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Picturing the Roman triumph: putting the Fasti Capitolini in context.

In 1546, there was a notable discovery in the Roman Forum, in front of the remains of the temple of Antoninus and Faustina (Fig. 1). It was a find to match that of the famous sculpture of Laocoon forty years earlier; (1) and it was no less significant for the understanding (and re-creation) of ancient Rome in the sixteenth century. The story of this discovery follows the classic pattern of the unearthing of the Roman past in the renaissance. It came about by chance digging--for some lime kilns, we are told. Very quickly artists and antiquarians were on the scene, including (or so the story goes) Michelangelo. The importance of the discovery was instantly realised, and further excavations were bankrolled by Cardinal Farnese. The precious fragments were taken first to his villa, but soon given to the Roman people and transferred to the cortile of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Restoration was put in the hands (again, so it is said) of Michelangelo, and over the next decades the new discovery was discussed, drawn, published and re-published by the most renowned humanists of the day.


This discovery was not a sculpture, but an inscription: the marble fragments-albeit incomplete--that make up what we now know as the Fasti Capitolini (Fig. 6), after their location in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill (Fig. 2). (2) These Fasti originally comprised two separate inscribed lists, bridging myth and history in an encapsulation of ancient Roman power, office holding and military glory. The main text was a list of kings and consuls from the origin of Rome to 13 AD inscribed on four panels. Inscribed on four narrower pilasters was a complete list of Roman military victors, who had been granted the right to a triumphal procession through the city, from the first triumphator, Romulus himself, to Cornelius Balbus in 19 BC, the last man outside the imperial family to be granted the honour (for some skirmishes in Africa). These records were set up at some point in the reign of the first emperor, Augustus (31 BC-14 AD); the exact chronology is debated, as is the original building or monument on which they were displayed.


The Fasti Capitolini represented by no means the first Roman inscription to excite interest during the renaissance. Epigraphy had long been part of the humanist repertoire: already in the early years of the fifteenth century, the nucleus of the present Capitoline collection of inscriptions was on display (including the tombstone of Agrippina, the wife of Germanicus, and her son Nero Caesar, which had been removed from the Mausoleum of Augustus as long ago as the thirteenth century). (3) But the discovery of the Fasti was different, in three particular respects. First the Fasti, however fragmentary, formed a monumental text. Secondly, especially in the consular list, they offered a face-to-face encounter with the central defining chronology of Roman Republican history. Thirdly, in the list of triumphs, they provided authentic documentation of an ancient ceremony whose re-enactment and adaptation lay at the heart of renaissance politics, spectacle and power. To take just one example: in 1536, only ten years before the discovery of the Fasti, Charles v had made a triumphal entrance into Rome after his African victories, an entrance choreographed by the Farnese pope, Paul III. For this event Paul attempted the reconstruction of the ancient via triumphalis (demolishing so much of the city in the process that the desecration led Rabelais, famously, to leave town in disgust); and it was for this too that he pulled down part of the church of S Lorenzo to bring into view the columns of the porch of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, near which the fragments of the Fasti were soon to be found. The spectacle of the triumph presented Charles as a Christian hero triumphant over the infidel and as a second Scipio--a kind of Romulus and St Peter rolled into one. (4)

The Fasti have generated scholarly controversy from the moment of their discovery to the present day. In the renaissance, the crucial question was how best to use the newly discovered inscriptions as a framework for the more accurate study of Roman history. This was made all the trickier to work out in detail because of rival chronological schemes that went back to the ancient world itself: the awkward fact was that the inscribed consular lists did not follow the standard chronology of Roman history established by Varro and subsequently used by Livy; instead, they were based on an alternative version of Roman chronology which was consistently one year out of kilter with the Livian/Varronian scheme. In his Fastorum Libri v (Five Books of Fasti) of 1558, Onofrio Panvinio was the first to produce an edition of the text properly integrated with the standard Livian dates, but only after an earlier 'bootleg' version of his work (Fasti et Triumphi Romani of 1557) had so inaccurately rendered his text as to make complete nonsense of his attempts to sort out and reconcile the two different chronological schemes. Renaissance scholars also speculated on the ultimate authorship of the inscribed list, just as they did on the identities of the artists who had created the ancient sculptures then being unearthed from the ground. Thanks to an imaginative emendation of one Latin text, Panvinio concluded that it had been composed by the Augustan antiquarian Verrius Flaccus--whom we now assume was responsible for the inscribed calendar (also called Fasti) at Praeneste not at Rome, and was one of the sources for Ovid's famous 'Calendar Poem', the Fasti. (6)

