Roma prisca: the poetics of ruins

Arisen from the contemplation of the glorious remains of ancient Rome, the sad awareness of the transience of any glory or wealth together with the relentless passing of time wove the “poetics of ruins” imaginary and influenced the thought of the humanists. The newly perceived historic distance between Antiquity and the Renaissance allowed an inspiring point of view on the ancient models and values, brilliantly colliding on the arts and literature of Early Modern Italy.

The complex relationship between Middle Ages and Roman antiquities

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the antiquities of Rome continued to tower over the medieval eyes. [1] The Roman ruins were emblem as well as evidence of the end of paganism and the rebirth of the “new man”; [2] exalting the relics of the temples allowed to better magnify the providential defeat of the powerful Rome and its religion. In the meantime, the antiquities were interpreted as “auctoritas” and sources for Christian art and architecture. Especially in the urban scenery, the ancient remains offered a huge deposit of materials, available to be reused as spolia. Nevertheless, the practice of reuse can’t be considered as merely destructive. The tangible presence of the antiquities, in fact, fostered processes of selection and reinterpretation, led by the end function and contemporary taste: the fragments were recovered to a new physical entirety and meaning. [1]

You find it here

Jacopo bellini, Album del Louvre, Epigrafi e monete

Jacopo Bellini, Louvre Album, Epigraphs and coins, ca. 1430-1460, leadpoint on parchment (426 x 286) mm, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques (old folio number 48r, RF 1512), via The Warburg Iconographic Database.

The ancient ruins in the Renaissance

The newly perceived historic distance between the Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance led the humanists to deem the ruined antiquities as “vetustas”, whose lost integrity could be studied, reconstructed and improved. From constituting a various source of models, the antiquities became a distinguished corpus of masterpieces rose as a selected code of norms for artistic practice. The fragments ceased to be mere tools for artistic reuse and represented above all praiseworthy monuments bearing nostalgic witness to the faded greatness of Rome. [1]

Federico Zuccari, Taddeo Zuccaro Copying the Antique Statues in Rome,

Federico Zuccari, Taddeo Zuccaro Copying the Antique Statues in Rome, second half of 16th century, pen and ink and wash (183 mm x 425 mm), Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi.

The poetics of ruins


Joseph Mallord William Turner, Ancient Italy - Ovid Banished from Rome, exhibited in 1838, oil paint on canvas (946 x 1250) mm, private collection.

The “poetics of ruins” (in Italian, “poetica del rovinismo”) arises from the earlier motif of the Epistulae ex Ponto by Ovid, the awareness that “all human things hang on a slender thread: the strongest fall with a sudden crash” (Omnia sunt hominum tenui pendentia filo: / Et subito casu, quæ valuere, ruunt). [3]

From the thought on the precariousness of life by the Latin author descended the theme of the so-called “Sepulchre of Rome”, where the peculiar and symbolic vision of the remains from the illustrious past of Rome inspired a total feeling of destruction and death. [4] In a 1330s mail to Giovanni Colonna, Francesco Petrarca already expressed a painful consideration about the oblivion fallen even on the memory of the people of Rome about the knowledge and love towards their ancient monuments, writing: “Reluctantly I say, that no where in the world is Rome less known than at Rome” (“Invitus dico, nusquam minus Roma cognoscitur quam Romae”, Fam. VI, 2). [5]


Tuscan sphere, Polifilo among ruins, fourth xylography from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice, 1499. [6]

Through the Renaissance glaze, the vestiges of ancient Rome became an example of the unpredictable overthrow of the Fortune, in dialectical contrast with the real worth of Virtue. [2] This is the meaning of the ruins depicted in the xylographies which embellish the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. [6] In the fourth xylography, a meditative Polifilo appears in an “archaeological dream” among the ruins dispersed in the surrounding environment, [7] where busts, broken columns and friezes are intended as symbols of lost Fortune, a memento regarding the fate of the temporal things in order to encourage the pursuit of the everlasting and worthy Wisdom [8] (we also talked about the allegory of Wisdom from this mysterious incunabulum in a former article).

