Saturday, September 19, 2009


Arco di Portogallo was a ruinous archway on Via del Corso demolished in 1662 to facilitate the running of horse races during Carnival. Partly because it is known exclusively through drawings and descriptions, the monument presents problems with respect to its date and identity. To judge by surviving representations, it was a barrel-vaulted arch with a single opening and was constructed in the late imperial period. Its association with Portugal dated from the end of the fifteenth century: the Portuguese prelate Jorge da Costa, titular cardinal of the nearby San Lorenzo in Lucina from 1489 to 1508, resided in the palace that it abutted.

Like many late-antique structures, Arco di Portogallo incorporated elements taken from earlier monuments. Its north side was decorated with two large relief panels whose principal figures are identified on stylistic grounds as either Hadrian (AD 117–138) and his wife, Sabina, or as Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161) and his wife, the elder Faustina. When the arch was demolished, the panels were preserved and mounted in Palazzo dei Conservatori with an impressive dedicatory inscription that erroneously identifies the figures as Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180) and the younger Faustina (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.6H).

Like most of the dedications on the Capitol, this one bears the names of the magistrates in office at the time. One of the officials sports a rather elaborate title: CAROLVS ANTONIVS A PVTEO EQVEST MILIT D STEPHANI PP ET MART EQVES COMEND. As often in Neo-Latin inscriptions, the name is Latinized. Fortunately, Vincenzo Forcella’s Iscrizioni delle Chiese e d’altri edificii di Roma includes an index nominum: the Latin Carolus Antonius a Puteo represents Italian Carlo Antonio Pozzi. The name, however, is the least of the difficulties.

The phrase EQVEST(rium) MILIT(um) – ‘military knights’ – reveals that Pozzi belonged to a military order. The phrase D(ivi) STEPHANI P(a)P(ae) ET MART(yris) – ‘of St. Stephen, Pope and Martyr’ – indicates that it was the Order of the Knights of St. Stephen. The St. Stephen in question is neither the protomartyr of the Christian church nor the first Christian king of Hungary: he is Pope St. Stephen (r. 254–257), whose feast-day recurs on August 2. On that day in 1554, the forces of Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany defeated a Sienese army at the Battle of Marciano, in the wake of which the Republic of Siena was incorporated into the Grand Duchy. To commemorate the victory, Cosimo formed a new knightly order of St. Stephen, Pope and Martyr, in 1561.

In point of fact, Pope St. Stephen almost certainly wasn’t martyred; nevertheless, having pontificated during the Age of Persecutions, he acquired that status honoris causa. As for his title, he appears in the inscription not as sanctus Stephanus but as divus Stephanus. The designation divus is borrowed from pagan antiquity: it was the title of a deceased emperor whose apotheosis had been officially recognized by the Roman senate. Incongruous as it may seem, it was widely used as an equivalent for ‘saint’ in ecclesiastical Latin of the Renaissance and later, when medieval terms such as sanctus were replaced wherever possible by classicizing equivalents.

Finally, there is EQVES COMEND. The first word is ‘knight’; the second abbreviates COM(m)END(atarius), which derives from the verb commendare (‘commit’, ‘entrust’). In church history, the epithet commendatarius designates the tenant of an ecclesiastical benefice in commendam – that is, a tenant technically acting in the capacity of a provisional caretaker. In the case of a military order, it designates the tenant of a ‘commandery’ – an income-producing estate analogous to a church property supplying a benefice. An EQVES COMMENDATARIVS (‘Knight Commander’) was a member of the order who had been granted (or who had inherited) the tenancy of such an estate.

With all the suspensions filled out, the lines read: CAROLVS ANTONIVS A PVTEO EQVEST(rium) MILIT(um) D(ivi) STEPHANI P(a)P(ae) ET MART(yris) EQVES COM(m)END(atarius) – that is, ‘Carlo Antonio Pozzi, Knight Commander of the Military Knights of St. Stephen, Pope and Martyr’. A history lesson in a dozen words!

