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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Digging Up Antiquities

Ancient Rome, 100 AD
Hardly a day goes by that we don't read in the newspaper about some major construction project coming to a screeching halt because a bulldozer operator inadvertently unearthed some dinosaur bones, an ancient Indian burial ground, the remnants of an old well containing pottery shards or other such antique refuse to be studied ad nauseum by museum curators and archaeologists almost literally going through the remains with a fine tooth comb. The current running joke among construction crews is that if you find any bones, quickly cover them back up unless you need some time in the unemployment line. There's nothing new in all this. We tend to think of the Renaissance as having sprung to life strictly from the minds of men. That was not the case at all. In large part, it also sprung to life from the earth itself.

By 1642, Rome looked something like this, no freeways (yet) but nonetheless a bustling city replete with suburbs.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, quite apart from the rebirth of art and learning from which the Renaissance derives its name, there was a rebirth of the great cities of the past, especially Rome! With the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome did not cease to exist (though it came close a few times). Instead, the center of beautiful downtown Rome migrated westward toward the magnificent Pantheon, one of the few Roman temples of the city that did not see destruction, and from there expanded across the river toward Vatican hill and St. Peter's. The old Roman forum and the skeletal remains of the its baths, temples, and great Colosseum were largely given over to sheep and shepherds. At least that was the case until the city began to grow again in the 1400s. And with this growth came excavation, and a need for building materials, both of which led to the rediscovery of that which had laid dormant in the way of sculpture and architecture for a thousand years.

Laocoon and His Sons, a Roman copy based on a Greek
original from c.200 BCE.
Michelangelo himself was once superintendent of antiquities for the city of Rome and supervised the excavation of the great Roman sculpture group, The Laocoon (pronounced Lay-OCK-o-WON), traditionally reported to have been discovered by a farmer in plowing his fields. The builders of the new Rome were not above using the remnants of ancient Roman structures in raising new ones, but quite apart from recycling stones, they also recycled styles--the ancient Greek architecture that the Romans themselves had borrowed nearly two thousand years before. There were few books on architecture at the time. The field of architecture literally came from the fields, not plowed up by bulldozers but by the plows, and shovels, and hands of man, scratching in the earth to build the foundations for a new Rome both literally and figuratively on those of the ancient world.

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