Last year, as we finished our little sojourn to Natchez, Mississippi, and were driving up the Natchez Trace toward Jackson to catch our plane home, we had a little time so we took a short detour to a rather out-of-the-way park called Windsor Ruins. As the name suggests, it was the remnants of a once great plantation house not unlike those we'd just spent three days touring in Natchez. This one, however, had burned to the ground some 150 years ago. All that was left standing were a couple dozen or so Corinthian columns with their cast iron capitals, some iron railings, and the foundation to the once great house. The fire had not come about as the result of war, as had been the case with fires that destroyed so many once grand Southern mansions, but as the result of carelessness. The owner, suffering from perhaps a bit too much brandy following a housewarming party (the house was brand new at the time), had fallen asleep in a chair with a lit cigar, which had fallen from his hand into a pile of papers. In that era, once a fire got even a modest head start, there was no stopping it. As I walked amongst the ruins, gazing up at the still-magnificent blackened columns soaring perhaps thirty or forty feet over my head (this had been no small house), I couldn't help trying to visualise in my mind the elegant grandeur of the Greek Revival architecture and luxurious, antique lifestyle the mansion had once embraced.
I felt a kinship, not with those of my own century, or even the previous one, but with the medieval citizens of Rome. Imagine, being a humble shepherd, tending a flock of sheep as they grazed amongst the ruins of the once glorious Roman Forum during the fifteenth century. For almost a thousand years, from around 500 CE to about 1500 CE, most of Rome lay in ruins. And what there remained of human habitation marked the city as one of the dingiest urban hellholes in the world at the time. The only bright spot in the entire city lay across the Tiber where the church was just beginning to break ground for the building of St. Peter's Cathedral. Quite likely, even the Pope only lived there because St. Peter had died there.
Quite apart from lowly shepherds, the great thinkers, writers, and artists of the time were awed and humbled, saddened and dismayed at the depths of despair and disrepair the one-time greatest city on earth had fallen to. War, greed, pestilence, immorality, ignorance, and all other manner of human folly had left its mark on the city, and it was a mark - a sort of grand morality play as it were - that left a mark on them as well. As the Renaissance dawned in Italy - in Florence, in Venice, Milan, and Pisa - it seemed to dawn last in Rome. In fact, had it not been for the church, Rome today might not be a city at all but merely a tourist curiosity not unlike Pompeii. But the church attracted great minds and great minds are curious. No other city in Italy had ruins matching those of Rome. And these ruins inspired the curious to seek out the stories behind them, to travel all over Europe in search of ancient texts detailing the history, art, architecture and other cultural elements of the once great Roman Empire.
In other parts of Italy, great wealth, trade, new philosophies, and a renewed taste for learning in the arts and sciences inspired the Renaissance. But in Rome, it was the twin prongs of religion and ruins, which prodded the learned to probe for the long-lost secrets of their ancient past. And, in that ancient Rome had been pagan and contemporary Rome was Christian, the twin inspirations were often at odds. Magnificent relics of Rome's pagan past, great works of sculpture and architectural doodads alike were being dug up daily, putting the great lovers of art in the church in something of a quandary as to whether to admire them for their incredible beauty or rebury them in their loathing of paganism. In most cases, to their credit, they chose to preserve and restore them, and most of all to learn from them.
Artists such as Sandro Botticelli even attempted to replicate Roman painting, of which virtually nothing had survived (Pompeii hadn't been discovered yet) in his Venus and Mars, painted around 1486. Possibly designed as a headboard for the bed of newlyweds, it depicts a beautiful, vibrant Venus, the Roman goddess of love, gazing over at a slumbering nude figure of Mars, the god of war, while in the background, two mischievous young satyrs steal his lance (smirk), and yet another appears ready to blow a horn in his ear. (Who said the Renaissance had no sense of humour?)
Andrea Mantegna directly referenced his studies of ancient Rome in painting his The Triumphs of Caesar, Vase Bearer and Bearer of Trophies and Bullion, which was but one of a series of nine panel paintings on the subject done between 1486 and 1494. Charles I of England bought the entire series in 1629, perhaps hoping that Mantegna's imagined glories of Rome might rub off on the land that had once been a remote frontier of Rome's mighty empire.
The great Raphael, painting between 1508 and 1511, in decorating the papal apartments, harkened back even beyond Rome to ancient Greece in his The School of Athens imagining his cast of ancient artists, scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers, the followers of Plato and Aristotle, not in Athens, but congregating in the then unfinished nave of St. Peter's. In effect, he saw his work serving as a visible link between the new Rome going up all around him, and the ancient arts, sciences, and philosophies that made it all possible. It must have seemed to him as if ancient Rome was literally rising from its ashes. I know a little how he felt.