Ruins and Vestiges in the Time of the Humanists

Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), Self-portrait, with the Colosseum , 1553. Fitzwilliam Museum.


The study and representation of the remains of ancient Rome had a central role in the emergence of cultural and artistic models in Renaissance Europe. Beginning in the late fourteenth century, humanists developed a collection of scholarly methods (notably epigraphical and topographical) that founded a proto-archaeological approach to ruins. The “science of ruins” went hand in hand with an aesthetic fascination that had a lasting influence through the redefinition of the canons and subjects in artistic practice. Observation of ruins was one of the major inspirations in the creation of “classic” architecture, while ruins became a recurring motif in European painting beginning in the late fifteenth century. Finally, this rediscovery was anchored in a powerful imaginary that conferred memorial and political value on Roman ruins. Humanists in particular made ruins into a warning from History, and formulated a patrimonial ideology of which the pontifical power of the Quattrocento was the primary promoter.