Rome through the looking glass

February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

The Colosseum (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

The Colosseum (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

I’ve begun working on my next exhibition, and although most of the objects going into it I know quite well, one is a new discovery (well, to me at least): a book that, more than three centuries before Mallarmé or choose-your-own-adventure, could exist in endless different configurations depending on the whim of the owner.

Antoine Lafréry was one of the leading print publishers in Renaissance Rome, a Frenchman from Besançon whose bread and butter was engravings of the monuments and antiquities of his adopted city. His shop became an essential stop for travellers and collectors who wanted a memento of their visit to pore over years later. (He would probably turn in his grave if he knew that the descendants of his prints are the postcards and souvenir guides with their gaudy, badly registered colours for sale on every corner in the Centro Storico.)

The Pantheon (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

The Pantheon (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

In 1573 Lafréry published a title page for a work called the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (Mirror of Rome’s Magnificence). The twist was that it wasn’t for a book in the conventional sense – a set of pages bound in one set order. No, Lafréry’s customers could come to his shop, make their selection from his huge stock of prints, and have them bound in whatever order they desired, with the title page at the front. There are Specula surviving in libraries, museums and private collections the world over, but no two are the same.

The Colosseum as a ruin (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

The Colosseum as a ruin (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

Is each Speculum as much a mirror of its owner’s tastes and interests as it is a mirror of Rome? Hard to say, as many of those that survive have been altered over the centuries – prints removed or added, sometimes two or more bound together as a single book. Sometimes the prints added have nothing to do with Lafréry or the original Speculum, apart from their Roman subjects. The largest one known today, at the University of Chicago, contains nearly a thousand prints. (The one I’m working with has a more modest 153.)

Garden of ruined sculptures (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

Garden of ruined sculptures (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

Even so, it’s possible to come away with a sense – however muddled or fractured – of the person who originally compiled each Speculum. The first owner of mine, for example, seems to have been primarily interested in architecture, and he (I think we can fairly safely assume it was a man) liked to look at it reconstructed, pristine – apart from one plate showing the Colosseum as a weed-sprouting ruin, there are few of the images of dereliction that other collectors prized. (I can’t help being slightly disappointed that mine doesn’t include the garden full of crumbling sculptures that features in others.) There are others where sculpture dominates, or where present-day Rome (St Peter’s, the Castel Sant’ Angelo) has a greater presence.

Hundreds of these must have existed once, records of their owners’ journeys – whether physical or psychological – through Rome. (Was Lafréry an accidental psychogeographer, hundreds of years before the term was coined?) Today’s guidebooks are neater, cheaper, smaller and easier to carry, but, gingerly turning the enormous pages of my Speculum, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something…

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