Saturday, September 12, 2009


The dedicatory inscription of the Trophies of Marius on the balustrade of Piazza del Campidoglio illustrates one of the ways in which the popes of the early modern period expressed their domination of the municipal institutions of Rome (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.4). In antiquity, the Capitoline Hill had been the heart of Rome’s civic identity; as such, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was the natural seat of the Roman Commune – the City’s municipal government – and the inevitable flashpoint of political agitation against papal authority. From the year 1420, when Pope Martin V regained possession of Rome after the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the papacy at Avignon and the ensuing schism, the popes exerted themselves unremittingly to assert their presence on the Capitoline and to stamp out the ancient traditions of civic self-determination that it represented.

In order to secure the cooperation of the City’s petty nobility, the papacy found it necessary to work out a compromise with the Roman Commune. By the terms of this compromise, the officials of the Commune exercised limited autonomy under the supervision of the Cardinal Camerlengo, who directed the temporal affairs of the Holy See. The executive officers of the Commune were the three Conservators, elected by lot for three-month terms; the Prior of the Caporioni, a lesser official, shared ceremonial rank with the Conservators (the rioni were the fourteen administrative quarters of papal Rome, headed by as many caporioni, of whom the Prior was chief).

Eventually, as the papal chokehold on Rome’s municipal institutions tightened, one of the few fields of activity remaining open to the Conservators and the Priors of the Caporioni was the dedication of monuments on the Capitoline Hill: casual inspection of the many dedicatory inscriptions in the Capitoline Museums suffices to demonstrate the zeal with which these impotent figureheads sought to perpetuate their memory. As the nominal sponsors of monuments, the communal officials naturally form the grammatical subject of many dedicatory inscriptions; this is the case in the dedication of the Trophies of Marius, mounted on the Capitoline in 1590:

‘Paolo Emilio Zeffiri, Girolamo Moroni, Pompeo de’ Cavalieri, Conservators, and Domenico Capodiferro, Prior, saw to the transfer to the Capitol of the trophies of Gaius Marius, seven times Consul, granted for victories over the Teutoni and Cimbri, from the ruined cistern formerly belonging to the Aqua Marcia on the Esquiline Hill and, after bases had erected, to their placement in a distinguished spot, by authority of Sixtus V, Supreme Pontiff, in the year of Salvation 1590’.

The only name present on the base of the Trophies is that of the pope. In Latin, the first line of the inscription reads: SIXTI V PONT MAX AVCTORITATE (‘by authority of Sixtus V, Supreme Pontiff’); the last reads: ILLVSTRI LOCO STATVENDA CVRAVERE (‘saw to their placement in a distinguished spot’). The names of the Conservators and Prior of the Caporioni are to be found some distance below, at the level of the balustrade. Pope Sixtus V had no intention of playing second fiddle to the magistrates of his puppet government on the Capitoline!

How was this self-serving bit of verbal legerdemain possible? The answer lies in the nature of Latin syntax. Because the sense of Latin is determined not by word order but by grammatical inflections, without the least awkwardness or distortion the contents of the inscription can be presented as follows: By authority of Sixtus V — the Trophies of Marius — they saw to the transfer of — the Conservators and Prior. Arranged in a more transparent order, these elements are seen in their true guise as a subject (‘the Conservators and Prior’), a verb (‘saw to the transfer of’), a direct object (‘the Trophies of Marius’) and an expression of agency (‘by authority of Sixtus V’) – an order, be it noted, precisely the opposite of that in which they appear in the Latin.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill is the only large bronze group to survive from antiquity – most monuments of the sort were destroyed for their valuable metal. Marcus’ statue avoided that fate only because it was mistaken for an image of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Until 1537, the statue stood to the north of the Lateran basilica, Rome’s cathedral church. We know that Marcus was raised in the house of his grandfather, Annius Verus, which was located in the Lateran zone (the praedia Lateranorum): as a consequence, it is generally agreed that this was the statue’s original site.