Modern historians and archaeologists have shifted their attention to the original function and location of these lists. They tend to agree in seeing this commemoration of the history and traditions of Republican Rome as an integral part of the ideological display of the new imperial regime. (Augustus also, after all, lined the colonnades of his flagship architectural development, the forum Augustum, with statues of heroes from Rome's pre-imperial past. (7)) On the other hand, they disagree on where exactly the lists were first displayed. It was once assumed that they must have been built into the walls of the so-called Regia--a building not far from the main find-spot of the fragments, which served as an office for the Roman pontifices (priests who themselves seem to have been involved in historical record-keeping) (Fig. 3). Excavation of the Regia, however, has suggested that it was hardly large enough to accommodate the inscriptions. Most recent studies have concluded that the lists must have adorned one of the commemorative arches erected by Augustus in the Forum (Fig. 4); although exactly which one and where is, frankly, anyone's guess. (8)


Often left out of these discussions is the history of the Fasti after their rediscovery, and their new context in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. In many ways this is just as important, and no less puzzling. For not only has their arrangement on the Capitoline determined ever after how the texts have been reconstructed (rightly or wrongly, the renaissance layout lies behind every single modern hypothesis on the original layout and articulation); what is more, their incorporation into one particular room of the Palazzo dei Conservatori offers us a sidelong glance at how powerful a symbolic institution the Roman triumph was in renaissance Rome, while at the same time underlining how dangerously ambivalent its 'message' could be.

The story, goes that Michelangelo designed the reconstruction of the fragmentary Fasti and their architectural frame, which were at first installed, in 1548, in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. (9) Michelangelo or not, the designer reconstructed one main central panel, to carry the most complete run of the names of the consuls, and four pilasters, two carrying the names of the triumphatores, and two the left-over consular names (with further fragments inserted in between) (Fig. 4). This installation seems to have been assembled above the three famous reliefs from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius (one of which, appropriately enough, showed the emperor in triumph). The Aurelian panels were moved in 1572 to their present location, on the landing halfway up the main stairs of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. In 1586, the whole assemblage of the Fasti followed: minus its renaissance pediment which would not fit in the new location, it was moved to a first floor room inside the Palazzo, where it too still remains. There has been some restoration since, and some more recently discovered fragments have been inserted into the overall scheme; however, in its essentials, what the visitor sees today is the sixteenth-century arrangement of the inscriptions (Fig. 6).


This room was a powerfully loaded choice. It already contained that prime symbol of Romanness: the archaic bronze She-wolf (Fig. 7), which had been moved from the Lateran to the Campidoglio in 1471, had then been installed on the facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, above the entrance, and finally--by 1544, if not before--lodged inside the building (the renaissance twins having been added in the meantime). The room that houses the group is now generally known as the 'Sala della Lupa'. (10) The monumental memorialisation of Roman history in the Fasti was clearly being seen in similarly iconic terms. But, equally important, the walls of the room were already covered by a fresco cycle, painted probably between 1503 and 1513 by the Bolognese artist Jacopo Ripanda (Figs. 8-11). (11)


Ripanda played a leading part in decorating the Palazzo del Conservatori to match the classicising aspirations of the Roman elite in the early sixteenth century, and he and his circle are also well known for disconcerting antiquarian sketches--showing, for example, well-known Roman buildings (such as the Pantheon and Colosseum) mounted on triumphal chariots, as if being carried as booty in a triumphal procession. His original scheme for this room covered all four walls. Two of the frescoes are completely lost, though their subjects are known, thanks principally to their evocation in an early sixteenth-century poem by Silvanus Germanicus: (13) one showed the Roman people entrusting power in their struggle against Hannibal to Fabius Cunctator (the 'Delayer'); the other depicted a second (gory) episode in the Punic war, when the severed head of Hasdrubal was presented to his brother Hannibal. One of these frescoes was destroyed by the insertion of the Fasti, the other by the conversion of the outside wall into an open loggia at some point between 1521 and 1550; it was refilled in the mid-seventeenth century.

