ancient monuments) such as Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens 1762-1816 or T. Major’s The Ruins of Paestum 1768 were created, this paper argues for the importance of the ancient classical past in understanding a distinct, eighteenth-century mode of visuality, whose development was essential to the origination of archaeology and the history of architecture. In order to explore and analyze the rich evidence for these eighteenth-century practices of visualization, we make use of own contemporary digital visualizing techniques.

What did the classical past look like in the early modern period? In the eighteenth century, with the discovery of sites such as Herculaneum and Pompeii, the ancient past achieved an unusual visibility and presence. Ruins, as signifiers of decay and the passing of time, also held out the promise of moving back in time, by offering a skeletal visual sense of what the ancient world must have been like. Antiquarians engaged themselves in excavations to recover more fragments of past monuments -- or, seeing with new eyes, they discovered anew/for the first time such extant ruins as those at Paestum, previously forgotten. But the feasibility of the study of this ancient material depended on the contemporaneous rise of architecture as a field of research and area of practice. The value of architecture to students of the classical world at the time is attested by the fact that Winckelmann wrote his History of architecture (1762) just before turning to his epoch-making History of ancient art (1764), in a Rome where the architect and artist G.B. Piranesi held sway as the one who could unlock the secrets of ‘speaking ruins’ (see Pinto 2012). Architects had the capacity not only to see a ruin but to visualize what was not there, what was lost to time--to see, for example, an ancient monument such as the Parthenon in its current ruined state as well as to imaginatively reconstruct and envision it in its original state. Such skills were crucial to disseminating these new visions in engravings widely reproduced in print.

This paper recovers the initial excitement of this making-visible of the past, when the novelty of images of the ancient world was matched by their use in a modern urban architecture whose facades were based on ancient classical models. It will first consider this crucial moment when visualization became a key point of entry to the ancient past. It will then argue for the rich potential of studying the early modern history of classics by analyzing, visually, the travels of British architects in the eighteenth-century Grand Tour. The material facts and results of these travels (sites visited, lengths of stay, Italian academies joined, publications completed or planned) makes visible just how crucial the ancient classical past sought out by these traveling architects was to their professional development, and moreover reveals how deeply involved it was in contemporary conversations about taste and values. Seeking the origins of archaeology in the early modern world reveals the development of scholarly practices still current today, while confirming in new ways the role of classics in the emergence of modernity.

Session/Panel Title

What Can Early Modernity Do for Classics?

Session/Paper Number

6.5

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