The Mirabilia Roman history

The Mirabilia was a timely book, written at a crucial period in Roman history and perhaps for a specific purpose--to celebrate or to inspire a revival of Roman freedom by pointing out the glories of the past. The Romans had finally recovered from the terrible Norman sack and had gained a short breathing space in the long contest between Empire and Papacy. In 1143 they established a Roman Senate among the ruins of the Capitol and proclaimed their city an independent republic, following the ancient pattern which Italian cities to the north had already revived. The phrase 'in the time of the Consuls and Senators' runs through the Mirabilia like the 'once upon a time' of fairy tale.

The book's spirit is summed up in its Conclusion: 'These and many more temples and palaces of emperors, consuls, senators, and prefects were in the time of the heathen within this Roman city, even as we have read in old chronicles, and have seen with our eyes, and have heard tell of ancient men. And moreover, how great was their beauty in gold, and silver, and brass, and ivory, and precious stones, we have endeavoured us in writing, as well as we could, to bring back to the remembrance of mankind.'

This republican movement, probably best remembered for its association with Arnold of Brescia, lover of antiquity as well as of liberty, ended in failure. But the name of the Senate remained, though it usually consisted of one or two appointed Senators, and the dream of liberty was not forgotten.

Closely related to the Mirabilia in time and inspiration are the Graphia aureae urbis Romae, or Account of the Golden City of Rome, and a description by the Englishman, Master Gregory, which is devoted even more completely to antiquities than either of the others. Master Gregory was the chief source for the work of another Englishman, Ranaulf Higden, whose Polychronicon, or world history, dates from the fourteenth century.

Picture plans of Rome which seem related to the Mirabilia appear in various manuscript chronicles. These maps present the city in the spirit of the Mirabilia and other medieval guides as a collection of isolated 'marvels'. The enveloping atmosphere, the sense of interrelated objects which ancient Roman artists conveyed, has vanished completely, and buildings appear in crudely drawn elevation, scattered upside down or lying upon their sides as space and the artist's fancy directed. Probably the earliest of such plans is that in a world history compiled by Paulinus the Minorite early in the fourteenth century. This plan, now in the Library of Saint Mark's, Venice, has no direct connection with the text of the book, except that passages from the Mirabilia appear opposite it and the marginal notes on the plan seem to be condensed from the Mirabilia's lists of monuments. Another version of the plan, perhaps a slightly later copy, is in the Vatican Library. The golden seal of Ludwig of Bavaria, done at the time of his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 1328, compresses the city's marvels into a circle, reminiscent, perhaps, of Charlemagne's round picture.

More sophisticated and skilful in rendering but equally in the spirit of the Mirabilia and Graphia, upon both of which it draws for iconography, is the view of Rome in Fazio degli Uberti Dittamondo, a description of the world written between 1350 and 1367. Here Rome is 'the widowed city', abandoned by the popes, who had forsaken her to live in Avignon; toyed with by the emperors, who avoided the responsibility of rule; and roused to futile revolt, about the middle of the century, by Cola di Rienzi. It is the city of Dante, who had appealed to an indifferent emperor:

'Come and behold thy Rome, who calls on thee,
Desolate widow, day and night with moans,
"My Caesar, why dost thou desert my side?"'

Petrarch used the same imagery in addressing the emperor Charles IV in 1350: 'Picture to yourself the Genius of the city of Rome, presenting herself before you. Imagine a matron, with the dignity of age, but with her grey locks dishevelled, her garments rent, and her face overspread with the pallor of misery: and yet with an unbroken spirit, and unforgetful of the majesty of former days, she addresses you as follows: "Lest thou shouldst angrily scorn me, Caesar, know that once I was powerful and performed great deeds. I ordained laws and established the divisions of the year. I taught the art of war. . . . But then, I know not why, unless it is not fitting that the works of mortals should prove themselves immortal, my magnificent structure fell a prey to sloth and indulgence." '

Fazio degli Uberti, imitating Dante's journey with Vergil in the Divine Comedy, represented himself as accompanied by Solinus, a Roman geographer of about the third century A.D., who pointed out the sights of the journey. In Rome the widowed city herself became their guide, addressing them in words that recall the Mirabilia:

'Come hither and thou shalt see
How fine my castles were, my towers,
My mighty palaces and my triumphal arches.'

Fazio follows the pattern which Dante and Petrarch had set in his description of 'widowed Rome':

'I saw her face wet with the tears of woe.
I saw her raiment torn and undone,
And her widow's garb, threadbare and tattered.
Yet in spite of these her appearance,
Honest and dignified, showed her noble race.'

Meanwhile, the art of painting on a larger scale was reviving here and there throughout Italy. By the late thirteenth century a few scattered monuments of Rome, such as Hadrian's Tomb and the Vatican obelisk, chosen because of their relationship to Saint Peter's to typify the city, had been painted in the cross-vaulting of the Upper Church of Saint Francis at Assisi, perhaps by Cimabue's hand. Time-worn and half-ruined as this painting is, there is in it something of that roundness and solidity and simplicity of mass which had once belonged to the art of ancient Rome.

But the painting of isolated 'marvels' was carried over for a time in such a large-scale work as Taddeo di Bartolo's circular view of Rome, painted in 1413-1414 on the ceiling of the chapel of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Taddeo may have followed some older source, perhaps one done in the tradition of Charlemagne's round silver table or the Emperor Ludwig's golden seal. Its resemblance to the round view of the
city in the Duc de Berry Book of Hours, painted about the same time, is so close as to suggest a common original.

In Taddeo's painting, despite the city's compression fit the circular space and the oblique tilting of the section about, Saint Pete's to make it seem larger and more important in the eyes of pilgrims, the relationship of locations has become remarkably accurate. Allowing for the difference in orientation, with the south at the top, it is surprisingly easy to find many of Taddeo's buildings on modern maps turned upside down.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, painting had recaptured much of the full, firm modelling of ancient days and had advanced far beyond them in scientific perspective and proportion. General views of Rome and her famed monuments now began to emerge as unified landscape compositions, the isolated marvels being subordinated to the whole.

Such a landscape composition is Benozzo Gozzoli Saint Augustine Leaving Rome for Milan. The 'marvels' are here, in a somewhat scrambled grouping, but the city appears from a distance as a unified view. So it must have looked indeed to those approaching old Saint Peter's from the north along the pilgrim roads, or leaving it with a last backward glance on their return. It is typical of the reasoned renaissance approach that the subject should be so chosen and arranged that the saint is plausibly shown journeying north from Rome to Milan, so that the famous first view seen by most pilgrims and tourists until the coming of railroads is the inevitable background. The beauty of natural setting has returned to painting, and Benozzo paints con amore the trees that rise along the slopes, or here and there above a garden wall, and a glimpse of the western hills.

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