‘How great Rome was, its very ruins tell’

Printed illustrations of ruins and their role in the imaging of Rome

As anyone who has ever been to Rome will tell you, it is almost impossible these days to walk around the city without seeing tourists peering at their guidebooks and street vendors trying to sell replicas of the most important monuments and drawings of the famous sights. This experience, however, has been the reality of Rome for many centuries, especially from the emergence of the Grand Tour in the late seventeenth century onwards. And although guidebooks and souvenirs already existed in some way before this, the surge of Grand Tourists coming to Rome provided an enormous stimulus for the development of both. An important role in this was played by the vedute, illustrations, often engravings, of modern and ancient sights.

The importance of vedute
These vedute became immensely popular and sought after as master works in their own right and, because of this, indirectly helped establish what monuments were important for tourists to see in the city: the famous sights we still visit to this day. They influenced the itinerary of the Grand Tour, but vice versa the Grand Tour also influenced the success of vedute. The large number of people travelling to and from Rome for pleasure naturally caused an increase in the demand for illustrations of the city and her sights and provided a means for their dissemination into other parts of the continent. As a result of this international popularity vedute were made and printed all over Europe, especially northern Europe.

In the eighteenth century, during the heyday of both the Grand Tour and international vedute production, we see an extraordinary fondness for ruins and ruin imagery and an increasing amount of scholars studying antiquity and Roman history and publishing books on the subject. Inherent to many of these was an attempt to recreate the original buildings and structures out of the fragments that remained, more often than not with the help of illustrations in the form of vedute. This resulted in a number of illustrated books or separate prints that accentuated the distance and difference between the visible, often fragmented Rome in the present and the accompanying ‘whole’ Rome of the past. This tendency to reconstruct ruined monuments is a tendency of all ages that we still see today in many guidebooks and schoolbooks.

Two good examples of the different uses of vedute in books and the urge to reconstruct ruins are Pieter Schenk’s Roma aeterna, a compilation of engravings of Rome, and the 1704 Dutch translation of François Deseine’s Description of old and new Rome both of which will be discussed below.

Frontispiece of Schenk's Roma aeterna.
Frontispiece of Deseine's Description of old and new Rome.

The uses of vedute
Just like pictures today have a range of different uses, vedute were used for various purposes. Before embarking on his journey, printed illustrations of the sights and monuments in travel guides and scholarly publications showed the traveler what he could expect to see once he arrived at his destination. Upon returning home, they served as a memento or souvenir to the tourist and as an enticement for others. For the unlucky ones who were not able to make the trip to Rome or those who simply did not care to, illustrations provided the next best thing: relatively cheap and true depictions of all that they were missing, so they could at least get an idea of what Rome was and had once been. Not all vedute were printed in books, they could also be bought, or commissioned, separately at the sights in Rome. In this way, they are the seventeenth and eighteenth century equivalent of the photograph or postcard.

The Dutch translation of Deseine’s Description of old Rome (one of the three volumes of the complete Description of old and new Rome) is a good example of an illustrated, scholarly publication that was most likely used to prepare a visit to the Eternal City. In the original French publication the plates and maps were not present. They were added later by François Halma (1653-1722), a Dutch publisher in Amsterdam, who happened to still have a collection of printing plates lying around. In his preface he states the reason for adding the illustrations: they would give a better visual impression of the cities, buildings and ancient remains than words ever could. In his book François Deseine (16..-1715) gives, as the title would suggest, a very long and detailed description of ancient Rome. This publication would be used both by people going to Rome and by those who were interested in Roman history, but could not go to the city itself. The vedute in this book, then, both represented and functioned as surrogates for real antiquities.
A good example of a veduta in a scholarly publication used to prepare trips to Rome, with a reconstruction of the Arch of Titus and the 'present' state of the Arch below.
In Schenk’s Roma aeterna, a compilation of engravings of modern and ancient Rome, we see a different use of vedute. This publication can be compared to a modern day picture book, albeit specifically aimed at adults, and it was probably used more as a souvenir to remember the city than as preparation for a visit. Compilations of vedute like this one were sold all the time in Rome (though this specific example was published in Amsterdam) to tourists who wanted a collection of images of the city, because it was cheaper than buying all the prints separately. Publishers also profited from selling compilations rather than separate prints. In this book we can clearly see the attempt mentioned before to recreate the original Roman buildings, by printing plates of the reconstructed ruin and the present state of the monument behind one another. We see this same attempt, although on a smaller scale, in Deseine’s book (see the image above). Although these attempts are hardly scientifically accurate, they do show a professional and amateur interest in reconstructing monuments of the past.

The reconstructed version of the Circus of Maxentius (then known as the Circus of Caracalla) on one page.
The 'present' version of the Circus of Maxentius on another page.
In illustrated publications such as the ones discussed here and the (sometimes illustrated) guidebooks used by the Grand Tourists, Rome appeared as a giant illustrated companion to Roman history and culture. Images of ruins in these stood as symbols for the long history of the city, looking back, and at the same time, looking forward, as symbols for the eternity of what we, with reason, call the Eternal City. Sanne Boomsma

François Jacques Deseine [Beschryving van oud en niew Rome] Beschryving van oud en niew Rome, verdeelt in drie deelen: Waar in de gansche gelegenheit dezer magtige stad, van de grondlegginge af, tot onder de regeeringe der keizeren, en vervolgens der pauzen […]; nevens de toestant van den ouden en hedendaagschen, zo kerkelyken als wereldlyken, staat, met alle zyne gewoonten en plegtelykheden vertoont wordt / In ‘t Fransch beschreven door den heere François Desseine. Achter Oud Romen is gevoegt; het Antyke graf der Nazoonen; afgetekent en in ‘t koper gebragt door P. Sanctus Bertolus, nevens de Uitleggingen over deze aaloude schilderyen, van J. Petrus Bellorius. Uit het Fransch en Latyn vertaalt, en met heerlyke konstprinten versiert (imp. T’Amsterdam. Gedrukt by François Halma, Boekverkoper, in Konstantyn den Grooten 1704).
2o, [28] – 160 – [10] – 260 – [24] p.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato DR127-128

Petrus Schenk [Roma aeterna] Roma aeterna, Petri Schenkii; sive ipsius aedificiorum Romanorum, integrorum collapsorumque, conspectus duplex (no imp.).
4o oblong, 94 prints.
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, Pregiato DR95

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           Regime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Heuer, Christopher. “Hieronymys Cock’s Aesthetic of Collapse.” Oxford Art Journal (2009): 387-
Plahte Tschudi, Victor. “The Rhetoric of Roman Monuments: Observations on an Engraving by
           Maerten van Heemskerck.” Nordlit: Tidsskrift i litteratur og kultur (1999): 133-149.
Ramsey, Paul. Rome in the Renaissance. The City and the Myth. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and
           Renaissance Texts and Studies, Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies, 1982.
Sweet, Rosemary. “The Changing View of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Journal for
           Eighteenth-Century Studies (2010): 145-164.
Whitney, Stephen Henry. Ruin Imagery and the Iconography of Regeneration in Eighteenth Century
           French Art. Diss. University of Maryland, 1977. 25 Nov. 2015.

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