The other, surviving, frescoes depict interlocking themes. On one side is the scene of a triumphal procession (Fig. 8). Although some commentators have identified it as the triumph of the emperor Aurelian over the Palmyrene queen Zenobia, the text of Silvanus, combined with the Republican theme of the room, makes it certain that we are witnessing Aemilius Paullus, the conqueror of King Perseus of Macedon, celebrating his victory procession in 167 BC. Paullus on the left is attended by the obligatory slave, holding a garland over his head and whispering constantly in his ear 'remember you are only a man' (the quasi-divine status of the triumphator making him liable, in Roman eyes, to forget his own mortality); on the right the spoils of Macedon are carried in procession through a triumphal arch, while a young child walks behind, presumably one of the sons of King Perseus, who--according to ancient accounts--aroused tearful sympathy even from the Roman onlookers (Fig. 10). (14) On the opposite wall is a scene from the successful campaigns of Gnaeus Manlius Vulso against the Gauls in Asia Minor in 189 BC (Fig. 9), clearly identified not only by the description of Silvanus but also by the distinguishing scene of the Gallic noblewoman, Chiomara (Fig. 11), who cut off the head of the Roman centurion who raped her (and later threw it at the feet of her husband). Manlius Vulso was later to celebrate a triumph for his victories. (15)

The Fasti which recorded the roster of Roman triumphs were, in other words, inserted into a room already resonant with triumphal images; in fact, the observant visitor would have been able to spot the record of the triumph of Paullus among the surviving fragments of the Fasti on the adjacent wall. But the triumphal associations did not stop there, as grandees of the sixteenth century had their own achievements inscribed into the triumphal legacy of ancient Rome. Within two years of the new placement of the Fasti, Cardinal Farnese's nephew, Duke Alessandro Farnese, had had his own monument, recording his own military victories, inserted in the middle of the scene showing Aemilius Paullus. Just two years after that, Marcantonio Colonna matched the Farnese monument on the opposite wall (see respectively Figs. 12 and 8). Both texts explicitly compared the military achievements of their honorands to the ancient triumphatores: Alessandro Farnese was said to 'have equalled or surpassed the glory of the triumphs of his ancestors'; Marcantonio Colonna's memorial was decorated with figures of captured Turks, very much in the guise of defeated barbarians on an ancient Roman monument. There are links here with the approach of Panvinio. In producing a scholarly edition of the Five Books of Fasti, he extended the list of Roman kings and consular office-holders well beyond the end of the inscribed text, to end--more than a millennium later--with the monarchy of Charles v. Visual images, memorials and scholarly enquiry combine to present Roman office holding and its marks of glory as a seamless continuum from the foundation of the city under Romulus to the present day.


Yet there is a sting in the tail. Ripanda's original scheme for the room was consistent with the other fresco cycles in the Palazzo dei Conservatori: it offered a continuation of themes from the Punic War (the now lost frescoes showing Fabius and Hasdrubal), along with incidents from the next stage of Roman expansion in the early second century BC; at the same time, there must have been a powerful visual echo between the severed head of Hasdrubal and that of the Roman centurion brandished by Chiomara. With the removal of Fabius and Hasdrubal and the insertion of the inscribed Fasti, plus the triumphal monuments of the Farnese and Colonna families, however, the theme becomes much more narrowly one of military triumph. But what kind of triumph? It would not take a very careful reader of Livy and other Roman historians to realise that there was an uncomfortable side to the successes of Paullus and Vulso. Paullus, to be sure, celebrated what was taken to be a triumph richer in its spoils and extravagance than any hitherto (though, of course, to be outdone by the processions of the great dynasts later in the Republic, Pompey and Caesar, and later still by Augustus himself). On the other hand, it was a controversial and double-edged celebration: many of Paullus's own troops opposed the award of such an honour (angry at his penny-pinching distribution of the booty); and at the height of his public fame, at the time of his triumph, Paullus was afflicted by personal tragedy (one of his sons died shortly before the celebration, another shortly after). (16) But the triumph of Vulso was even more tainted. For, as Livy emphasises, he had embarked on his campaign illegally, without the authority of the senate, and the triumph he later celebrated was bitterly contested by (among others) the same Aemilius Paullus depicted on the opposite wall. Rather than fulfilling a campaign on behalf of the Roman people, the victory--his enemies claimed--had been no more than 'a private piece of buccaneering'. (17)

Exactly how we are to read these collocations is a tricky question. But it is clear enough that the conversion of the room into a triumphal commemoration risked exposing the counter-narratives that accompany the story of almost any victory parade; the paintings that brought colour and texture to the simple inscribed record of triumphal ceremonies also risked bringing to the surface a more complex set of value judgements than the jingoistic list of triumphatores itself suggested. Triumphs were dangerous, contested and liable to rebound on the same godlike generals who were honoured by them. When the Farnese and Colonna families sought to associate their favoured sons with this tradition, we can only wonder if they knew on what treacherous ground they were treading.

This article is based on a talk given at the University of Bristol in March 2003 at a conference in honour of Leonard Barkan.