Étienne Dupérac, Vestigij d'una parte del monte Aventino che guarda verso Ponente et il Tevere (detail)

Étienne Dupérac, Vestigij d'una parte del monte Aventino che guarda verso Ponente et il Tevere (detail), 1575, engraving. [12]

The concept of the loss of the Fortune, interpreted as the ruinous loss of the past greatness, is recurring in the literary production throughout the 16th century. In particular, the poetics of ruins is connected to the reflection on the Fortune in the moving epigram Roma prisca (which in Latin means “Ancient Rome”), composed by the literatus Giovanni Vitali (or Janus Vitalis) from Palermo and included in his work Sacrosanctae Romanae ecclesiae elogia, dedicated to pope Giulio III and printed in Rome in 1553. [8] Here the continuous flow of the Tiber river, whose ancient name was “Albula”, confronts the eternal passing of time and the oblivion thanks to its malleability to the change, despites the motionless vestiges of past Rome:

Albula Romani restat nunc nominis index,

Quin etiam rapidis fertur in aequor aquis.

Disce hinc, quid possit fortuna; immota labascunt,

Et quae perpetuo sunt agitata manent. [9]

“Albula is said to endure at present as a witness of the Roman fame, / Although it actually flows in swift billows to the expanse of the sea. / Learn whence what Fortune can; the motionless falls, / And the ever-moving perpetually remains.”

Herman van Swanevelt-The Campo Vaccino-Rome

Herman van Swanevelt, The Campo Vaccino, Rome, 1631 (?), oil paint on copper, Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum, n. 367.

The knowledge of the antiquitates in Early Modern Italy

The Temple of Concord

The Temple of Concord, Aquatint engraving executed from a drawing made on the spot, ca. 1796. [10]

Privileged object of study and collection for the antiquarian connoisseurs, the admired fragments and ruins of ancient Rome gradually gained the highest value of “antiquitates”, worthy of being gathered in a classified corpus of knowledge. The monuments became documents, continuing to be the models for artistic production and subjects of casts and sketches. The drawings after the antiquities, born in the artists’ workshops, were also evaluated as documents themselves, destined to bequeath the Classic examples among the artists and beyond, besides the usual practical function of hailing inspiration from those models. [1]


Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta di Campo Vaccino, ca. 1748-1774, etching (54,4 x 78,3) cm. [11]

Arisen from the thought of the humanists, expressed in the antiquarian poetry and cultured correspondence, in the 18th century the poetics of ruins found a fruitful ground in the philosophical reflections as well as the production of the artists coming to admire Rome, as Giovanni Battista Piranesi. [7]

The ultimate maturation of the values regarding the safeguard of the cultural heritage has taught that even the ruins could be the incitement and the premise to a path devoted to the reconstruction of a lost identity, based on the Wisdom and the memory of the past.



Hubert Robert, Rovine antiche, ca. 1756-57, oil on canvas (98 x 135,6) cm, Galleria Nazionale di Parma, Inv. 1148.



[1]       Salvatore Settis, "Un'arte al plurale. L'impero romano, i Greci e i posteri," in Storia di Roma. Torino: Einaudi, 1989, vol. IV, pp. 827-878.

[2]       Stefano Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili e Roma : metodologie euristiche per lo studio del Rinascimento. Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2012.

[3]       Publius Ovidius Naso, Epistolae ex Ponto., vol. IV, III, 35-56.

[4]       Ramiro Ortiz, Fortuna labilis. Bucarest, 1927.

[5]       Francesco Petrarca, Le familiari, Vittorio Rossi, Ed. Firenze: Sansoni, 1934, vol. 2: Libri 5.-11.

[6]       Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Bayerische Staatsbibliotek ed. Venezia: A. Manuzio Sr., 1499, vol. b III v/r.

[7]       Alessia Ferraro. (2014, July) Polifilo tra le rovine: Il mito di Roma. Online [accessed September 2015].

[8]       Flavia De Nicola. (2015, April) BTA - Bollettino Telematico dell'Arte. Online [accessed September 2015].

[9]       Janus Vitalis, Sacrosanctae Romanae ecclesiae elogia. Roma, 1553. Online [accessed September 2015].

[10]    J. Mérigot, A select collection of views and ruins in Rome and its vicinity : recently executed from drawings made upon the spot. London: R. Edwards, 1815 (?).

[11]    Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d'altri.. Paris: Firmin Didot Frères, 1835-1839.

[12]    É. Dupérac, I vestigi dell'antichita di Roma raccolti et ritratti in perspettiva. Roma: Lorenzo della Vaccheria, 1575.

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