Thursday, February 24, 2011


Kathleen Wren Christian, Empire without End: Antiquities Collections in Renaissance Rome, c. 1350-1527. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 440. ISBN 9780300154214. $70.00.

Reviewed by Petra Heckova, Czech Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology, Prague (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The history of antiquities collecting in the Renaissance is a topic that has been addressed by several generations of art historians. However, some unsolved problems still remain. One of them is the origin and development of collecting in Rome during the Trecento and Quattrocento. The reviewed book represents a serious and successful attempt to fill the gap Kathleen Wren Christian, already dealt with the subject in her doctoral dissertation, and in articles.1

In her Introduction, Christian considers the main focus of the study and the questions that she will try to answer: "The spectacular shift in the status of antique images over the course of the Quattrocento – from building materials to collectable art objects – is a matter of unquestionable significance in the history of Rome and the wider history of European art." (p. 2) As she points out, adequate attention has not yet been paid the reasons how and why it happened. In her opinion, the history of antiquities collecting in Rome was not a series of isolated coincidences. Moreover, scholars have often referred back only to a few events (like Pope Sixtus´s transferral of ancient statues to the Capitoline in 1471 or the formation of the Belvedere collection).

In this book, the author examines how radically the attitudes towards the most problematic of all antique objects, the life-size figural statue, was changed during a more than one hundred-year-long process: from building material processed in lime kilns to the "Exemplum virtutis", poetic inspiration, or highly prized artefact which deserves protection, from the time of Petrarch, when antiquity was recognized as a model of moral qualities and ancient virtues, until the Sack of 1527 which marked not only the end of the old times, but also a new orientation in antiquities collecting. The book's title is inspired by the prophecy to Aeneas: "To the Romans I assign no limit of things nor of time. To them have I given empire without end" (Aeneid 1.278). Various forms of reception and possession of "Romanitas" are also the key to the authors´s interpretation of the phenomenon of antiquities collecting in the Quattrocento Rome.

Chapter 2 ("Antiquity as Example. Rome in the Time of Petrarch and Cola di Rienzo") deals with significant changes which led to the reassesment of the value of Rome´s antique remains. Christian focuses her attention on the literary reasons which gradually led to the change of aesthetic judgment and culminated in the time of Petrarch and Cola di Rienzo. During the Trecento "Exempla virtutis" began to appear more frequently in the literature, and thanks to its spreading in the visual arts, antique objects gradually acquired an aura of social utility. However, this process was very slow. First, it was necessary to overcome an antagonism toward figural statues and fears of idolatry, which were deeply rooted in mediaeval society.

Chapter 3 ("The Poetics of the Collection. Cardinal Prospero Colonna´s Garden of Maecenas") discusses the role of the first poetic sodalities, revival of pagan poetry, and the first literary experiments in the genre of statue poetry. The author focuses on the contemporary theme of the eternity of poetry in comparison with the fragility of sculpture inspired by antiquity (Horace). According to Christian, it was another turning point in Roman Renaissance collecting: "A group of pagan sculptures was totemicized and aestheticized in a novel way thanks, in part, to its ability to be juxtaposed with and compared to a poetic text." (p. 58) Literary experiments in the genre of panegyric poetry is evident first in the palace of Cardinal Prospero Collonna on the slopes of Quirinal hill known as the Loggia dei Colonnesi, which housed his antiquities collection, including the famous statue of the Three Graces.

Chapter 4 ("Fictive Genealogies and Ancestral Collections in Fifteenth-Century Rome") examines different forms of antiquarianism that developed in the social milieu of Roman native nobility by the mid-Quattrocento. In a series of examples the author demonstrates how the new Roman nobles (like Porcari or Santacroce) used an ancient genealogy as a medium for legitimacy of their social status. The key was the ownership of the proper ancient artefact whose iconography completed and affirmed the family´s fictive genealogy and ancient ancestry.

Chapter 5 ("The Virtues of the Papal Collector. Paul II and Sixtus IV") considers how popes in the second half of the Quattrocento redefined their approaches with regard to the city´s ancient monuments. A wealthy cardinal of Venetian origin, Pietro Barbo (later Paul II) amassed a treasury of precious objects of ancient and Byzantine origin in his new monumental palazzo near San Marco (Palazzo Venezia). Sixtus IV (formerly Cardinal Francesco della Rovere) took a different position, distancing himself from his predecessor. His most outstanding act was the transferral of ancient bronze statues from the Lateran to the Capitoline hill, and their donation to the People of Rome in 1471. As Christian points out, these two different approaches to antiquities collecting and self representation have been contrasted by humanist writers as early as the Renaissance.

In chapter 6 ("Pomponio Leto and the Academic Garden") the author examines how fascination with the comparison between the statues and poems, and experiments in the genre of statue poetry brought the academicians and their patrons into a closer engagement and deeper contact with the remains of ancient sculpture. Pomponio Leto, the owner of perhaps the most sizeable Roman collection of ancient inscriptions, was a key figure in Quattrocento antiquarianism. According to Christian, through the influence of Leto´s Academy, Roman elites decorated their gardens and courtyards as ideal settings for the performances of poetry, with antique figural statues.

Chapter 7 ("The Era of Collecting, 1480 – 1527") considers some significant changes in this important period for Renaissance collecting. Around 1500 the new approaches to antiquities collecting emerged. As the author points out, these transformations reflected the shifts in Roman society, as the antique objects were gradually sold to more powerful and wealthy patrons. The author briefly discusses early Cinquecento collecting: the logistics of the collection (display and methods of acquiring sculpture), the role of artists as procurers of ancient artefacts, and the importance of antique sculpture in artistic training. In my opinion, Christian develops her most interesting observations on the iconography of antiquities collections and the credibility of the preserved iconographic sources, especially van Heemskerck´s drawings (pp. 157-159).

According to the author, in the epilogue, "The Sack of Rome and the Hanging Garden of Cardinal Andrea della Valle", the Sack of Rome in May 1527 meant the end of one era of antiquities collecting. Later, it became the domain of the popes and a select number of cardinals who were able to collect and build on a monumental scale. Many collections were sold or destroyed, but others began to emerge. Della Valle´s statue court was among the first important projects of displays of antiquities in the years following 1527 . The main theme of antiquities collecting became the rescue of ancient marbles from decay. As the author concludes, "Yet the Sack of Rome – as a reminder of the sort of destruction and ignorant acts that collections purported to guard against – had added new poignancy to this rhetoric." (p. 220)

An extensive Catalogue represents the second part of the book. It offers an overview of the most important sculpture collections formed in Rome between the mid-Quattrocento and the Sack of Rome in 1527. The list of nearly forty collections includes, among others, Belvedere, del Bufalo, Caffarelli, Colonna, Frangipani, Grimani, Porcari, de' Rossi, Santacroce, and della Valle. Although the author makes no attempt to reference all quotations, the archaeological bibliography and the iconographical and written sources are chosen carefully, with the goal of encouraging the reader to further study.

Kathleen Wren Christian´s bookis an important and challenging work which largely fills the gap inrecent research. The consistency of interpretation and the author´s elegant style enhance its readibility, and encourages the reader to pursue more detailed study and ask further questions. This makes the book an excellent introductory study to the problems of antiquities collecting, especially because of the huge number of quality reproductions and high-quality printing on coated heavyweight paper.


1.   Kathleen Wren Christian dealt with this subject in her dissertation and in several articles. "The Birth of Antiquities Collections in Rome, 1450-1530", Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2003. Kathleen Wren Christian: "The De' Rossi Collection of Ancient Sculptures, Leo X, and Raphael", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 65 (2002), pp. 132-200.

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