(1) For the circumstances of the discovery of the Laocoon and its 'mythicisation', see, for example, M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, Oxford, 2001, pp. 65-68; and, for the wider context, L. Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture, New Haven and London, 1999, pp. 1-63.

(2) The story of the discovery is told, with earlier references and a complete text, in A. Degrassi, Inscriptiones Italiae, vol. XIII (fasc. 1), pp. 1-142 and 346-571; see also A. Degrassi, 'Le sistemazioni del Fasti Capitolini', Capitolium, vol. XVIII, 1943, pp. 327-35 (reprinted in idem, Scritti Vari, Rome, 1962, pp. 229-38).

(3) Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL), vol. VI, pp. 886-87; see also G. Molisani, La Collezione Epigraphica del Musei Capitolini, Rome, 1973, pp. 7-8.

(4) The triumph of Charles v in Rome is discussed by A. Chastel, The Sack of Rome, 1527, Princeton, 1983, chapter 6; a recent general view of triumphal ceremonies is offered in J.R. Mulryne and E. Goldring (eds.), Court Festivals of the European Renaissance: Art, Politics and Performance, Aldershot, 2002.

(5) This, and the contribution of other humanists (notably Sigonio), is discussed in W. McCuaig, 'The Fasti Capitolini and the study of Roman chronology in the sixteenth century', Athenaum, vol. LXVII, 1991, pp. 141-59.

(6) Panvinio ingeniously (but wrongly) emended a passage of Suetonius (On Grammarians, 17) referring to Verrius Flaccus and his Fasti: instead of 'Praeneste', he chose to read 'pro aede Vestae'--that is 'in front of the temple of Vesta', which he would have understood to be a reference to the so-called Temple of Vesta in Rome, a building which is not far from where the fragments of the inscription had been discovered.

(7) See P. Zanker The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Ann Arbor, 1988, pp. 210-15.

(8) The flamboyant reconstructions of F. Coarelli (in idem, II Foro Romano II: Periodo repubblicano e augusteo, Rome, 1985, pp. 258-308) have been influential and have attracted more credence than they deserve; for a variety of recent views, see C.J. Simpson, 'The Original Site of the Fasti Capitotini', Historia, vol. XLII, 1993, pp. 61-81 E. Nedergaard, 'La collocazione originaria dei Fasti Capitiloni e gli archi di Augusto nel Foro Romano', Bollettino della Commissione Archeologica di Roma, vol. XCVI, 1994-95, pp. 33-70; L. Chioffi, Gli Elogia Augustei del Foro Romano: Aspetti epigrafici e topografici, Rome, 1996, pp. 22-26.

(9) The shaky foundations of this story of Michelangelo's involvement are briefly discussed by A. Bedon, 'Le realizzazione del Campidoglio Michelangiolesco all'epoca di Sisto v e la situazione della zona Capitolina', in L. Spezzaferro and ME. Tittoni (eds.), Il Campidoglio e Sisto V, Rome, 1991, pp. 76-83, especially p. 76.

(10) The post-antique history of the wolf and twins is discussed in C.P. Presicce, La Lupa Capitolina, Milan, 2000, pp. 95-107.

(11) See V. Farinella, Archeologia e pittura a Roma tra Quattrocento e Cinquecento: Il caso di Jacopo Ripanda, Turin, 1992.

(12) The overall scheme for the Palazzo del Conservatori is fully discussed in S. Ebert-Schifferer, 'Ripandas Kapitolinischer Freskenzyklus und die Selbstdarstellung der Konservatoren um 1500', Romisches Jahrbuch fur Kunstgeschichte, vols. XXIII/XXIV, 1988, pp. 75-218; for the triumphal fantasies, see P. Ward-Jackson, Victoria and Albert Museum: Italian Drawings, I, 14th-16th Century, London, 1979, p. 123, nos. 247-48, and Farinella, op. cit., pp. 181-82.

(13) This is printed as Appendix 14 to Ebert-Schifferer, op. cit.; an English translation is included in H.H. Brummer and T. Janson, 'Art, Literature and Politics: An episode in the Roman Renaissance', Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, vol. XLV, 1976, pp. 79-93.

(14) Plutarch, Aemilius Paulus, Book XXXIV, 4.

(15) Livy, History, Book XXXVIII, 12-50.

(16) Livy, History, Book XLV, 35; Plutarch, Aemilius Paullus, Book XXXIV, 30-32.

(17) Livy, History, Book XXXVIII, 45.

Mary Beard teaches Classics at Cambridge University and is a fellow of Newnham College. Her many publications include The Invention of Jane Harrison (2000) and The Parthenon (2002).
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Date:Jul 1, 2003
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