There it remained until Pope Paul III Farnese (r. 1534–1549) engaged Michelangelo to undertake a renovation of the muddy and anarchical Piazza del Campidoglio. The statue – the first element of the renovation – was mounted in 1538 on a base designed by Michelangelo himself. Because of damage from air pollution, it was removed from the piazza in 1980 and is now housed in the Capitoline Museum. The base, which stood bare for more than a decade, is today occupied by a faithful replica of the original.

The base features two contemporary Latin inscriptions – one for the emperor himself and the other for Paul III (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.5.i–ii). The inscription for Marcus Aurelius concludes with the following three lines (abbreviations are completed in parentheses): M(arco) AVRELIO ANTONINO PIO / AVG(usto) GERM(anico) SARM(atico) PONT(ifici) MAX(imo) TRIB(unicia) POT(estate) XXVII / IMP(eratori) VI CO(n)S(uli) III P(atri) P(atriae) S(enatus) P(opulus) Q(ue) R(omanus) (‘the Senate and People of Rome to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Augustus Germanicus Sarmaticus, Supreme Pontiff, vested with the Tribunician power for the twenty-seventh time, acclaimed imperator for the sixth, consul for the third, Father of his Country’).

The name and titles of the emperor mimic ancient prototypes with impressive fidelity; tell-tale clues that the text is a modern fabrication are subtle. For example, the epithet pius was not used of Marcus Aurelius until after his death; it makes its first appearance in coins issued by Commodus, his son and successor. More interestingly, there are inconsistencies in the titulature. In determining the date of an imperial inscription, key information is furnished by the number associated with the Tribunician power, which was renewed annually. Marcus Aurelius held the Tribunician power for the twenty-seventh time from 10 December 172 through 9 December 173. The honorific titles Sarmaticus and Germanicus, however, were adopted into the imperial titulature only in 175. Either the author was unaware of the date that the latter titles were conferred or, more intriguingly, he wished to bequeath a test of erudition to future readers!

N.B. In Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.5.ii (p. 16), the following line is missing after line 7: EX HVMILIORI LOCO IN AREAM CAPITOLINAM. The numbers of the final two notes should accordingly be changed to 9 and 10. The English translation should read: ‘Paul the Third, Supreme Pontiff, that he might foster the memory of the best of emperors and restore to his country its glories and honors, transferred from a lowlier site to Piazza del Campidoglio the bronze equestrian statue erected by the Senate and People of Rome to Marcus Antoninus Pius in his own lifetime, later overthrown in the course of the City’s sundry calamities and set up again at the Lateran Basilica by Sixtus the Fourth, Supreme Pontiff, and dedicated it in the year of Salvation 1538’.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Michelangelo’s design for Piazza del Campidoglio took about 120 years to complete (the statue of Marcus Aurelius was set up in 1538 and Palazzo Nuovo was finished in 1654). A scenographic backdrop to the piazza is supplied by Palazzo Senatorio, dedicated in 1598. As it happens, the pope at the time was Clement VIII, who is probably best known to history for the execution of Beatrice Cenci – together with her brother and step-mother – on charges of parricide.

Clement’s inscription on Palazzo Senatorio amounts to a catalog of his achievements from the date of his election in 1592 to 1598 (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.7A). These accomplishments include the relief of Esztergom (in Hungary) from a Turkish siege, the negotiation of peace between France and Spain, and the reconciliation of the Holy See with Henry of Navarre (who, upon converting to Catholicism in 1593 in order to obtain papal sanction as king of France, famously quipped that Paris was worth a mass: Paris vaut bien une messe).

The least perspicuous item in the list is undoubtedly: RVTHENOS ET AEGYPTIOS RO(manae) EC(clesiae) RESTITVTOS (‘the restoration of the Ruthenians and Egyptians to the Roman church’). The Ruthenians are the easier of the two: ‘Ruthenian’ is the Latin name for an Orthodox Slavic community dwelling in the territory of what was historically the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (today’s Belarus and Ukraine). By the Union of Brest-Litovsk, implemented in 1596, the Metropolitan of Kiev and five bishops entered communion with Rome with the right to retain their ancestral liturgy: thus the Ruthenians became Catholic.

