- The Virtual Tourist in Renaissance Rome: Printing and Collecting the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae
Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, "The Mirror of Rome's Magnificence," is one of the more remarkable publishing ventures of the sixteenth century, an ingenious do-it-yourself kit that allowed even moderately well-off visitors to Rome to assemble a collection of prints showing the city's ancient and modern monuments and supply it with a lavish title page, engraved, c. 1575, for the project's creator, the French-born, Rome-based printer Antonio Lafreri. Because the sheets, including the title page, were sold individually, no two Speculum collections are alike; many of them contain prints from Lafreri's competitors, and many contain later material that has nothing to do with Lafreri, but everything to do with Rome. The most extensive Speculum collection to survive to the present day is housed in the Department of Special Collections of the University of Chicago libraries: It includes 994 pieces ranging in date from the 1540s to 1762. In many ways Lafreri's project represented a triumph of new media in his own era, and it seems eminently appropriate that the Chicago Speculum collection can be consulted today online as well as in situ. A special exhibition in 2007-08 called attention to the completion of the digital project, to the Chicago Speculum collection itself, and to the extraordinary supplemental holdings of the university's Department of Special Collections. Curated by University of Chicago art historian Rebecca Zorach, it includes specialized essays by Zorach, Birte Rubach, David Karmon, Rose Marie San Juan, and Nina Dubin, as well as catalogue entries by Chicago graduate students. The book follows the extremely attractive format used by Special Collections on other occasions, with lavish illustrations and elegant graphics, enabling readers who have never seen this remarkable collection to garner a vivid idea of its depth and quality. As a whole, the catalogue provides a series of glimpses into the Speculum's holdings rather than a commanding overview. On the other hand, there is really no more effective way to capture the peculiar, episodic nature of this uniquely open-ended publishing and collecting venture than by showing some of the ways that the Speculum and especially its supremely extensive Chicago version can be used to shed light on a bewildering variety of subjects—from Lafreri's other publications and printmaking to urban planning and historic preservation. In addition, David Karmon's excellent account of protecting monuments in early-modern Rome demonstrates some ingenious ways to use the digital Speculum.
As Zorach notes, Lafreri stressed the "public utility" of his enterprise. His virtual Rome promised tangible benefits to artists, antiquarians, pilgrims, and individuals on the Grand Tour. The mood and quality of the prints vary widely, from Lafreri's own stately classical views to the atmospheric ruins of Hieronymus Cock, the most evident precursor to Piranesi. At times, the catalogue [End Page 806] shows its origins in Chicago rather than Rome; otherwise, Dubin's essay on the eighteenth-century French printmaker Jean Barbault would have made more of the fact that Barbault's title page selects, of all the Eternal City's possible monuments, Francesco Borromini's quintessentially Baroque San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Another Barbault illustration in Dubin's text focuses on yet another Borromini treasure, Sant'Ivo. To current tastes, Borromini certainly ranks alongside Hadrian among the greatest architects of all time, but it was not always so.
All told, this virtual Rome is thoroughly enchanting, and, best of all, available online in its entirety—a "public utility" indeed.