- The Invention of Rome: Biondo Flavio's Roma Triumphans and Its Worlds ed. by Frances Muecke, and Maurizio Campanelli
Nothing better illustrates the Birth of the Modern (to use Paul Johnson's memorable title) than the almost total eclipse that has been the fate of books and compilations that once enjoyed nearly universal respect among scholars of an earlier age. This volume undertakes the task of reinstating the reputation of Biondo's Roma triumphans (1459), an encyclopedic treatise in ten books on the institutions of ancient Rome, and achieves its purpose comprehensively. The work itself, in the words of the editors, 'is one of the greatest literary monuments of Italian humanism and its greatest legacy to European culture in the early modern period. As an encyclopedic work of all-encompassing scope it might be called a cultural space, a site in which the culture of an entire epoch is collected, synthesized, and passed on' (pp. 11–12). This is high praise verging on hyperbole, reflecting the editors' obvious passion for their subject. Phrases like 'greatest legacy' and 'cultural space' come on a bit strong but to be fair they are skilfully backed up and persuasively defended by an array of learned essays by first-rate scholars who share the editors' enthusiasm.
The taut if effusive introduction is followed by thirteen papers classified into three parts: 1. Context, Genre and Purpose; 2. Mores et instituta; and 3. Reception. Five items conclude the volume: lists of contributors, editions cited, and illustrations; and two indexes of manuscripts and of names.
We are faced with a worldview that is not easily recovered by any reader who is not very familiar with the ancient as well as medieval intellectual furniture associated with the closely-related notions of humanitas and Romanitas. Biondo's major preoccupation was with the notion of 'Roma aeterna', the continuity of Rome, from the empire of the Caesars to the City of God, from paganism to Christianity. To thinkers like Biondo, and Dante too, there is a mystical quality about Rome that transcends ordinary patriotism: Roma is the world's mother, [End Page 213] the common inheritance not only of Europe but of men everywhere 'from the Caucasus to the Don and the Ganges' (Angelo Mazzocco, p. 58). The naïve cast of mind behind this mode of thinking could not be better illustrated than by Dante's simple statement in the second book of his De Monarchia: 'Romanus Populus fuit nobilissimus; ergo convenit ei aliis omnibus praeferri' ('the Roman nation is the noblest; it is therefore appropriate that it be given a place before all').
Biondo, Mazzocco continues, held that in the Respublica Christiana 'the numerous Christian officials discharge duties identical to those of the Respublica Romana. Thus the pope is Rome's consul, the cardinals her senators, the kings, the princes, the dukes, the marquises, the counts, and other nobles of the Christian world are respectively her legates, her quaestors, her tribunes' (p. 59).
Biondo completed his book when it became clear that the new crusade, so longed for by Pius II, was not to have the support of the Christian princes of Europe. It was a time of bitter disappointment for those who felt that the 'New Rome' was unworthy of its predecessors, 'our pagans' (gentiles nostri, Frances Muecke, p. 87). This interesting phrase points again to that attitude of mind, grounded on an almost mystical belief in Roma aeterna, that sees Romanitas as being close on the heels of Christianitas in the blessings it confers on humanity: those old Romans, he seems to be saying, may have been pagans, but at least they were our pagans! Biondo criticizes old Rome for its superstitions, and clearly views Christianity as the ultimate revelation to humankind, but also insists that old Rome 'still has much to teach his own time' (James Hankins, p. 109). In this he is firmly on the side of those who...