- Reading Inscriptions and Writing Ancient History: Historical Scholarship in the Late Renaissance
The late sixteenth-century Republic of Letters reared up a generation of skeptics, for whom the ancients and the first humanists revealed themselves in all their human fallibility. The Spanish lawyer Antonio Agustìn dared to denounce Francesco Colonna's dreamy Hypnerotomachia Poliphili as a "boring novel"; his younger contemporary Isaac Casaubon (the same Casaubon who gleefully unmasked the texts of Hermes Trismegistus as late antique syncretism rather than primordial wisdom) suspected no less than the Emperor Augustus of boasting in his Res Gestae. These were scholars whose reading, as broad as it was intense, honed their wits to rapier sharpness; when they set about investigating an ancient text, whether recorded on vellum, inscribed on stone, or published by an imperfectly competent colleague, their delight in their work was as mordantly, perversely refined as a painting by Bronzino or Rosso Fiorentino. William Stenhouse takes evident pleasure in the company of these remarkable critics, writing about their exploits with a clarity and energy that pays fitting tribute to their intellectual adventures.
Still more emphatically than manuscript texts, inscriptions brought home both the physical immediacy of the ancient world and the randomness of its preservation. Documents like the list of Roman consuls known as the Fasti Consulares (published in a pirate edition before their rightful editor was ready to release his own, more careful, version to the press) both confirmed and contradicted historical accounts like those of Livy and Diodorus Siculus. Their discovery in the sixteenth century changed the whole nature of historical analysis, calling into question the very substance of historical evidence. Who was more likely to have the most reliable information, the writers of the inscriptions — as one critic has pointed out, stone decrees were displayed in public and thus exposed to immediate refutation by any passerby — or the historians in their libraries? Who was more likely to garble the text in front of them, a medieval copyist or an ancient stonecutter? Who was more tempted to embroider the facts, an emperor or a scholar? The lack of obvious answers to these questions gave vivid life to the debates surrounding them. Most importantly, questions about the makers and readers of inscriptions, and their relationship to the writers and transmitters of history, brought the humanists of the late sixteenth century insistently back to the humanity of the people whose works of hand and mind they studied with such enthusiasm. [End Page 844]
The human tale that Stenhouse relates takes some remarkable twists and turns. A document as important to our understanding of Roman history as the Res Gestae of Augustus depended on a chance event: a group of travelers through the Ottoman Empire who stopped overnight in Ankara and saw and copied the bronze monument now known as the Monumentum Ancyranum. The incident provides not only evidence for the state of the ancient Roman world, but for the state of its early modern equivalent: the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 had not, in fact, entirely severed contact between Europe and Asia. There is no simple way to account for the movements of people and their ideas. Stenhouse devotes a good deal of attention to the vagaries of classical scholarship in an age of (sometimes raging) political strife; many of the characters he mentions, Agustìn and Onofrio Panvinio among them, published their research decades after they carried it out. Access to modern printed books could be as sporadic in sixteenth-century Europe as access to ancient Roman inscriptions.