The case of the ‘Egyptians’ is rather less clear-cut. My first idea was that the reference concerned the Maronites of Lebanon, whose liturgy was reformed by Clement VIII. The Maronites are however in no sense Egyptians: the reference in fact concerns the Copts – the native Christians of Egypt. The name ‘Copt’ comes from the Arabic qubti, derived from Greek aeguptios, ‘Egyptian’ (whence also the Latin aegyptius). The Copts of the present inscription were delegates of Gabriel VII – or, more properly, Jibrā’īl VII – the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria (1590–1601). Gabriel had been persuaded by an emissary of Pope Sixtus V to renounce the thousand-year-old Christology of his church and to make his submission to Rome.

Here we find ourselves on the notoriously treacherous terrain of Trinitarian theology. In its doctrine of the hypostatic union of the natures, classical Christian orthodoxy steers a middle path between Nestorian dyophysitism (the view that the divine and human natures of Christ were conjoined rather than united, condemned by the Council of Ephesus in AD 431) and Eutychian monophysitism (the view that Christ’s human nature was dissolved in his divine nature, condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451). Like other churches of the East, the Copts profess miaphysitism, which holds that Christ had a single nature possessing both a divine and a human character; from the point of view of orthodoxy, this is – alas! – materially equivalent to monophysitism.

Although the delegates bearing Gabriel’s profession of faith were received into communion by Clement VIII in 1597, the patriarch’s conversion remained a purely personal affair; in no sense were the Copts restored to the Roman church. Indeed, the notion that the Copts had ever formed part of that church reflects an anachronistic retrojection of Roman primacy into the era of the Christological controversies that saw the schism between the Oriental Orthodox churches and the church at large.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Perhaps the most famous tombstone in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli is that of Felice Fredi, who died in 1529 (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.8E). The stone is mounted low in the wall by the steps at the head of the left aisle. In his epitaph, Fredi’s personal qualities are eclipsed by the memory of a discovery made on a piece of property that he owned on the Oppian Hill: on 14 January 1506, the celebrated sculptural group representing Laocoön and his sons came to light in Fredi’s vineyard, which lay on the site of the Baths of Titus and (beneath that) a pavilion of Nero’s Golden House. The relevant lines of the epitaph read: FELICI DE FREDIS QVI OB PROPRIAS VIRTVTES ET REPERTVM LACOOHONTIS DIVINVM QVOD IN VATICANO CERNIS FERE RESPIRAN(s) SIMVLACR(um) IM(mo)RTALITATEM MERVIT (‘to Felice Fredi, who earned immortality both for his own merits and for the discovery of the divine, well-nigh breathing effigy of Laocoön that you behold in the Vatican’).

The form LACOOHONTIS is perplexing. In classical Latin, it would be Laocoontis (five syllables, with the accent on the penultimate: La-o-co-ON-tis). Another odd feature is the abbreviation of anno domini as ANN DII at the end of the epitaph; the form DII appears to be unparalleled in the abbreviations of the period. The explanation of these peculiarities came to light in a piece of scholarship published by Ivan di Stefano Manzella after I had finished my own research on the inscriptions of Aracoeli (‘Il ricordo del divinum spirans simulacrum nell’epitaffio di Felice de Fredis, “scopritore” del Laocoonte’, in Laocoonte: Alle origini dei musei Vaticani, 2006).

On the basis of transcriptions of the epitaph made before the nineteenth century, Manzella demonstrates not only that the existing epitaph is a copy but also that its text deviates in many details from that of the original. In particular, the oldest known transcription of the epitaph, which dates to the sixteenth century, features the readings LAOCOHONTIS and DNI. Although the form Laocohontis is not classical, it is predictable: in medieval Latin, H was often inserted between two adjacent vowels in hiatus (i.e., not forming a diphthong). Similarly, the abbreviation DNI is just what one would expect in a text of this period.

