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.

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