How did Fredi’s epitaph come to be replaced by a copy? The clue is inscribed on a stone set into the pavement before the Chapel of St. Helen, not far from the present location of Fredi's tomb slab: SEPOLTVRA DI FELICE DE FREDIS C(arolus) L(udovicus) FREDI DE COVBERTIN INST(auravit) ANNO MDCCCLVI (‘The grave of Felice Fredi. Charles-Louis de Frédy de Coubertin restored it in the year 1856’). Charles-Louis de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, was the scion of a French branch of the family Fredi (his son, Pierre de Frédy de Coubertin, was the founder of the International Olympic Committee). In 1856, de Frédy came to Rome and had his kinsman’s tombstone removed from the floor and mounted in the wall, presumably to end the wear and tear that had already rendered it virtually illegible. De Frédy’s activity amounted to more than a simple transfer: because the epitaph was so worn, he evidently had it recut in litura – that is, the trace of the original inscription was polished away and a new text inscribed on the resulting surface. In addition to the deviations from the text as known from transcriptions, the slightly concave profile of the stone and the unnaturally pristine condition of the lettering are tell-tale signs that Fredi’s epitaph is a copy. Caveat lector!

Thursday, September 3, 2009


One of the most celebrated events in the history of papal Rome was the 1654 abdication and conversion of Christina Alexandra, queen of Sweden. Arriving in Rome in 1655, Christina was received with great fanfare by Pope Alexander VII. The following year she made a ceremonial visit to the Capitol; the visit is commemorated in an inscription mounted in Palazzo dei Conservatori (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.6I). In the inscription, Christina is styled ‘Queen of the Swedes, Goths and Vandals’ (Suecorum, Gotthorum et Vandalorum regina). The Swedes (Sueci) are of course unproblematic; my question was in what sense Christina was the queen of the Goths or Vandals.

In attempting to sort out the reference to Goths and Vandals, I began with the peoples of those names who figure in the history of the late Roman Empire. The historian Jordanes (sixth century) reports that the Goths originated on the island of Scandza (i.e., Scandia, or Scandinavia). Because the oldest attested ethnonym for the Goths (Guton-) is based on the same root as that of the Gotlanders (Gutar), some scholars have regarded the island of Gotland as the homeland of the Goths. Since Gotland had passed to the Swedish crown by the Treaty of Brömsebro in 1645 – just a decade before Christina's abdication – I inferred that the title ‘Queen of the Goths’ referred to that acquisition. As for the Vandals, toponyms such as Vendel (in Sweden) and Vendsyssel (in Denmark) have led scholars to hypothesize a Scandinavian homeland in their case as well. In the seventeenth century, I reasoned, when classical learning enjoyed such prestige, a monarch might well lend luster to her title by claiming sovereignty over peoples who had inhabited her territories in the days of Caesar and Tacitus.

It turns out, however, that the references are somewhat more concrete. The ancient core of the kingdom of Sweden is in the eastern part of what is today Svealand. By the late fourteenth century, the kingdom had grown to comprise Swerige (i.e., Svealand), Österland (i.e., Finland) and Göthaland (i.e., Götaland, the southernmost region of the peninsula). It is the inhabitants of the latter – known in English as ‘Geats’ – to which the inscription refers as Gotthi (Beowulf was a Geat). As for the Vandals, these are in English the ‘Wends’ – Slavs living in Wendland (Pomerania) on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea. The historic Swedish claim of sovereignty over that region was reflected in the mention of ‘Vandals’ in the Swedish royal title. The title was current from the 1540s until 1973, when Carl XVI Gustaf preferred to be crowned simply as ‘King of Sweden’ (Sveriges Konung). In a similar case, the claim of the British monarchs to sovereignty over France was not formally abandoned until 1801.

In view of these facts, Christina's title could as well be rendered: ‘Queen of the Swedes, Geats and Wends’.